In true capitalist style Diego Rivera would have probably derided the way that the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has publicised and much capitalised on the recent protests and social unrest to unveil their much-anticipated exhibition, Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art. To be clear, we’re not suggesting the museum planned the exhibition in light of the Wall Street Protests – we’re simply appreciating the social irony of the timing and the works contained in the murals. One of the underlying beliefs of Rivera’s paintings was that they were public works of art: they were created for the masses to educate and liberate their lives. Well, the masses have certainly responded in droves to see the latest Rivera exhibition – not only are tickets sold out for months, the popular lecture series that often accompany MoMA exhibitions are also sold out.

Since the subject of this post is the irony of the exhibition, why not feature a lecture (sold out) given by Jodi Roberts (PhD, ABD, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University), who is a specialist in 20th-century art from Latin America? Dr Roberts examines Rivera’s artwork at the intersection of radical politics and art making in the 1930s. As we’ve noted before, Rivera was only the second artist ever to have a monographic exhibition at MoMA, after Henri Matisse. Rivera was brought to New York six weeks before his five-week show started on December 22, 1931: this was done so he could paint his five portable murals, which he did with the assistance of two other painters. The works focused on Communism, class inequality, peasant martyrdom, revolution and Mexican subject matter and themes. After the opening Rivera was so overwhelmed with publicity that he created three more murals that looked at New York subjects directly; the themes were familiar, focusing on the social classes in the city and social problems during the Great Depression.

Perhaps the greatest revelation from the exhibition is that Rivera was, admittedly, a hard character to deal with, and served to exploit wealthy oil tycoons for his own fame. Ironic that a man so committed to Communist ideals would be in cahoots with the Rockefeller family, arguably scions of capitalism. Their collaboration dates back to 1927, when the Mexican Communist party sent Rivera to Moscow for Russian revolution’s 10th birthday celebrations. Alfred Barr, MoMA’s founding director, was also there, and the two agreed that they would try to rendezvous in New York, once MoMA was actually established, that is. But how could they actually get Rivera there, and fund his work? At the time Rivera was completing a fresco for the Russian Red Army High Command; his sketchbook for this and other drawings were sent to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, both as a test for the MoMA retrospective and in a trade for funding the MoMA retrospective. Rivera was politically opposed to capitalism, but he sure enjoyed the sweet treats of it.

Curator of the current exhibition, Leah Dickerman, wrote in her lead essay that the Rockefellers were actually very comfortable with his politics and paintings, hence their acceptance to take on a large financial cost to have Rivera come to the States for the MoMA gig and to paint their own building’s mural. She argues in her catalogue essay that they have been misrepresented by history: it was not the Lenin image that caused offence at the later mural to be painted in their building’s lobby. Family friend and assistant on the project Lucienne Bloch is quoted as saying she was surprised at the family’s tolerance. “I expected some commotion about this new turn, but Frieda [Kahlo] tells me that Mrs Rockefeller visited him and climbed the scaffold to watch him work and said that it was the finest part of the mural yet. When I showed surprise, Frieda told me that Mrs R. has a radical taste.” The real problem, family friends and close sources maintained, was that Rivera had drawn a small portrait of John D. Rockefeller Jr with women and sipping cocktails, hidden in a propeller turbine. The Rockefellers were devout Christians and alcohol abstainers: the personal slight was too much and the Rockefellers showed Rivera who was the boss.