Rivera’ Mural essay sample

Exactly sixty-six years have passed since the mysterious destruction of Diego Rivera’s mural at the Rockefeller Center. Following all these years, and more than four decades after the death of Rivera, the RCA mural as it was known remains not only his greatest masterpiece, but also the most controversial both ethically and politically. Born in 1886, Rivera was one of the greatest artists of modern times. After studying art in Mexico, Rivera moved to Europe where he was influenced by post-modernism and cubism, specifically synthetic cubism. Rivera considered himself to be a revolutionary artist, and accordingly reflected his revolutionary thought in his mural paintings. His concern was for the worker with whom he identified and thus, social content overwhelmed most of his works (Rivera, 1).

In fact, Rivera was a compassionate communist who strongly voiced with the working class with whom he identified on several occasions, specifically as he publicly stated, “I am not a bourgeois worker nor bourgeois painter nor bourgeois thinker. I am a man who works for my own interests and my interests are those of the working class” (Huriburt, 161). For a man, regardless how great his art was, to be asked to paint a huge mural that would stand right in the entrance of the Rockefeller Center, then considered “a citadel of capitalism” was certainly a stunning demand in its own right (Huriburt, 161).

In the early 1930s, Rivera had become well established in the US as a leading mural painter, and this was apparent from the big projects that he was asked to finish on behalf of several major corporations both in San Francisco and Detroit (Huriburt, 160). Contracting an artist such as Rivera by a multi-millionaire business such as Rockefeller’s was a fashion, even in the middle of the Great Depression. In fact, Rockefeller himself seems to have expressed his passion for Rivera’s art which by all means was enigmatic, passionate and attractive, despite the obvious anti-capitalist messages that were part and parcel of Rivera’s thought and work..

Although the Rockefeller Center was to host the mural, the real patrons of the work were Todd-Robertson-Todd, the architects and managers of the building. From the beginning, it was obvious that while the Rockefellers were impressed with Rivera’s reputation and even intentions, the patrons were more interested in practical matters such as having the mural in monochrome to suit the theme of the building. Rivera’s concern was to be allowed to finish his work in colors and at the same time, to enjoy the freedom to work on his own themes. The sympathy and support from the Rockefellers were definitely effective in getting Rivera what he wanted in these two respects, to the extent that Todd-Robertson-Todd seem to have been left in the dark most of the time.

It might never be known whether Todd-Robertson-Todd were actually informed of Rivera’s intentions with respect to the mural, but there is strong reason to believe that Rivera was from the start willing to work on his own. Indeed, previous experiences in Detroit and San Francisco has shown that his sketches evolved in different dimensions once he started on the murals. Accordingly, it is most likely that he might have believed that he would be allowed the same liberty while working on RCA mural. Little wonder then that Rivera signed the contract almost without reading its content taking it for granted that he would be able to do what he wanted and still get the appreciation that he deserved (Huriburt, 160).

Rivera worked on the mural with a lot of diligence and although Nelson Rockefeller himself followed the work with great passion and interest, the artist did not try to hide his anti-capitalist motives or themes in any manner. The Rockefellers in fact seem to have appreciated and encouraged his newly-evolved themes, even as they significantly diverged from the themes agreed upon in the contract, and even as they took a more hostile attitude towards capitalism. With such a positive feedback, coupled with his determination to finish the work as he had envisaged it, Rivera went on with the mural.

Yet, expressing socialist themes was something and painting a portrait of Lenin the founder of communism and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century were totally different issues. Rivera’s passion for Lenin is understandable, but he must have known that by causing such an alteration to the mural, he was pushing his luck too far. Rivera was searching for a face to represent the leader of workers and Lenin, a favorite ideological figure in this respect, served the purpose best. Yet, another fact should also be considered, namely that Rivera was actively seeking for a way to flirt with the hostile Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) which had over and again accused him of opportunism and hypocrisy. Thus, Rivera must have portrayed Lenin in the mural as an opportunity to prove loyalty to communism, to express himself as strongly in his art as he could, and at the same time, to make as much use of the Rockefellers’ generosity and sympathy with his artistic ideology. At the same time, he must have taken it for granted that under such circumstances his move would go unchallenged since he was aware of his grandiose and influence in the United States (Huriburt, 162-163).

The extent of controversy and embarrassment that the mural must have caused for the Rockefellers with Todd-Robertson-Todd might never be known, but obviously Rivera had stirred some deep waters between the two sides because despite the sympathy and the support that the Rockefellers had given him at the beginning, they eventually backed off, leaving him face to face with the hostile patrons. If the Rockefellers were art lovers in the first place, the managers were mainly concerned about the economic loss and the social and political embarrassment that the mural would cause them. Apart from their personal distaste for communism or the themes invoked in the mural, they must have felt alarmed that keeping the mural in the entrance of the building would shun many potential customers away from hiring space in the building. After all, the mural was directly exposing the perils of capitalism and the microbial impact that it has on society as a whole and the working class in specific. Todd-Robertson-Todd’s alarmed feelings were further exacerbated by negative publications that were spreading fast across the nation, a fact that further added to the embarrassment of the firm (Huriburt, 166).

Painting Lenin in the mural, together with the negative publications and propaganda that followed pushed Todd-Robertson-Todd to their limit. It is true that under pressure from the Rockefellers they were willing to turn a blind eye to Rivera’s violations of the contract, but once they contemplated the possibility of economic loss and negative image in the market, they finally decided to terminate the project altogether.

The managers of RCA seem to have considered their options very carefully. Thus, while they decided to stop the work on the mural, they delivered Rivera’s paycheck on the spot without deducting a dime from his $21,000 compensation. At the same time, probably to avoid being dubbed as barbaric or anti-aristic, they agreed to have the mural moved to the Modern Art Gallery at the expense of the museum, given that Rivera would be allowed to finish the mural inside the RCA building once he was given approval by Todd-Robertson-Todd (Huriburt, 168).

The deal was of course never realized because the mural was mysteriously destroyed in February 1934, almost two months after the deal was struck. The hands that moved in the dark to destroy this masterpiece were never identified. Most probably Todd-Robertson-Todd were behind the conspiracy, hoping that this would spare their firm any forthcoming negative media coverage if the mural was ever to stand in the public eye inside the museum. With the destruction of the mural, came the end of Rivera’s career in the United States, especially that other contractors feared that negative media coverage would be detrimental to their business, particularly amidst increasing hostility towards the USSR, a fact that made it hard for any capitalist firm to consider hiring a compassionate communist artist like Rivera was.

Today, many years after the destruction of the mural, more than four decades after the death of Rivera, and more than a decade after the collapse of communism, several controversial questions that were caused by the RCA mural remain unanswered.

Did Todd-Robertson-Todd have the right to destroy the mural, or given the doubts, to force Rivera to stop working on it? In the first place, the mural was intended to stand in a public place, and thus, it primarily belonged to the public eye and taste to judge, even though its legal possession and custody were in the hands of the contracting firm. Yet, this again raises another controversial ethical question about the claim of possessing artistic works of this kind. Perhaps one might argue that Rivera himself was not ethical since he intentionally diverted from the original plan, and that if he had wanted to work on such a mural that included the portrait of Lenin, he should have done it at his own expense. Nonetheless, we can only wonder if we are allowed at all get into the mind of a creative artist like Rivera and tell whether or not he could have had the motivation to innovate such a masterpiece had he not been stimulated by the feeling that he was manipulating the symbolic leaders of capitalism to come out in the end with a stunning work of creativity. Moreover, we can never tell whether Rivera would have found the inspiration or the motivation to work on such a mural had he not had the opportunity, sympathy and financing provided by the Rockefellers in the first place. In spite of all arguments, the deal to transfer the mural to the museum was the best of all solutions, and had it been realized, it would not have only spared the Rockefellers and Todd-Robertson-Todd the embarrassment that still prevails in the memory of the media and art lovers all over the world, but it would have also saved a great work of art for the future American generations to contemplate even today. Regardless whether the destruction of the mural came as a result of censorship imposed by the legal owners of this mural or out of fear of scandal and economic loss, the fact remains that the artist’s freedom should be appreciated no matter what his work expresses in the end, and above all, that art for the public is a right for the public in the first place. The loss of the RCA mural continues to exist as a stain that cannot be erased in modern art history.


Huriburt, Laurance. “Rockefeller Center, 1933” in The Mexican Muralists in the US. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press: 1989.

Rivera, Javier. “Diego Rivera.” Online: www.diegorivera.com : The Virtual Web Museum.