ALTURAS FILMS Powerful documentary fllms on Latino life, culture, and moreā€¦ from Rick Tejada-Flores

Retracing Diego Rivera's American Odyssey

By David E. Pitt

A Review Published in The New York Times:

August 28, 1988

Throughout his long life, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera had an uncanny sense of timing.

   Consumed - wanderlust as a young art student, he went to Europe and promptly fell in with the likes of Picasso and Rousseau. He returned home just in time to paint the start of the Mexican Revolution. A committed Marxist, he went to Moscow, brushes in hand, to capture the pageantry of the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. And in 1930, with the Great Depression unfolding amid intense political ferment, Rivera and his artist-wife, Frida Kahlo, paid their first visit to the United States.

   The trip was the beginning of a stormy affair between the irresistibly charming, 300-pound artist and the American public, which is chronicled in ''Rivera in America,'' a documentary to be broadcast on public TV's American Masters series tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 13. The hourlong film, narrated by the playwright-actor-director Luis Valdez (he directed the recent film ''La Bamba'') and written and directed by Rick Tejada-Flores, an independent producer specializing in Hispanic themes, tells the story of the artist's 11-year odyssey through the eyes of the Americans who worked with him, posed for him and, in one case, literally opened doors for him.

It also includes a tantalizing clue to the roots of a major cause celebre in American art history: Rivera's run-in with the Rockefeller family in 1933 over his refusal to remove a likeness of Lenin from a fresco they had commissioned for Rockefeller Center.

   Rivera, by then renowned for his monumental frescos depicting the history of Mexico, was eager to work in a major industrial nation where his paintings, displayed on the walls of great public buildings, could celebrate and inspire the struggle of the workers. Between 1930 and 1941 - when he returned to Mexico - he painted large murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York. In 1931, a one-man retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art electrified critics.

   ''All art is propaganda,'' the artist can be heard declaiming solemnly in Spanish at the beginning of the film. ''The only difference is the kind of propaganda.''

   Mr. Tejada-Flores said he decided to make the film in 1986, the centennial of Rivera's birth, in part because he was troubled by what he saw as a ''tendency among critics to try to resurrect him as a classical artist, without any reference to his politics.

'   'It was as though they were saying, 'Well, since he's dead, we don't have to deal with the politics. Now we can just admire his colors, his composition, his draftsmanship.'

   ''Well,'' the 43-year-old film maker said, ''I didn't like that idea, because I think that Rivera, more than anyone else I can think of, is someone in whom you cannot separate the content from the style. His work is his art, and his art is his message. I wanted to make that point very clearly.''

   Mr. Tejada-Flores, whose father is Bolivian and who grew up in southern California, said that he first became aware of Rivera's work while a student at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1960's. His journey of discovery began in Mendocino, Calif., in 1963, during a summer job making prints for a graphic artist named Emmy Lou Packard. Miss Packard, now in her 70's, had been one of the struggling young artists Rivera hired to mix his pigments and prepare the plaster walls for painting.

    ''After I decided to do the film, Emmy helped me get in touch with a lot of the other people,'' Mr. Tejada-Flores said, including the artists Steve Dimitroff and his wife, Lucienne Bloch (daughter of the Swiss composer Ernst Bloch); the architect Michael Goodman; Ella Wolfe, widow of Bertram D. Wolfe, Rivera's biographer, and the photographer Peter Stackpole - who can be seen in one of Rivera's murals as a boy holding a model airplane. Mr. Stackpole's father, the sculptor Ralph Stackpole, was one of the artist's longtime friends.

Mr. Tejada-Flores had no difficulty convincing his subjects to reminisce on camera.

   ''They were delighted that someone was going to tell Rivera's story,'' he said. ''Most of the people I interviewed are political people, committed public artists who were inspired by him 50 years ago - and though the art world has changed very much since then, a lot of them still believe in his vision of art and society.''

   To start his two-and-a-half years of research, Mr. Tejada-Flores began in San Francisco, where he lives. Rivera's first two American commissions were for frescos in that city, one at the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange Luncheon Club, the other at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Although their themes are nonpolitical, neither fresco is widely known.


   ''The one he did for the Art Institute was covered up all during the 50's partly because it wasn't abstract, and partly because Rivera was a Communist,'' Mr. Tejada-Flores said.

At the Stock Exchange Club, where the film maker found an elderly Chinese doorman who does a wonderfully engaging imitation of the Rivera belly laugh, the mural - depicting the riches of California - remains out of public view.

   ''I had never seen it before,'' Mr. Tejada-Flores said. ''It's in a private building, and only members are allowed in. The irony is that here we have Rivera's first work in the United States, a man committed to public art, and his first mural is for a private club at the Stock Exchange.''There were other ironies in Rivera's American travels, not the least of which were who he accepted as his other patrons - namely, the Fords and the Rockfellers.

   The mural ''Detroit Industry'' was commissioned in 1932 by the reclusive Henry Ford, who, rather than leave his Dearborn estate, kept tabs on the artist's progress by hiring a cameraman to film Rivera at work. Mr. Tejada-Flores found 13,000 feet of the footage in the National Archives and included excerpts in his documentary.

   The Rockeller Center episode in May 1933 still stands as the nadir of Rivera's experiences in the United States. According to a widely circulated version of the story, the Rockefeller family hired him to paint a 63-foot-by-17-foot fresco in the main lobby of the new R.C.A. Building. But some months into the project, which Rivera titled ''Man at the Crossroads,'' the Rockefellers were reportedly horrified to discover that he had included the figure of Lenin, who was depicted in an almost beatific pose, surrounded by adoring workers.Rivera, politely ordered by the young Nelson Rockeller to paint Lenin out, refused - although he offered to add Lincoln as a compromise. He was sent packing with the balance of his $21,500 commission. The incident provoked a huge outcry against the Rockefellers, which grew louder after it became public that the mural had been destroyed. During his research, Mr. Tejada-Flores, poring over Ralph Stackpole's papers in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, came across a letter dated December 1932, suggesting that the original inclusion of Lenin had not been Rivera's idea at all, but that of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller - the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr. In the letter, a man identified as Clifford Wight, who worked for Rivera in Detroit, wrote that ''Mrs. J. D. Jr. said that he didn't give Communism enough importance and asked him to include a portrait of Lenin.''Mr. Tejada-Flores says the need to keep ''Rivera in America'' to 60 minutes prevented him from exploring the implications of the letter more fully. But he believes that while Mrs. Rockefeller may have urged Lenin's inclusion, it was definitely Rivera's idea to go beyond the original sketch (which shows a more inconspicuous Lenin in a cap) and move the more prominent, bareheaded likeness closer to the mural's center.

   In the film, Lucienne Bloch suggests that Rivera made Lenin more conspicuous after reading an article in The World-Telegram reporting that Communist artists thought he was ''pulling his punches'' with the Rockefellers. ''He was going to prove to them that he wasn't afraid of any capitalist,'' Miss Bloch says.

In any case, Rivera's action made the architects and building managers very unhappy, Mr. Tejada-Flores said. ''Their position was that a picture of Lenin would make it harder to rent the building. And office space was already a hard sell in 1933.''

''Rivera in America'' leaves the impression that ''Man at the Crossroads'' may have been deliberately destroyed - ''blasted from the wall,'' as the narratorputs it. In fact, Mr. Tejada-Flores said, there is reason to Suspect that Nelson and his mother tried to save it, possibly for the Museum of Modern Art. The fresco's destruction, he added, may have ocurred either as workmen tried to remove it intact - or after the Rockefellers realized that it could not be removed without being destroyed.

Jose Alfaro, who was an unemployed auto worker when he met Rivera, recalls in the documentary an episode in which the artist seemed delighted that the city's Catholics were up in arms over a panel in ''Detroit Industry'' that depicted a quasi-Nativity scene.

   "Listen, muchacho,'' Rivera told him, any work of art, big or small, is worthless ''if it has no critics.''

   ''It's a very telling remark,'' Mr. Tejada-Flores said. ''All his life, you see a pattern of Rivera trying to create some little incident. And I think what happened in Rockefeller Center is that he just misjudged it - he created a big incident instead of a little one.''




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