Pan American Unity Mural
Over the summer of 2018, I had the opportunity and honor to interview the curator of the Pan American Unity Mural, historian William Maynez. Will’s knowledge of and passion for this mural is remarkable. He has been studying and safeguarding the mural for 20 years and probably knows more about it than anyone else in the world.
Executed by Rivera during one of the darkest hours in history (in the year 1940), when it appeared as if Hitler was sure to take over Europe and much of the world, this mural was created as a call to action (specifically to the United States and Mexico, but also) to all of the countries of the America’s to unite and join the allies in the fight against the Nazi’s.
With the current turmoil in the world, and the steady growth of fascism once more, in both Europe and the United States, this mural is now as relevant as ever.
-Maximilian Mc Donald
[Documentary transcript below]
This mural is 22” high by 74” long. The drawing and design state of this mural only took 7 weeks, and I know for a fact that Diego [Rivera] had no time to prepare in Mexico (from an eye-witness account), so what you’re looking at is an extemporaneous, on site invention., and the genius comes in creating something this coherent.
And then after he’d done this, designed it, he created the whole thing in 4 months.
IT’S A FRESCO
A fresco is painted on wet plaster, and it’s almost like the technique anoints, or chooses the artist. You have to be supremely confident, because it’s almost impossible to hide mistakes, and the darn plaster is drying.
And if you’re working on the scale of Diego Rivera you have to have stamina. He’s working 18 hour shifts, often without eating.
THE NAZI’S ARE COMING
Rivera arrived here in June of 1940, and if you read the newspapers of the day, the Nazi’s were going to win.
The war had started the previous, September 1st, 1939. Nothing is slowing down the Nazi’s. And what Rivera was saying in this mural is: ‘the Nazi’s are coming! The Nazi’s are coming! And when they finally conquer Europe (which seems like a foregone conclusion), they’re going to turn they’re malignant eyes to the America’s. So it’s imperative that all the countries of the America’s be on the same side.’
So this adage he had of pan American unity (which he’d been talking about since 1926, and which he had functionally been talking about until the last of his days), had special import in June of 1940, England’s hanging on, the Battle of Britain, and this is the context, the milieu in which Rivera’s working.
And if you don’t understand that, you can’t understand all of what he’s doing here…
RIVERA AND THE SOVIET UNION
He [Diego Rivera] finds that his natural ally is the United States, and there’s a lot of irony involved in this because he’s a Mexican and he’s a communist, and he’s out of step with the communist party because Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin to start World War II.
Hitler couldn’t fight the Soviet Union, and France and England, so if you attack the Nazi’s, you’re functionally attacking the Soviet Union, so no communist was advocating that.
The irony of that is, 6 months after Rivera leaves [for Mexico], Hitler invades the Soviet Union, now all the communists are saying ‘USA get into the war against the Nazi’s…’ the same thing they had been opposed to just 6 months before when Rivera’s painting this mural.
AND because Rivera is advocating this, he’s in jeopardy of being killed. I’ve got the FBI files, they thought he might assassinated, so while he’s working on this mural he’s packing 2 guns. He’s got a .45 in one pocket and a .38 in the other pocket.
Sometimes he had a guard. Sometimes he’s sleeping behind the mural, sometimes he’s sleeping on Telegraph Hill. Sometimes he’s sleeping in Berkeley in the little bungalow behind the house of Emmy Lou Packard’s family (Emmy Lou Packard being his primary assistant on this project).
PAN AMERICAN UNION
So Rivera is positing this Pan American Union, basically between the United States and Mexico, and when you’re putting together a deal, a union, a marriage, both parties have to bring something to the deal.
Even in the depression the United States is pretty rich and Mexico is pretty poor, so what is the paradigm you come up with? The paradigm he [Rivera] came up with was: on the left hand side of the mural where he shows Mexico, what he’s showing is the plastic arts.. sculpture, painting etc. and the continuity of culture.
Right outside [the building that the mural is housed in is] this giant Olmec head. It’s a replica of a head that was created 3,000 years ago on this continent, so long before Europeans ever came here, people were doing sophisticated things here.
On the right hand side of the mural [is] the mechanistic arts of the United States, and Rivera lusted after our machines. Why? Because if Mexico was ever going to reap the benefits of it’s revolution, it needed those machines.
So he had no problem doing business with the Stock Exchange or Henry Ford, they had the things he needed.
And the fusion of the mechanistic arts and these ancient cultures is in the central icon.
The left hand side [depicts] two aspects of the Aztec goddess Quetzalcoatl, she is the serpent skirt, she is the mother of all the Aztec gods, and on the right hand side, the stamping machine (that he’d previously painted for the Ford’s at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
And right in the middle of that, he shows a half skull, half head. Again it’s these dualities, this duality that’s going on in everything we see. Sometimes we’re not aware of it.
And then he puts in the subtext. So I should point it out, there’s a masonic symbol over here, the 2 columns on either side are the columns in a masonic lodge, there’s at least 7 masons in this mural.
There’s a whole mathematical subtext, this whole mural is 2 horizontal golden rectangles, side by side. And Rivera subscribed to something called dynamic symmetry, so there’s a whole mathematic, geometric lattice work on which he’s hanging his imagery.
There’s a Marxist subtext and then there’s subtexts in there I’m just not smart enough to see. And that’s the hook.
MICHAELANGELO AND RIVERA
When you’re looking at this mural, you cannot discover anything in this mural, all you can do is recognize it.
A very good example is… on this mural we have John Brown, the abolitionist. And according to your politics, he was either the first martyr of the American civil war, or just a crazy guy that killed a bunch of people.
But one day I’m doing a tour here for the director of the symphony in Seattle, and he says ‘John Brown, no, that’s Michaelangelo’s Moses.’ And I go ‘Bingo.’
It’s also evocative of Michaelangelo’s mural God and Creation of the Stars and the Moon in the Sistine Chapel.
So Rivera’s encoding information in here, and what you can perceive of it, is a function of what your bandwidth is.
SAN FRANCISCO MOMA
In 2020, this mural will be physically moved to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), to be part of a show for Rivera titled Diego Rivera’s Americas. It will remain at the museum for 5 years, until 2025.
I think that Diego would have loved the fact that this art is finally going to get it’s day in the sun because this is going to be international exposure. And that’s one of the big benefits of it, the other thing is the world class conservation, absorbing the cost of transporting this thing.
So Diego would be enamored, and of course Diego has many pieces at MoMA. Some of the initial pieces at the San Francisco Museum of Art (which is the initial incarnation of MoMA in 1935) were donated by local benefactor Albert Bender.
Frida’s Wedding Portrait and Diego’s Flower Carrier, and his surrealistic piece called Symbolic Landscape is there; and 100 drawings at least.
So Rivera would have had no problem with it being there and the exposure, and the fact that it’s now going to be in some place where it will be visible to the public at all time.
And in fact, when it’s at MoMA, it’s going to be in the Robert’s Family Gallery, which is on the Howard street side. Right now there’s Richard Serra’s piece, a big metal sculpture, but that gallery is open to the public for free.
So it’s going to be publicly accessible, the room is 60 feet deep with glass on 2 sides, so actually it’s the ideal setting for this mural.
[And] it will finally get the exposure that it merits and deserves.
[End of documentary transcript]
For more information please visit the official website of the mural (see link below) and sign up for William Maynez’s newsletter to stay up to date on the San Francisco MoMA project.