5 Muralism and modernism
It was in the period that he was painting his National Palace mural that Rivera’s artistic reputation reached its height as it was at this point that he was given a one-person show, only the second one after Henri Matisse, at the recently opened MoMA in New York in December 1931. This retrospective was a huge success, breaking attendance records, with over 50,000 visitors in just over a month, and receiving overwhelmingly positive critical reaction in the press. All this even though Rivera was a renowned communist who was, by this point, committed to a form of realism in his mural practice that sat rather at odds with the modernist agenda being promoted at the museum. While in New York to promote his show, Rivera also negotiated his future contract for the ill-fated mural at the Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, which you will look at later in this course (Smith, 1993, p. 208).
Rivera had not always been a proponent of realism in painting and, before returning to Mexico in 1921 to paint the revolution, he had been a celebrated second-generation Cubist in Paris (Favela, 1984). Yet while a work such as Rivera’s Zapatista Landscape (Figure 8) of 1915 obviously has a radical iconographic content in the context of the ongoing Mexican Revolution, its complex formal arrangement was clearly unsuitable for the large-scale propaganda drive conceived to win over the Mexican masses to Obregón’s post-revolutionary government after 1920. This shift was, as Rivera himself said, ‘because of the war, the Russian Revolution, and in the belief in the need for a popular and socialised art. It had to be a functional art related to the world and the times, and had to help the masses for a better social organisation’ (Rochfort, 1987, p. 17).
Rivera therefore fused the formal techniques of Cubism with social realism in the traditional mural medium of fresco. He had seen Renaissance examples of this while travelling widely in Italy before his return to Mexico (Coffey, 2016, p. 349). In History of Mexico this fusion can be seen, in particular, in the central wall with the flattening out of the mural plane and the large cast of historical personages that, at times, seem to sit at oblique angles to each other. It is also evident in the south wall with the different spatial registers and grid-like system that Rivera used to construct the complex design.
What an analysis of Rivera’s mural makes clear is that he had quite clearly learned important lessons from European modernism and incorporated some of its technical devices into his monumental wall paintings. In this way, he challenged the usual current of art history under colonialism so that, as the cultural historians and film theorists Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen have argued: ‘instead of the exotic or the primitive feeding into European art, the reverse would happen: the lessons of European art … would feed back into the native Mexican tradition’ (Mulvey and Wollen, 1982, p. 12).
This fusion of social realism and modernism becomes apparent when Rivera’s murals are compared to a typical example of Soviet Socialist Realism. This became the state-sanctioned form of painting in the Soviet Union under Stalinism in the 1930s and was an avowedly anti-modernist formation, having more in common technically with aspects of French nineteenth-century Academicism. This can be seen in the rural arcadia depicted in Arkady Plastov’s Collective Farm of 1937, which was actually painted during a period of famine caused by the enforced collectivisation of Soviet agriculture (Figure 9). We will now look at the more typically social realist murals produced by Rivera north of the Mexican border to see how he negotiated the asymmetric relationship between the United States and Latin America in his vision of pan-Americanism.