Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Rivera vs. the Rockefellers, along with a Ballad of Artistic Integrity

Public art has a long history of controversy. One famous example occurred in 1933 and centered on a mural by the famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera and the Rockefeller family, which commissioned him to paint a mural for the lobby of the new Rockefeller Center in New York City. On the face of it, this was an odd contract, between the notably capitalistic Rockefellers and the avowed and provocative Marxist, Rivera. But Rivera was widely admired as a muralist, and art patrons Nelson and his mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller persuaded John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the Center management to give Rivera the commission.

On site, Rivera enthusiastically got to work painting a large mural that visually depicted  the struggle between capitalism, on one side of the work, and socialism, on the other. Nelson and Abby visited the artist and work in progress frequently. One day in May 1933 Nelson Rockefeller was startled to see that Rivera had added a portrait of Lenin to the work. He complained to the artist that this might offend viewers. Rivera was not shy and a public dispute between the artist and his patrons ensued. Rivera refused to delete Lenin. He was ordered to stop work and was paid his fee. The painted mural was subsequently chiseled off the wall. Its remains were later discovered by Rivera assistants crammed into 50 gallon oil drums near the Center's  entrance. The art world was horrified by the destruction and vilified the family.  The press had a field day.

One writer's response to the controversy has long been a favorite of mine. It's a classic comic verse written by the great essayist, social commentator and dog lover E. B. White. It was published in The New Yorker in 1933, where he was a staff writer for almost sixty years.  It's called:

I Paint What I See: A Ballad of Artistic Integrity

"What  do you paint when  you paint on a wall?
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,
"Do you paint just anything there at all?
Will there be any doves, or a tree in fall?
Or a hunting scene, like an English hall?"

" I paint what I see," said Rivera.

"What are the colors you see when you paint?"
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,
"Do you use any red in the beard of a saint?
If you do, is it terribly red, or faint?
Do you use any blue? Is it Prussian?"

" I paint what I paint," said Rivera.

"Whose is that head that I see on my wall?"
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,
"Is it anyone's head whom we know at all?
A Rensselaer, or a Saltonstall?
Is it Franklin D? Is it Mordaunt Hall?
Or is it the head of a Russian?"

"I paint what I think," said Rivera

"I paint what I paint, I paint what I see.
I paint what I think, " said Rivera,
"And the thing that is dearest is life to me
In a bourgeois hall is Integrity:
I'll take out a couple of people drinkin'
And put in a picture of Abraham Lincoln;
I could even give you McCormick's reaper
And still not make my art  much cheaper,
But the head of Lenin has got to stay
Or my friends will give me the bird today,
The bird, the bird, forever."

"It's not good taste in a man like me, "
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,
"To question an artist's integrity
Or mention a practical thing like a fee,
But  I know what I like, to a large degree,
Though art I hate to hamper;
For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks
You painted a radical. I say shucks,
I could never rent the offices,
For this, as you know,  is a public hall
And people want doves, or a tree in fall,
And though your art I dislike to hamper,
I owe a little to God and Gramper,
And after all,
It's my wall..."

"We'll see if it is, " said Rivera.

Some notes: Nelson Rockefeller, later Governor of New York and Vice President of the United States became a renowned collector and patron of contemporary art. E.B. White, along with his many New Yorker contributions, in 1952 published the beloved Charlotte's Web, with now over 40 million copies sold. Diego Rivera returned to Mexico, where he recreated the mural in Mexico City. He never undertook another mural commission, although the body of his work established him as a leading artist in the 20th century. And, in case you're wondering, Mordaunt Hall was the film critic for The New York Times at the time of the controversy.

My wife, after reading this post, asked me "where did you find the White poem?" It's included in a wonderful book: The Practical Cogitator: The Thinker's Anthology.  First published in 1945, and later reprinted, the editors Charles Curtis and Ferris Greenslet, intended it initially as a handy collection of thought for military personnel located far away from libraries. I dip into it now and then and the White poem is a recent result.

I hope you enjoyed this gift of topical verse - a departure from my usual track. Have a wonderful holiday season, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

comments always welcome at: