Fresco Mural at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)

Fresco Mural at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)

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The year was 1926 when Californian fresco painter and faculty member of the San Francisco Art Institute, Roy Boynton travelled to Mexico City to study under the world renowned Diego Rivera. Boynton returned to San Francisco with a number of Rivera’s paintings, and urged art patron, Albert Bender to commission Rivera to paint a fresco mural at the San Francisco Art Institute. Bender was nicknamed Albert “Medici” Bender and acted upon Boynton’s suggestion.

Bender reached out to Diego Rivera the following year, in 1927 to invite the muralist to the San Francisco Bay Area. However, Rivera declined. As an avid member of Mexico’s Communist Party, Rivera had already planned a trip to Moscow, Russia to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. 

The following year, upon returning to Mexico, Rivera was visited by another faculty member of the San Francisco Art Institute and the city’s most prominent artist of the time, Ralph Stockpole. Stockpole travelled to Mexico to study fresco painting under Rivera and returned to San Francisco with a number of Rivera’s paintings, one of which he gifted to the San Francisco Art Institute’s president, William Gerstle.

By this time, excitement had built up around Rivera’s fresco painting abilities at the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 1929 Albert Bender reached out to Rivera again, in an attempt to hire the artist to create a fresco at the university. Rivera accepted the invitation this time around but was stopped by external forces. The United States government denied Rivera access into the country because of his involvement with the Communist Party.

Finally, in 1930, with the help of the American ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Murrow, Albert Bender was able to secure Rivera’s US visa. Rivera arrived in San Francisco in November of 1930 with his wife, Frida Kahlo. They moved into Stockpole’s studio in San Francisco, and Rivera began preparing for the mural that he would complete the following year.

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Rivera would sit in the passenger seat as he was driven around the San Francisco Bay Area, observing his surroundings and studying the landscape, taking in every thing he saw in order to draw it at a later date. According to an interview with California muralist and sculptor, Parker Hall, Rivera could see something, keep it in his memory and draw it perfectly a year later, “...he was remarkable. Anything he saw, he could draw that a year later...” The watercolor above was created as a result of one of these many drives through the Bay Area.

Although many many events led up to the creation of the mural, the mural it’s self was completed within a single month, from May 1st - May 31st 1931. 

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To this day the fresco remains one of the most important artworks ever created in the United States and is considered by many to be one of Diego Rivera’s most politically charged pieces. The giant figure portrayed in the center of the mural is adorned with a red medallion. In the center of the medallion is a red star. Although Rivera claimed the star represents a Bull Durham tobacco tag painted in red solely for the sake of composition, many historians believe the star represents the Order of the Red Star, founded in the Soviet Union the year prior to the murals creation. 

In addition to alleged claims of icons alluding to the Order of the Red Star, Rivera showcases his political perspective in the masterpiece by glamorizing the industrial laborer. The piece depicts artists, sculptors and artist’s assistants creating a great mural, with architects, engineers, and common laborers planning, reviewing, and constructing a city on either side. Logically, the piece was titled The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City

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