Diego Rivera + SFAI
The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by legendary muralist Diego Rivera occupies a central wall in the Diego Rivera Gallery—a contemporary exhibition space for new projects by SFAI artists.
The mural was commissioned by SFAI President William Gerstle (1930–1931), and was completed by Rivera in the course of one month, from May 1–May 31, 1931. It is signed and dated in the lower righthand corner, under the drafting table.
The work powerfully conflates art and labor—the sheer “work” of creative practice with the individuals who surround, support, and fund a work of art. The mural has been noted as a provocative expression of Rivera’s politics, and an example of the elevated status the artist attributed to the industrial worker.
Rivera was an active—though frequently expelled—member of the Mexican Communist Party in the 1920s and 1930s. His murals engaged prevailing social and political issues (particularly, the Mexican Revolution), and portrayed workers and artists engaged in activities of social importance or in purported positions of power.
Anti-communist sentiment in the U.S. made it nearly impossible for Rivera to obtain a visa to create work in this country, and it ultimately took several individuals from disparate sectors of art and government to combat anti-Rivera sentiment and secure his commission at SFAI.
Rivera’s mere presence in the city was contentious, and his presence at SFAI, an example of the school’s willingness to absorb controversy for the sake of art.
As indicated by the title, the fresco shows the building of a city and the making of a fresco, including the various individuals involved in the commission, as well as engineers, artist assistants, sculptors, architects, and general laborers. The central figure of a helmeted worker, rendered in supernatural proportion, can be seen as an example of the status Rivera attributed to the industrial worker, and is the primary subject of the fresco within the fresco—it is this figure that Rivera appears to look up to in the work, wielding palette and paintbrush, his back to the viewer.
The fresco has made SFAI an international destination for the study of Rivera’s work and is considered an outstanding example of his mastery of the medium.
To stand in the gallery today is to brush against a history of social critique and artistic rebellion—one that extends from the contained plaster of Rivera’s monumental wall, to the flux of new practices by SFAI’s current artists. Past and present converge here, but a spirit of iconoclasm, nonconformity, and questioning bring the work in the gallery together in shared dialogue.
Title: The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City
Year: Begun May 1, 1931; completed May 31, 1931
Commissioned by: William Gerstle, President of SFAI, 1930–1931
The Long Line to Rivera
SFAI faculty member Ray Boynton travels to Mexico in 1926 to study with Rivera; he brings back several paintings by the artist, and suggests to arts patron Albert Bender that Rivera be brought to San Francisco on a mural commission.
Arts patron Albert Bender invites Rivera to San Francisco. Rivera declines because of a conflicting invitation to Moscow to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
SFAI faculty member Ralph Stackpole visits Rivera in Mexico to conduct research for his own commission at the San Francisco Stock Exchange under the direction of architect Timothy Pflueger. He returns to San Francisco with two Rivera paintings, one of which he gives to his friend and patron William Gerstle, president of SFAI.
Albert Bender re-invites Rivera to San Francisco, but his attempt to secure a visa fails.
Dwight Morrow, American ambassador to Mexico, commissions Rivera to paint a series of murals in Cuernavaca.
Bender, Gerstle, Pflueger, and Morrow join forces to bring Rivera to San Francisco. Gerstle offers Rivera the SFAI commission; Pflueger offers Rivera a larger commission at the Stock Exchange Building (now The City Club of San Francisco); and Bender works with Ambassador Morrow to secure Rivera’s visa.
November 10, 1930
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo arrive in San Francisco. They move into Stackpole’s studio on Montgomery Street, which also housed the studio of William Gerstle.
May 1, 1931
Rivera begins work on the mural at SFAI.
The Red Medallion
The looming central figure wears a red medallion on his shirt pocket. In the center of the red medallion is a red star. Historians have tied Rivera’s use of this iconography to the founding of the Order of the Red Star by the Soviets in 1930, less than a year before Rivera began work on the mural. Rivera claimed that the medallion was a Bull Durham tobacco tag rendered in red for the sake of the composition—the red draws the eye across the space of the fresco, from right to left. Originally, however, the background of the medallion was rendered in white. It is unknown whether Rivera added the red background at a later stage to tone down the overt reference to Communism (the star), or to appease his patrons.
Defacement or Restoration?
In the early 1980s, an anonymous hand (most likely an SFAI student) painted a hammer and sickle on the red medallion. It was rumored that the artist intended to preserve and restore Rivera’s original intentions. When the “defacement” was finally discovered in the 1990s, restorers removed what turned out to be toothpaste.
Rivera signed the mural on the underside of the drafting table in the lower right corner. Next to his signature is the date the work was completed: “1–31 mayo, 1931.”
This fresco-within-a-fresco includes portraits of many individuals who worked directly on the mural or were advisors and patrons.
Murals Beyond Our Walls
Diego Rivera murals can also be found at:
The City Club of San Francisco
The Allegory of California (1931)
Stock Exchange Tower
155 Sansome Street
University of California, Berkeley, Stern Hall
Still Life and Blossoming Almond Trees
Hearst Avenue and Gayley Road, Berkeley
City College of San Francisco, Diego Rivera Theater
Pan American Unity
(1940) (A five-panel mural)
50 Phelan Avenue
Work by SFAI’s alumni muralists can be see throughout the city. Here is a small selection:
Susan Kelk Cervantes (MFA Painting, 1968), The Women’s Building (1994), 3543 18th Street
Dewey Crumpler (BFA Painting, 1972), The Fire Next Time (1984), 1395 Mendell Street
Jeremy Fish (BFA Interdisciplinary, 1997), Respect the Craft, 1570 Stockton Street
Jet Martinez (BFA Painting, 2001), Bosque de Alebrijes (2012), 1301 Haight Street; Lo llevas por dentro (2004), Clarion Alley, Mission District
Barry McGee (BFA Printmaking 1991), Untitled (1997), 2926–48 16th Street
Rigo 23 (BFA New Genres, 1991), Birds/Cars (1997), 16th Street and Bryant Street
Robert Minervini (MFA Painting, 2009), The Bridge (2011), Jack Kerouac Alley, Chinatown
Bunnie Reiss (BFA Painting, 2008) (with Jet Martinez and Ezra Li Eismont), The Sacred Hearts (2011), Bartlett Street and 22nd Street