A true story of a Diego Rivera-style scandal

A true story on how Diego Rivera, a pioneer in the ridiculing of public figures of the time, disregarded the warning of Mario Pani and painted a union leader in his mural.

A true story of a Diego Rivera-style scandal
Diego Rivera was a painter, muralist, academic and social fighter. Photos: Cultura

Mexican architect Mario Pani, who had known Diego Rivera since his stay in Paris, invited him to paint four removable murals to decorate a dining room of the Hotel Reforma, still under construction -the Reina Maya-, warning him that he should stick to the themes: El Carnavalen Huejotzingo and Tepoztlán and not to try to introduce, among his figures, political themes or characters.

Diego, a pioneer in the ridiculing of public figures of the time -he did it in the manner of Mad magazine, but on the walls-, disregarding the warning, painted in his mural Plutarco E. Calles, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Luis N. Morones, a labor leader.

Although today, after the Watergate case, making fun of political figures anywhere in the world is no longer a cause for scandal, in 1936 no American would have been able to have breakfast calmly in front of President Roosevelt turned by Rivera's brush into a dancing satyr, just as few Mexicans would have been able to bear to contemplate Morones and the "maximum boss" -then recently dethroned by Cárdenas- dancing together in the masquerade that turned out to be Rivera's work.

When Mr. Pani found out about the mistake made by the muralist, he asked the painter Santos Balmorique, taking care not to damage the mural, to paste a paper over the anonymous faces to replace the previous ones. Santos Balmorique agreed on the condition that his intervention would be kept in the utmost secrecy.

Architect Mario Pani
Architect Mario Pani

Diego Rivera's protest at seeing his mural modified was not long in coming: he quickly organized a scandal with the aim, naturally, of raising a wave of publicity, an "art" in which Diego was adept since, with the system of surprisingly introducing the political into a decorative theme, he used to ensure beforehand the publicity he was looking for. He had already tried the same method in the RCA building in New York, where he reproduced Lenin's features in a figure in his mural.

But in the case of the Hotel Reforma, Diego was able to reinforce his advertising procedure thanks to certain local labor factors: he and Bernabé Jurado (whose names, moreover, always sounded in the realms of scandal) had founded the first construction union in which Diego was general secretary. In the name of this union, Diego and Bernabé filed a complaint with the Conciliation and Arbitration Board because "a non-unionized worker" (whose name was unknown at the time, as we now know that it was Santos Balmori) had worked on the "correction" of their murals, and that this correction was, in itself, a criminal act.

In response to the union's demand, Mario Pani argued in his defense that the architect of the work was, in fact, a permanent worker of the same without the need to be unionized and that as such he had made the applications to the murals; but his argument was unsuccessful and the red and black flag was installed at the work. This was the first strike in the aforementioned labor branch, and the union won the lawsuit.

As the union demanded a huge indemnity for the damages caused, Pani, to correspond to such voracious aspirations based on the high value of the four murals, paid the union with a soup of his chocolate, giving the union the murals that had been valued according to their future added value. It seems that in the long run, the union did not even bother to conserve the murals since three of them are property of Bellas Artes and the fourth is not known where it is or if it still exists.

In reality, Diego Rivera had put more effort into representing the sketch for freedom of expression and support of the union than in integrating his pictorial work into the architecture, so Pani's idea, which consisted of incorporating Mexican muralism with a folkloric theme into the tourist environment of the first international hotel to be built in Mexico, had to wait until a new hotel and a new mural could be built to accommodate it.

However, it was Diego Rivera himself who later, promoted by Pani, painted in the Hotel Del Prado his beautiful mural: "Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central" (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Central Alameda), this one integrated to the place and the site of the building, since the hotel was located precisely in front of the Central Alameda of Mexico City. However, Diego Rivera, high priest of the prefabricated scandal, again managed to include in his composition the defiant phrase: "God does not exist". This time, while it was being decided whether the phrase would be erased or not, the mural was covered with a cloth and the scandal was unleashed again, raising a wave of publicity to Diego Rivera's measure, precisely at the moment when international tourism and folklore "contracted nuptials".

With the violent experience of the Hotel Reforma, architect Pani had begun his effort to link the plastic arts with architecture, which he would later, repeatedly, carry out with other artists, in a more successful, interesting and, of course, exhibitionist way, mainly with José Clemente Orozco.

Source: Mexican Encyclopedia of Tourism by Hector Manuel Romero, Volume 5, pages 76-79.