In 1931, the fledgling Museum of Modern Art chose Mexican muralist Diego Rivera for its second major show, inviting him to New York to create portable murals onsite. Now, some of the works he created in six feverish weeks are again on display at the museum through May.
They are aggressive and vibrant, testimony to Rivera’s fascination with Mexican history and his loathing of capitalism.
A Communist, Rivera created fiercely political works picturing Mexico’s colonial past and the struggles of native peoples. “Indian Warrior,” for example, illustrates his anger at Spain’s conquest of Mexico in the 1600s. An Aztec warrior wearing a fearsome Jaguar costume uses a stone knife to cut down a conquistador who lies dead, still encased in his armor.
Rivera also painted scenes of what he saw as capitalist oppression in the United States and the struggle for workers’ rights in a rapidly industrializing America.
“He made pictures that made us think about what our society is like, about labor and class, and the inequities of our modern world,” said curator Leah Dickerman. She points to the mural, “Frozen Assets,” a depiction of New York City, in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression. The mural has several tiers, with New York’s new skyscrapers towering above what looks like a subterranean morgue.
“In the top tier of the painting, you see all the most recent landmarks of modern architecture,” Ms. Dickerman said. “Under that, you see the shelter for unemployed men that was on East 25th Street. Then under that, you see a bank vault where the city’s richest citizens are waiting to count their assets.”
Rivera was already famous when he and his wife, artist Frida Kahlo, arrived in New York for the museum commission. Born in 1886, Rivera had studied painting in Europe in the early 1900s.
Visitors have packed the show since its opening in November. Art historian Anna Indych-Lopez said that’s because Rivera’s message remains relevant.
“This work speaks to people today for obvious reasons,” she said. “If we just open up the newspaper and look at the events surrounding Occupy Wall Street, these are issues that have not gone away.”