The Diego Rivera and Rockefeller Center Controversy

When I first entered the Diego Rivera exhibit at the MoMA, I immediately noticed the violence portrayed in many of Rivera’s pieces of art. However, because of all of the people crowded around each of the paintings, it was difficult to read the descriptions without having to push my way to the front. Therefore, I decided to make use of the free audio guides; they proved to be extremely helpful in pointing out certain details in the paintings that I otherwise may have overlooked, and in relating some historical background information. After walking around a bit, I finally came across the letters that Nelson Rockefeller had written to Diego Rivera concerning his murals at the Rockefeller Center. Once I had read them, I had come to the ultimate conclusion that the removal and destruction of Diego Rivera’s murals at the Rockefeller Center was indeed the right result.

In the early 1930’s, Nelson Rockefeller, after facing rejection from two other artists, Picasso and Matisse, had commissioned Diego Rivera to paint a mural at the Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller had given Rivera the instructions to create a mural that would depict society’s high hopes for a better future and would stimulate his visitors to stop and contemplate about the mural’s message. However, Rivera’s addition of images of Vladimir Lenin, a communist leader, and alcohol, were not what Rockefeller had called for. In the 1930’s, many Americans were still suspicious of the communists and fearful of communist take over. Therefore, instead of instilling hope in his visitors like Rockefeller had planned, the murals would instill fear. Many anti-communists would be completely offended and disgusted at the sight of Rivera’s paintings. How could something so anti-capitalist be placed in Rockefeller Center, a place that represents great commerce and wealth? Also, Rockefeller was pro-prohibition and therefore, the images of alcohol went against what he stood for. Although I strongly believe in freedom of expression, a person who is hired to complete a certain task does not have the right to do just anything that he or she wishes. Rivera, regardless of his beliefs, should have understood that if he is getting paid to paint a mural, he must create an image that his patron would appreciate. Therefore, Rivera is at fault for the destruction of his murals. He never included these images in the sketches that he had sent to Rockefeller and the architects for approval. Nelson Rockefeller even tried reasoning with him and requested that he substitute the face of Lenin for someone else’s, however Rivera stubbornly refused to do so.

Rivera’s refusal ultimately resulted in the destruction of the murals at Rockefeller Center. This controversy shows that a patron’s and an artist’s visions could be entirely different. We can all learn a significant lesson from this conflict that pertains to today’s time; no matter what job you have, the way in which you could do things is limited. If someone is paying you to work for them, you have to realize that his or her views and opinions override your own and must be taken into consideration. Money controls everything to a certain extent. For example, if a wedding planner is hired to order the invitations and food for a wedding, she must take what the bride and groom want into consideration, even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with them. If she refuses to do so, the bride and groom have every right to fire her and to do away with whatever decisions she had made up until that point. Not only do they have this right, but this is also an expected action from them. So too, Rockefeller had every right to order the destruction of Rivera’s murals. The murals were not what he had envisioned for himself, nor for the rest of society.

1 thought on “The Diego Rivera and Rockefeller Center Controversy

  1. I completely disagree. Once the artist is given the commision, the commissioner’s, the patron’s rights end. For example, would the writer think that Rockefeller would have the right to ask Rivera to change a color because he didn’t like it (the red reminded him too much of the communist protest flag, for example). Rivera’s style, content and even his personal beliefs were all known to Rockefeller; that Rivera was a communist was well known and that his political views appeared in his works were also well-known (witness the Zapata mural in the very MoMA show described above). The comparison to the wedding planner is completely wrong. The wedding planner is a workman – Rockefeler could ask the carpenter to change the shape of the cabinets in his office, or his personal chef to make his sandwiches spicier. But the artist creates art which is of a whole, and cannot be altered. Rockefeller asked three artists to submit to a contest, one ignored the request, the other refused and Rivera agreed but did not agree to have his work altered once conceived.
    he MoMA show audio guide also mentions that the reason the mural was objectionable was because Rockefeller’s father (or grandfather) was depicted drinking with women in revealing blouses. The photos of the destroyed murual do not show such a scene and I believe the incident is conflated with another earlier mural of Rivera’s in Mexico. After further research into the incident, it seems that the Rockefeller’s (in this case as present day patrons of the museum) may be perpetrating an additional act of censorship by trivializing the decision Rivera made (to embarass the elder Rockefeller) rather than to admit to the elder Rockefeller’s pro busines, anti-communist philosophy.. Finally, and we will never know this, Rivera ageed to place a portrait of Lincoln in the mural, not as an act of agreeing to censorship but rather as a compromise to his patron. We will never know what that would look like, or what the message of that mural would be today because it was destroyed. Perhaps, a visitor to the NBC building today would see the mural with Lincoln (still the great liberator) and Lenin (now almost a footnote in a failed venture) would take a new meaning from the scene and the artist would take the rightful place of both contemporary commentator and visionary.

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