The Artful Traveler: The Portable Diego Rivera
by Deborah Hay
In 1931, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was enjoying international celebrity, and New York’s fledgling Museum of Modern Art was eager to mount a retrospective of his work. Throughout the ‘20s, Rivera had painted monumental frescoes, commissioned by the Mexican government, reflecting his country’s history and the socialist spirit of the Mexican Revolution. But the works, by definition of being murals, were located at fixed sites and impossible to transport. As a solution, MoMA brought Rivera to New York and provided him studio space, where he created eight “portable murals,” or freestanding frescoes, for a 1931-32 show that broke attendance records. MoMA has reunited five of those eight murals, along with related works, in a new exhibition, Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art.
Made of frescoed plaster, concrete and steel, the panels measure roughly six feet by eight feet and weigh up to a thousand pounds. Three of them depict scenes from Mexico’s history, recent or past. Indian Warrior, for example, references the Spanish Conquest with a bold image of an Aztec warrior, dressed as a jaguar, stabbing an armored conquistador in the throat.
The subjects of the other two frescoes were inspired by Rivera’s stay in New York during the depth of the Great Depression and the height of the city’s skyscraper race. Frozen Assets captures that paradox with a stratified view of the city: at the top, a skyline of construction cranes and skyscrapers; below that, a glass shelter for the homeless and unemployed; and below that, a bank vault, where a guard readies to show customers their mounting assets.
Other works in the exhibition include two large-scale drawings prepared for the two murals not in the current show, smaller drawings, watercolors, and prints.
Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art runs through May 14, 2012, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York City.
Deborah Hay writes about travel, arts, culture, architecture, and New York City. She is the former associate editor of Diversion, Hearst’s travel and leisure magazine for physicians. She lives in Manhattan.