He was a free-spirited artist — exuberant, provocative and a self-avowed Communist. They were the very embodiment of capitalism, and a family obsessed with virtue and restraint. Indeed, Diego Rivera and the Rockefellers could not have been more different. And yet, for a brief moment in the midst of the turbulent 1930s, they shared the spotlight in a bizarre and very public drama. Their improbable association would soon unravel, bringing about one of the biggest art scandals of the 20th century. The "battle of Rockefeller Center," as Rivera liked to call it, left both parties bruised -- and the lobby of the RCA building devoid of a memorial to the socialist way of life.
Diego Rivera was born in 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico in a family of modest means. From a very early age, he showed a talent for drawing. At the age of 21, he won a scholarship to study in Europe and spent the next 14 years there, mostly in Spain and France. During that time, he became involved with artists of the avant-garde, including Picasso and Mondrian, and cultivated his own Cubist style.
But abstract art didn't satisfy Rivera's political impulses. Drawn by the social movements unleashed by the Mexican Revolution, Rivera decided to go back to his homeland in 1921. There, he developed a unique style that combined the influences of European art and Mexico's distinctive pre-Columbian iconography. In his populist murals, he used vibrant colors and simple scenes to illustrate his Marxist ideals and the plight of the working class throughout Mexican history. In 1922, his revolutionary convictions led him to join the Communist Party. During a visit to the Soviet Union in 1927, he would paint a collection of sketches that would be purchased by an avid American collector of modern art — Abby Rockefeller.
Abby's interest in the Mexican painter was not surprising. By the early 1930s, in fact, Rivera was one of the best known and most controversial artists in the world, and its most famous muralist. In 1931, the Museum of Modern Art organized an extensive retrospective of his work. A year later, and in spite of his ambivalence toward the United States, Rivera traveled North to work on several commissions. His wife, Frida Kahlo, who was also a painter, accompanied him. The culmination of the trip was to be a large mural for the centerpiece of the most talked about architectural project in the country — the new Rockefeller Center.
Rivera's visit to the U.S. unfolded against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the intense social and political forces it had unleashed. As an outspoken leftist, the Mexican painter tapped into growing concerns over the upsurge in Radicalism and the growth of the Communist Party.
Fascinated by Rivera's other passion, his art, Abby and Nelson Rockefeller had persuaded the management of Rockefeller Center to hire him to paint the interior wall facing the plaza entrance of the RCA Building. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse had been their first choices for the mural in a space that would greet the building's new tenants. John D. Rickefeller, Jr. agreed to giving the commission to Rivera, although reluctantly: "As for Rivera, although I do not personally care for much of his work, he seems to have become very popular just now and will probably be a good drawing card," he commented. Inspired by the very lofty theme of the mural, "Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future," Rivera worked feverishly. The panel would feature two opposing views of society, with capitalism on one side and socialism on the other. Sketches for the project had been approved and the overall thrust of the piece seemed to have the backing of both Abby and Nelson, who paid Rivera frequent visits.
On one of those visits, in May of 1933, Nelson was taken aback by an unexpected addition: "While I was in No. 1 building at Rockefeller Center yesterday viewing the progress of your thrilling mural I noticed that in the most recent portion of the painting you had included a portrait of Lenin," he wrote to Rivera. "The piece is beautifully painted but it seems to me that his portrait appearing in this mural might very seriously offend a great many people. If it were in a private house it would be one thing, but this mural is in a public building and the situation is therefore quite different. As much as I dislike to do so, I am afraid we must ask you to substitute the face of some unknown man where Lenin's face now appears."
Although the figure of Lenin had not appeared in his original sketches, Rivera refused to budge. He argued that his ideological intent had been clear from the start. Years later he would recall his reply to Nelson: "Therefore, I wrote, never expecting that a presumably cultured man like Rockefeller would act upon my words so literally and so savagely, 'rather than mutilate the conception, I should prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety, but preserving, at least, its integrity.'"
The Rockefeller Center management team, which had never felt comfortable about Rivera's involvement, reacted swiftly to his dare. He was ordered to stop work and paid his fee in full. Soon, demonstrations and letters of protest were blaming the Rockefellers for this act of "cultural vandalism," as Diego Rivera put it. Anxious about their image, the Rockefellers did their best to skirt the touchy situation. They had not been responsible for the management's decision, and now saw themselves unable to reverse it. While the art world vilified them, they tried to find a compromise solution and have the mural moved to the Museum of Modern Art.
But it was all in vain. As they strolled around midtown Manhattan one night in February of 1934, two of Rivera's assistants noticed a dozen 50-gallon oil drums near the entrance to the RCA building. When they looked inside, they recognized the smashed-up shards of Rivera's mural. The piece had been hammered off the walls, following orders from the center's management team. Rivera, who had returned home, retaliated by painting a replica of the mural at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. He may have been the victor in many people's eyes, but his career as an international muralist was over. For the next 25 years, though, Rivera would continue to create a body of work that would establish him as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. He died of heart failure in 1957.
For their part, the Rockefellers were left to deal with the effects of a tainted reputation as arts patrons and the internal divisions revealed by the affair. While Abby was mortified and later insisted that she had not wanted the mural destroyed, her husband John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was much more blunt: "The picture was obscene and, in the judgment of Rockefeller Center, an offense to good taste," he told his father. "It was for this reason primarily that Rockefeller Center decided to destroy it."