In addition to offering a history lesson, the show also examines the clash of art, politics and commerce.
It’s pretty clear that this arranged marriage between the left-leaning Mexican artist, a star of the early-20th-century art scene, and the capitalist captain of American industry should never have happened. Had Rockefeller done his homework on Rivera, he would have known he was asking for trouble by inviting the muralist to design a piece for this temple of business. (The exhibition includes a reproduction of “Wall Street Banquet,” an earlier Rivera painting from the late 1920s containing a satiric portrayal of predatory millionaires.)
For his part, Rivera also should have known better than to accept the commission. The show includes a three-page contractual stipulation from Rockefeller, laying out in legalistic terms exactly what themes and subject matter were appropriate for the mural. Rockefeller wanted spiritual uplift, not radical politics. What independent artist would have signed on to such straitjacketing terms?
Maybe it was the $21,000 fee.
What is clear from the show’s sequence of sketches is that the portrait of Lenin crept into the work only gradually. The initial, Rockefeller-approved drawing centers on a trio of generic men: an overalls-clad laborer joining hands with a wounded soldier and a farmer. Yet in a later transitional sketch, this so-called revolutionary triad — an homage to the three pillars of the Russian revolution — has shifted to one side. Still, in this intermediate drawing, which would form the working basis for the installed mural, the central figure can hardly be identified as Lenin. He’s almost a faceless Everyman.
It’s only when Rivera started applying paint to wet plaster that his focus — and his critique — sharpened. According to Lucienne Bloch, one of Rivera’s mural assistants, the painter’s decision to add Lenin to the mix was a response to a headline in the World Telegram newspaper: “Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity and John D. Foots the Bill.” Apparently, Rivera decided — perhaps playfully, perhaps perversely — to test Rockefeller’s resolve.
The show is about a clash of wills, but its larger theme is integrity. Once Rivera learned of his patron’s displeasure, he offered to counterbalance the Lenin portrait with one of an American historical figure — say, Abraham Lincoln. But the artist also insisted that he would never contemplate removing Lenin, writing to Nelson Rockefeller that physical destruction of the piece would be preferable to what Rivera called the work’s conceptual mutilation.
Who won? In the end, ironically, both men got exactly what they wanted.