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Art and the Mexican Revolution
Art and the Mexican Revolution

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6 Rivera in Gringolandia

As you have already seen, Rivera’s artistic status in the early 1930s was unparalleled in Mexico, and rivalled only by Pablo Picasso and Matisse in Europe. This was apparent in the fact that he was fêted by leading figures within the corporate class of the United States, notably the Ford and Rockefeller dynasties, who commissioned him to travel north and paint murals for them. As we look at these works, it is important to bear in mind that these commissions were for private institutions funded by major corporate donors, and not by a government, as in Mexico City.

The different types of commissions carried different sets of pressures. If Rivera was allowed to project his political radicalism in murals funded by the Mexican state post-1920, then this was because these regimes benefited, to some degree, from the radical gloss that such works conferred by association. Working for Ford and Rockefeller had a similar dynamic, if with a different set of variables and parameters on what would constitute an acceptable iconography and corresponding political ideology. While Rivera’s later critique of United States capitalism in the south wall of his National Palace mural would have obviously have been an unacceptable subject in the context of a commission in Detroit, the pan-Americanism that was such a notable feature of the period would have seemed a perfect fit.

Rivera later made clear the attraction of painting a mural in the United States when he said it was ‘the ideal place to make a modern mural painting’, for, unlike Mexico, it ‘was a true industrial country’ (Dickerman and Indych-López, 2011, p. 31). But what potential benefits could the Ford Motor Company have accrued from commissioning Rivera to come and paint a mural like Detroit Industry in the prestigious Detroit Institute of Arts? At this point, the United States was still reeling from the effects of the stock market crash of 1929 and was mired in the Great Depression. Cities like Detroit, which were largely dependent upon corporate giants like Ford as their main employer, were hit particularly hard. The period in which Rivera was in the city was bracketed by the Ford Hunger March in March 1932 and the Michigan bank collapse in February the following year. So the city was witnessing unprecedented levels of unemployment, financial chaos and class conflict.

For many suffering from this economic and political turmoil, Ford’s response was derisory. By the time Rivera arrived, the pre-crash workforce, and their wages, had been halved and, while it still funded a hospital, the company made no relief contributions and continued its implacable opposition to industrial trade unionism. With its public reputation in the city in tatters, the company could only benefit by its association with Rivera, the pre-eminent muralist of the Mexican Revolution and a self-styled ‘artist of the people’ (Smith, 1993, pp. 205–9). Given that the subject of the commission was the contemporary industrial environment of Detroit, then the question remained as to whether or not the economic and political strife that the city was undergoing outside the museum would be presented inside.