Murals by the great Diego Rivera were on computer display recently at the Houston Fine Arts Museum exhibit of artists of the Mexican Revolution and it reminded me of Rivera’s controversial work in America in the 1930s and a creative art film called Cradle Will Rock covering theatrical and creative arts during a troubled post-Depression recovery.
Rivera is considered the greatest artist of Mexico’s history, and possibly the greatest in all of Central and South America as well. He was wildly imaginative and unlike many fellow artists, very political, using his work to make social comment. In Mexico, his murals heralded the working class.
In the early 1930s, soon after the Great Depression, he was lured to the United States to paint large murals. Consider Men and Machine (1932-33) painted at the Institute of Arts with the backing of Edsel B. Ford.
Not to be outdone, John D. Rockefeller and wife Abby commissioned Rivera to paint a mural in the main lobby of the Rockefeller Center to be entitled Man at the Crossroads. When Rivera strayed from the approved draft and painted a large portrait of Lenin and other communists into the mural, he was paid in full, escorted out of the building, and his beautiful but controversial work of art destroyed.
You have to remember it was a troubled time in America, with President Franklin Roosevelt introducing controversial programs to bootstrap the country out of poverty and put people to work. At the time, there was a restlessness in the working class and a growing fear of communism by factions of the government.
The angst of the era was captured in a little art film called Cradle Will Rock, written, produced and directed by Tim Robbins. It is fiction but based on real events of the WPA’s Federal Theater Project intended to put actors and other theater people to work while the economy gathered strength. Also a center piece to the film is the making — and destruction — of Rivera’s mural at Rockefeller Center.
Great little movie, with an insider’s look at governmental and other forces attempting to censure creativity because of the growing fear of socialism as well as the resistance of the theater community. In a dramatic finale, as the actors defy government efforts to close their doors, the camera switches to a scene of sledge hammers removing Rivera’s partially completed mural Man at the Crossroads.
You probably can find a copy of the art film The Cradle Will Rock (Hank Azaria, John Cusack, Susan Sarandon, Cherry Jones, John Turturro) through Netflix – a great little work of art itself. You can get a good overview of Rivera’s history and body work through many resources, including the book RIVERA by Andrea Kettenmann.
— Jonnie Martin