The Commission of The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City
Rivera was born in Guanajuato, Mexico in 1886. He began to study painting at an early age, and after graduation in 1906 he received a stipend to go to Madrid to study. In 1909 he moved to Paris, and, except for a brief trip back to Mexico in 1910-1911, he remained in Europe until 1921, living mainly in Paris. Before returning to Mexico in 1921, Rivera received a grant from the Mexican Ministry of Education for travel in Italy to study fresco painting. He returned to a post-revolutionary Mexico, in which a revival of the mural as an art form was occurring.
In 1922 he joined the Mexican Communist Party, and was elected to the Executive Committee in 1923, along with two other muralistas: David Alfaro Siquieros and Xavier Guerrero. Also in 1923, he was given a prize commission of a large series of fresco murals for the Ministry of Education building, which would occupy him for over five years. In 1924 he was expelled from the Communist Party for the first time, and he received another commission for a fresco cycle in the national School of Agriculture in Chapingo. He worked on both projects simultaneously until the Chapingo work was completed in 1927.
Early Attempts to Bring Rivera to San Francisco
Diego Rivera’s mural at SFAI was his second commission in the United States. Although Ralph Stackpole is generally given credit for helping Rivera to obtain his first two mural commissions in San Francisco, Ray Boynton, like Stackpole a faculty member of the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), also played a significant role. Boynton was one of the first and most prominent of Bay Area fresco muralists, and he had traveled to Mexico in early 1926 to study with Rivera and see his work in Chapingo. He brought back several of Rivera’s paintings and suggested to arts patron Albert Bender that Rivera should be commissioned to paint a mural in San Francisco. Bender bought several of Rivera’s paintings, and they began a correspondence. Boynton also helped organize a 1926 exhibition of Rivera’s drawings at the San Francisco Galerie Beaux Arts. Stackpole went to Mexico later the same year and also visited Rivera in Chapingo.
In 1927, Bender invited Rivera to come to San Francisco, but Rivera had been invited to attend the tenth-anniversary celebration in Moscow of the Russian Revolution. As the leader of the Mexican delegation, he met Stalin, tried to obtain mural commissions, stayed through May Day in 1928, and then returned to Mexico. He resumed work on the top floor of the Ministry of Education project, and met Frida Kahlo, who had started painting and, influenced by her friend Tina Modotti, had joined the Communist Party. Modotti was one of Rivera’s models for the Chapingo project (the other was his wife, Lupe Marin) and was another link to San Francisco: she had lived there from 1917 to 1920, and then traveled between Mexico and California with photographer Edward Weston, until she settled in Mexico City permanently, without Weston. Bender was a patron of Weston’s.
The Stock Exchange Building Mural
In 1928 architect Timothy Pfleuger had begun the transformation of the old U.S. Sub-Treasury Building on Sansome Street, and had commissioned Ralph Stackpole to create sculptures for what would become the entrance of the San Francisco Stock Exchange. Michael Baltenkal Goodman (who appears on the right side of The Making of a Fresco) was in charge of the interior renovation, and Adaline Kent, Robert Howard, Clifford Wight, Harry Dixon, Ruth Cravath, and Otis Oldfield were given commissions for the interior. Ray Boynton, Maynard Dixon, and others submitted portfolios for consideration for murals, but were rejected. Before starting on the commission, Stackpole went back to Mexico to visit Rivera and do research for the project.
Stackpole returned to San Francisco in 1929 with two of Rivera’s paintings, one of which he gave to his friend and patron William Gerstle, President of the San Francisco Art Association and board member of the newly constructed California School of Fine Arts. Bender continued to invite Rivera to come to San Francisco, but his attempt to secure a visa for Rivera in June failed. Bender organized a series of exhibitions in California’s major cities in order to promote the artist and counter some of the anti-Rivera sentiment that was a result of his Communist affiliations.
Rivera and Kahlo were married in August of 1929. Three weeks later Rivera was again expelled from the Mexican Communist Party. His political views were increasingly anti-Stalinist, and he had accepted both a government job as the director of the San Carlos Academy and a mural commission for the Presidential Palace, which appeared to confirm his lack of commitment to the struggle of the people against the establishment. Later that month he received another mural commission, from Dwight Morrow, the American ambassador to Mexico. He was the father of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and former partner of J. P. Morgan. Morrow offered Rivera $12,000 to paint a group of murals in the former palace of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in Cuernavaca. Rivera was fired from his position at the Academy for attempting too radical a change of the curriculum. He put off the Presidential Palace project and went to work in Cuernavaca.
Rivera in San Francisco
In 1930 Bender, Gerstle, Pfleuger, and Morrow joined forces to bring Rivera to San Francisco. Gerstle offered Rivera a commission to paint a fresco in the new California School of Fine Arts' loggia, and Pfleuger offered a larger commission for a mural in the stairwell leading to the luncheon club in the Stock Exchange Building. Maynard Dixon, along with Ray Boynton, one of Rivera’s earliest supporters, actively lobbied against the commissions, saying that the commissions should be given to Americans. Bender worked with Ambassador Morrow to obtain a visa for Rivera. An exhibition of Rivera’s work was scheduled for December at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo arrived on November 10 and moved into Stackpole’s studio on Montgomery Street, where Gerstle also had a studio. Rivera started working on the Stock Exchange commission, which would become Allegory of California. Rivera met tennis star Helen Wills Moody, winner of eight Wimbledon titles (1927-30, ‘32, ‘33, ‘35, and ’38, a record bested only by Martina Navratilova with nine). Wills became a favorite model for Rivera, and she appears as the central earth goddess figure and the flying nude on the ceiling in Allegory; she was also likely the model for the early sketch of the CSFA fresco.
Rivera began work on the mural at CSFA. Unhappy with the location on the second-floor outdoor loggia he had been offered at the school, he tried to persuade Gerstle that it was unsuitable because the rain would damage the fresco. He asked Gerstle for all of the upper walls in the gallery adjacent to the courtyard, imagining a fresco cycle on the scale of Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padova. Gerstle was finally able to secure one of the walls in the gallery for Rivera. Rivera began preparatory studies in March after finishing the Stock Exchange project. The local newspapers published articles speculating on the subject and composition. He and Frida spent six weeks in Atherton, about 30 miles south of San Francisco, as guests of Rosalie Stern, who commissioned a small fresco for her dining room.
Rivera applied for another commission on Pfleuger’s new project, the Oakland Paramount Theater, but was turned down. He told Gerstle that he would add Pfleuger to the art school’s mural to show him that “there were no hard feelings.” He returned to San Francisco and began painting at the school on May 1, 1931. Clifford Wight and Ralph Stackpole had worked with Rivera in Mexico, and, with the addition of the artists who had worked on the Stock Exchange project, Rivera now had a team of artists who were experienced in working together. He had been in San Francisco for almost six months and was under pressure to return to Mexico to resume work on the murals in the National Palace. Rivera and his team worked day and night, completing the fresco on May 31. His signature and “1-31mayo, 1931” are painted to the right of Geraldine Colby Frickie, below the underside of the drafting table.
An exhibition of the preparatory drawings was installed on the gallery’s other walls, and a series of receptions were held in the gallery to celebrate the completion of the mural. Rivera left for Mexico on June 3.
Controversy at Coit Tower
Clifford Wight also worked with Rivera on the murals in the Detroit Institute of the Arts in 1932, and then on the Rockefeller Center mural in New York in 1933. The Rockefeller commission was withdrawn in May 1933 because the mural contained a portrait of Lenin, and it was destroyed in February 1934. Wight returned to San Francisco and received a Works Progress Administration (WPA) commission to paint one of the murals in Coit Tower. He included the Communist logo of a hammer and sickle in his mural, starting a controversy that resulted in the closing of Coit Tower during the summer of 1934.
In The Making of A Fresco, the central figure, a machinist wearing blue overalls, has a red medal with a red star hanging from his breast pocket. The background of the medal appears to have originally been white. The Soviet Order of the Red Star was founded in May of 1930 for exceptional service to the cause and defense of the Soviet Union. Whether Rivera had second thoughts about the inclusion of this blatant symbol of Communism, or was convinced by his patrons to “tone it down” is unknown, but the red star is clearly visible. Rivera claimed that it was a Bull Durham tobacco tag—although that tag was black and white. He made it red, he said, to draw the eye across the composition, which it does, linking the red of the steel girders on the right side with the red of the workers’ shirts on the left. At some point in the early 1980s, the star was turned into a hammer and sickle by an anonymous hand. Conservators discovered this alteration in 1990, and removed what turned out to be toothpaste. Given Wight’s subsequent involvement in controversies over communist representations, it is interesting to speculate on his role in the inclusion of the medal and its symbol.
Coit Tower Muralists and the California School of Fine Arts
Rivera’s presence in San Francisco further stimulated an already vibrant West Coast muralist movement. Arthur Brown, Jr., assisted by Henry Howard (son of John Galen Howard, architect of the UC Berkeley campus), had designed Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill and it was dedicated in October of 1933. Ralph Stackpole and Bernard Zakheim organized a group of artists to ask the WPA's Federal Art Project to fund a series of murals for the interior of the tower. The commission was granted and this project became the prototype for the agency.
Most of the artists employed were faculty or students at the CSFA. Maxine Albro had studied fresco in the 1920s with Ray Boynton at CSFA and with Rivera in Mexico. Victor Arnautoff studied with Ralph Stackpole and Edgar Walter at the CSFA. Arnautoff was the mural project director at Coit Tower, and also painted a mural there. Ray Bertrand had been a student of Spencer Macky at the CSFA, where he later taught lithography. Another Coit Tower artist and student of Arthur Putnam and Gottardo Piazzoni at the CSFA, Rinaldo Cuneo, was also in Paris at the same time as Rivera. He later joined the faculty of the CSFA. Mallette (Harold) Dean studied at the CSFA and assisted Clifford Wight on one of Wight’s three murals.
Parker Hall was married to Albro and studied at the CSFA. Edith Hamlin was one of the many students at the CSFA who came to work at Coit Tower and was married to painter Maynard Dixon. George Harris was another young CSFA student. Robert B. Howard, another son of John Galen Howard, had worked on the Stock Exchange project, taught at the CSFA, and was married to sculptor Adaline Kent. Otis Oldfield had known Rivera in Paris and taught at the CSFA. Suzanne Scheuer was assisted by Hebe Daum, another young CSFA student, who later married Peter Stackpole. Frede Vidar studied at CSFA for six years.