Myth-making remains as much of a cultural touchstone today as it was a century ago when Mexican artist Diego Rivera painted his first government-commissioned mural, aptly titled “Creation.”
In the 1922 work at San Ildefonso College in Mexico City, Rivera included Christian and ancient Egyptian iconography alongside figures like the biblical Adam and Eve and the nine Greek Muses. The subject matter and symbols could not have been better chosen for the debut of an artist who would become famous for his own visual folklore, which continues to shape our view of the North American continent in the 20th century.
Although Rivera deviates significantly from the style reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance he used to paint the 1,000-square-foot “Creation,” it’s a fitting piece to open (via high-tech projection) “Diego Rivera’s America “, the new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco.
The central thesis of what the museum calls the most comprehensive new exhibition of the artist’s work in two decades explores the myth that Rivera himself helped create for America in his work. He was informed by his travels to Mexico and the United States (including San Francisco), his interest in indigenous peoples, the philosophy of physical geography, and his passion for leftist politics.
“Rivera is just one of those complicated artists with a long trajectory that allows for a lot of new readings,” said James Oles, guest curator of the exhibition along with SFMOMA curator Maria Castro. “This is more an intense look at him as an artist than his biography: what were his themes, how did his style develop, what were the relationships between his paintings and his frescoes?”
Although Rivera (1886-1957) experimented early in his career with Cubist and Post-Impressionist styles, he became famous for his figurative work, which relied on simplified lines and rich colors. Married five times, he was the husband of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, a relationship that has been the subject of many chronicles.
“Diego Rivera’s America” includes more than 150 pieces by the artist (and three by Kahlo), spanning works on paper, paintings and frescoes, as well as three galleries projecting murals. His massive “Pan American Unit,” made in San Francisco in 1940, has been on display on the museum’s first floor since 2021. Rivera’s work has been an integral part of the museum’s permanent collection since its founding, Castro said, with more than 70 pieces , 40 of which are included in the show.
For many longtime Bay Area residents, the presence of Rivera’s work in the area is almost taken for granted. With “Diego Rivera’s America”, visitors will have the opportunity to deepen this relationship.
Two galleries in the exhibit are dedicated to Rivera’s travels in the Bay Area in 1930-31, when he painted the “Allegory of California” murals at the Pacific Stock Exchange (now the City Club of San Francisco) and “The Making of a Fresco”. Showing the Building of a City” at the San Francisco Art Institute. “Allegory of California”, which Oles called one of the most difficult works to see in person, is one of the murals depicted in projected form along with “El Tianguis”.
A second gallery focuses on Rivera’s time in the city in 1940 during the premiere of “Pan American Unity” at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island.
Upon entering, the exhibit provides a visual representation of Rivera’s concept of America with a map showing the locations of his murals in Mexico and the United States before the viewer enters the “Creation” projection.
Immediately, Mexican and indigenous cultures are featured centrally in Rivera’s work, with paintings including 1928’s “Dance in Tehuantepec” emphasizing the importance of rural traditions in the development of his aesthetic, as well as the influence of the Aztec imagery in “The Flowery Canoe”, whose central figure is reminiscent of Aztec sculpture.
Paintings featuring women at work, such as “La Embroiderer” from 1928 and “La Tortilla Maker” from 1926, show not only the culture of domestic work, but also the evolution of Rivera’s representation of the human form, which becomes both bolder in the way the subjects are positioned and yet more subtle in their expressions, giving them an almost monumental quality.
One of the marvels is the 1931 fresco “Still Life and Almond Blossoms”, created for the home of Sigmund and Rosalie Stern in Atherton and now in the collection of UC Berkeley. In addition to highlighting the natural majesty of the flowering orchard and an abundant display of fruit at the center of the work, it shows the value of manual labor and the relationship to the land that it often conveyed.
A proposal for a 100-foot-tall mosaic that would have decorated the facade of the Paramount Theater in Oakland is an unexpected surprise in a later gallery, which also highlights the process of creating the “Detroit Industry Murals” in 1932, as well as the canceled “Man at the Crossroads” mural that would have adorned the lobby of Rockefeller Center in New York.
While the artwork on display is magnificent, the exhibition design should also be credited for the sensitive use of projections that bring the murals into the museum.
It’s not a dark, immersive experience like popular projected attractions: instead, the exhibition areas are shaded for visibility but remain open to the galleries so viewers can see the relationship between his paintings, studies, and murals. themselves. It is these relationships, along with the artist’s relationship to the Bay Area, that feels most prominent in “Diego Rivera’s America.”
“San Francisco was an important city for Rivera as the first place he painted murals in the United States,” Castro said. “San Francisco is important to Rivera, and Rivera is important to the city at the time.”
“Diego Rivera’s America”: 1-8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Monday. From Saturday July 16 to January 2. $19 to $25. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., SF 415-357-4000. www.sfmoma.org
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