How Diego Rivera painted the mural "History of the State of Morelos, Conquest and Revolution" in Cuernavaca during 1930

25/06/2021

Diego Rivera painted the mural "History of the State of Morelos, Conquest, and Revolution" in Cuernavaca during 1930. The work was paid for by Ambassador Dwight Morrow and when the mural was completed, his wife asked Rivera to reproduce a section of it as a gift to her husband. Diego decided to keep the fresco mural technique and reproduced a section of his work on a frame of wood, metal, and transportable cement and at that moment a new phase in the painter's muralism was opened.

, Mexican muralism in the first half of the 20th century was a social movement that in one of its dimensions was able to criticize the practice of Mexican art oriented towards private aesthetic enjoyment represented fundamentally by the easel painting format, It was considered that a critical posture of liberation through art had to promote an art far from bourgeois paraphernalia and personal enjoyment, to adopt the constant pretension of an open, public, pedagogical art, elaborated from below, from "the people" incarnated in the worker, the peasant, and even the soldier. 

Mexican muralism at that time was strongly linked to trade unionism and militant socialism and made its way through conservatism under the protection of the Mexican government, which never foresaw in its beginnings the ideological course that the movement would take.

Before muralism emerged in the 1920s, Diego Rivera, one of its pillars, spent a great period of 14 years (from 1907 to 1921) in Europe developing skills, integrating himself to artistic currents, and proposing his own style. When he returned to Mexico, the seminal ideas for a new art already existed and germinated in the fertile soil provided by Vasconcelismo. In Europe, Diego and Siqueiros would spend years in direct fraternity and would generate the idea of assimilating the constructive vigor of indigenous painters and sculptors of the past, Mayan, Aztec, and Inca, until achieving a proclamation published by the latter.

By that time, Diego was already acquainted with Elie Faure, and "From the lips of this man, Rivera heard a poetic version of the theory that the artist is the product and the expression of his time, of his people, of the geology that surrounds him". The seed of this new art was already there before the appearance of the figure of Vasconcelos, but the walls were set up by him, so it was the sum of the necessary conditions between the aesthetic proposal and the political field, which made it possible for Mexican muralism of that decade to exist.

In 1921 Diego Rivera joins Siqueiros, Ramón Alva de la Canal, Fermín Revueltas, José Clemente Orozco, Jean Charlot and Fernando Leal to paint at the National Preparatory School, the former College of San Idelfonso, in the historic center of Mexico City. Rivera was soon assigned more spaces in public buildings, painting thousands of square meters in the Ministry of Public Education building and the National School of Agriculture.

In October 1929, Diego Rivera is hired for the first time without the consent of the Mexican Communist Party, to which he still belonged, to paint a mural in the Palace of Cortés by Dwight Morrow, ambassador of the United States in Mexico.

The ambassador had arrived in Mexico in October 1927 during the government of Plutarco Elías Calles. Morrow worked immediately in his role as political mediator and in November of that year, through Calles' intermediation, he achieved that the Supreme Court modified the Petroleum Law, against the constitutional achievements of the Mexican Revolution, keeping the effective ownership of the lands acquired before 1917 by the North American oil companies through the figure of confirmatory concessions, in January 1928 the Constitution was definitively modified and in March the conflict was closed.

Other achievements of Morrow were the containment of the dissolution of the large estates, and with Pascual Ortiz Rubio as President, he contributed to the pacification and the temporary end of the Cristero War, and it would be until the beginning of 1930, with the effects of the fall of the New York stock market in October 1929, that he would get the Mexican government to cut social expenses in order to privilege the payment of a part of the agreement that reordered the debt Mexico had with the United States.

Dwight Morrow acted as a politician in favor of U.S. interests vis-à-vis his Mexican periphery, but he also developed affections for Mexico. The ambassador settled with his wife and daughter in Cuernavaca and built a residence in what would come to be called "Casa Mañana", sponsored improvements to a Catholic church and the local government headquarters, and in October 1929, with the intermediation of William Spratling, close to him, commissioned Rivera for the amount of 12,000 dollars, for the execution of the mural in the Palacio de Cortés. 

With the payment, he also bought materials and covered the salary of a direct assistant in the painting who was the Russian Victor Arnautoff. The amount for this work was higher than what Rivera had received so far for his work in murals commissioned by the Mexican government. Two thousand dollars of the total payment also went to Spratling, who, it was thought at first, might be the front for the financing, since Diego was a member of the Mexican Communist Party at the time, a matter of appearance that mattered little later.

The painter would have been partly dissuaded from doing the mural because creative freedom was proposed to him, because of the commercial advantage of his work, because of the reproduction of his political pictorial project, and because of the increased persecution of the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) that the Mexican government had enforced by closing its headquarters and that of its newspaper El Machete in 1929.

During 1930, Diego carried out the mural project at the National Palace at the same time as the work Epopeya del Pueblo Mexicano, and the formal and thematic solution was juxtaposed between the two projects in some way, the Morelos project being inferior in magnitude, as regional history, to the general history of Mexico that Rivera imposed on himself at the National Palace.

In addition to the committee at the National Palace, Diego during the months he was in Cuernavaca coincided with a managerial position, since August 1929 he served as Director of the Central School of Plastic Arts of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and after a series of conflicts over the curriculum he left in May 1930 in the midst of student riots, when he had not yet finished his mural in Cuernavaca.

Diego Rivera would have joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 and was even part of the Executive Committee from 1923 to 1923 when he dedicated himself only to militancy and in July 1929, after accepting Morrow's commission, he was accused of being a painter of the bourgeoisie and was expelled.

The space that Rivera used for the mural that he would give to the people of Morelos belonged to the fortified mansion that Hernán Cortés had built with part of the construction materials derived from the destruction of the indigenous Tecpan of Cuauhnahuac on which the viceroyalty building was erected. In 1529 Cortes obtained the Marquisate of Oaxaca before the King of Spain and in 1531 he moved to this building in Cuernavaca with his wife Doña Juana de Zuñiga. By the third decade of 1900, the building functioned as the seat of the state government of Morelos and showed decoration that eventually would have been made since 1872.

If there were remains of painting underneath pictorial sequences in the place belonging to moments of the viceroyalty, these were totally destroyed for the sake of the muralist aesthetic project, and this could have happened in other buildings with analogous qualities. During the time of his creation, Diego Rivera intervened in historical monuments founded in the viceregal period, such as the National Palace, the San Ildefonso College, the Chapingo Hacienda, the Secretary of Education, which is partially housed in what used to be the Mexico City Customs House, and the Convent of the Incarnation. Currently, the execution of a mural in a viceroyalty public building would be unlikely.

The mural in Cuernavaca was finally completed between January 2 and September 16, 1930, during which time Diego and Frida lived at the Morrow's Casa Mañana. The space chosen for the mural was the north, west and south walls of the east-facing loggia of the noble floor of the fortified mansion built by Hernán Cortés. The name of the mural is Historia del estado de Morelos, Conquista y Revolución ("History of the State of Morelos, Conquest and Revolution"), and it is composed of seven thematic orders arranged in the spaces between windows and accesses of the loggia, the west wall had four windows with ironwork during the process in which the mural was made, while the floor was made of hydraulic tiles, perhaps the access was free enough because in the space postcards were sold in the middle of the last century.

The work is divided into two hierarchically ordered horizontal strips, in the upper part and occupying three quarters of the walls seven clearly differentiated themes are developed in polychrome frescoes, although Diego would distinguish his work distributed in sixteen panels; in the lower strip that occupies a quarter of the walls, 11 squares are shown solved with general strokes with little detail elaborated as grisaille.

The first theme is developed in the north wall and a section of the west wall, it is a battle scene between the armies of Spaniards and Tlaxcalans against the Mexica.

The second is "...the taking of Cuernavaca by the Spaniards...", it is developed between two windows of the building in the west wall, it is observed the demolition of amate on the ravine of Amanalco by where the Hispanic-indigenous army enters, in front is an indigenous guide dressed in a coyote's dress.

The third is the plundering and the burning horseshoeing of the Indians subdued in war and confined to slavery.

The fourth is the construction of the fortified mansion that Cortés ordered to be built, as well as the tributary process.

The fifth is "...the establishment of the sugar refineries"; the fifth is the forced conversion of the indigenous communities. The building of the convent of the Assumption of Mary in the face of the abuses of the clergy who receive wealth, tribute, and veneration from the indigenous nobility by the community on the one hand, while Fray Toribio de Benavente Motolinia indoctrinates the community on the other. The baptismal font represents a sculpture of pre-Spanish invasion origin in the form of a feathered serpent converted to the new religious uses.

The sixth theme is the presence of the Inquisition in charge of the Dominicans.

The seventh theme is "...the peasant revolution led by Zapata...", with the presence of hanged men, and Zapata as leader of a group of peasants armed with their work tools, he is also dressed in agricultural work clothes and takes by the bridle the horse that perhaps belonged to a landowner or foreman, which lies defenseless at the feet of both.

From the grisaille executed in the lower section in the Palacio de Cortés, Diego had at least the first and especially the third previously sketched since 1925 for the Palacio Nacional. The order runs parallel to the pictorial discourse of the polychrome section above, but with its own rhythm and does not exceed the 16th century. The order is as follows:

1. Hernán Cortés disembarks at Chalchihueyecan, in Veracruz.

2. Malintzin and Aguilar serve as interpreters before Moctezuma's ambassadors.

3. Alliance between Hernán Cortés and Xicoténcatl the Elder.

4. Siege of Tenochtitlan from the water with brigantines.

5. Martyrdom of Cuauhtemoc and Tetlepanquetzal tlatoani of Tlacopan.

6. Death of Cuauhtemoc, hung by the feet invested as an eagle warrior, like a descending eagle.

7. Destruction of the indigenous temples and their deities.

8. Forced labor of indigenous people in the silver mines.

9. Bartolomé de las Casas as protector of Indians.

10. Vasco de Quiroga and the introduction of the loom.

11. Acualmeztli (Ignacio Alarcón de Roquetilla) who joined the insurrection of the Chichimecas and died in the Mixtón War in 1542.

In the pilasters that divide the loggia, Diego painted two niches or niches that in the manner of pedestals that present on the eastern side Emiliano Zapata in full body, clearly painted from the photo that was taken of the general in the Hotel Moctezuma in this temporary barracks that the Revolutionary Army of the South had in Cuernavaca; and on the western side, also full-length, the figure of José María Morelos y Pavón, probably based on Francisco de Paula Sánchez's oil painting of 1890, but adding a sword in one of his hands, and with a face quite close to the way in which Diego Rivera painted his own in many self-portraits, especially in the shape of the eyes. This is one of the many characters that the painter himself included in multiple murals as symbolic realizations with them.

For this as for all his mural projects, the painter made extensive historical research and assumed the need to have models as close to the historical truth to provide them with reliability to his historical discourse, for Cuernavaca we can identify the use of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, the Matrícula de Tributos, the Florentine Codex, the Codex Mendoza in a fundamental way, as well as the archaeological pieces he collected, those of museums and the many sketches he made in the Mexican communities.

The themes have a clear position. The painter sets his feet from America, from Cuernavaca and Morelos, but he does it from the victim, from the exploited, the murdered, the enslaved, and in doing so he establishes a denunciation that is incorporated into the aesthetic phenomenon. Diego Rivera had been a disciple of Felix Parra, who had painted La matanza de Cholula ("The Cholula Massacre"), and had suggested to Diego to follow a nationalist line, but here the author not only establishes the description of facts of which he had historical elements to affirm that they had happened but decides to raise the denunciation through the pictorial sign, it is observed in the postures, the faces of the characters, their proportions and places they occupy in space. That is, in the composition and general sense of the work.

Diego also raises hope in the figure of Zapata, in the work of Morelos, and in the inclusion of Roquetilla, which were elements of past insurrections but present in the path of socialism. However, by his own decision, he decides to stay away from the clearest signs of socialism that he does incorporate in other projects also paid for by the bourgeoisie. We do not see red stars, sickles, and hammers, red flags, or insurrection slogans, perhaps because it was the first mural he did under this type of financing, later he would decide differently.

When Diego Rivera finished the Cuernavaca mural, Elizabeth Cutter Morrow asked Rivera to copy a fragment of the mural to give it to her husband Dwight Morrow for his birthday in January 1931, and he decided to build a mobile cement panel where he executed a fresco painting with the reproduction of a section where he represents the tribute plaza in which a woman and a girl pay tribute to the Spaniards and sell it to Morrow's wife. Finally, the work will also be exhibited at the MOMA and will end up being called "Market Scene", thus opening a strategy with which Rivera will not fail to consider any of his projects in all his future mural work.

As an example of the extreme use of the decision to use movable panels in his murals or directly on the wall of the building, we have the paradigmatic case of 1933 in the building of the Radio Corporation of America inside Rockefeller Center, where despite having received the assignment by contract with Nelson Rockefeller, to make movable panels on canvas with the grisaille technique, he decides something different.

The author paints on the wall with fresco technique, opts for polychrome, skips the approved sketches, and makes a critique of capitalism, at the very heart of the centrality of this socioeconomic formation for the time. The Rockefellers thus terminated his services and removed the wall, which now displays a grisaille mural by another painter. Later, he will make on movable panels at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, an approximate copy of what could have been that mural in New York. Painting on the wall of the building directly or on movable panels was not only a strategy for the commercialization of a movable good but also a political skill to ensure the destination of the propaganda of his ideas in the aesthetic vehicle of his murals.

In November 1929 the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA) was inaugurated, with the participation of the Rockefeller family in its foundation. Its first directors, friends of Rivera, invited him in 1931 to a retrospective exhibition of his solo work. Diego and Frida along with Frances Flynn Paine arrived in New York in November 1931.

Diego worked on a series of mobile murals to add to his exhibition, at a location then occupied by MOMA, inside the Heckascher Building. His work began with four mobile murals that were sections of some murals in Mexico, one of them of the Secretary of Public Education that was finished called "Liberation of the Peon", and the other three were precisely from the mural in the Palace of Cortes, where the painter began to execute this technique, called "Indian Warrior", "Sugar Cane" and "Zapata Agrarian Leader".

Another mural with a Mexican theme, but with no direct precedent, is the one depicting a strike in the face of military repression called "The Uprising". To these five were added in January 1932 three more that were included when the exhibition was already in operation with direct New York themes that the painter elaborated from his contact with the city at that time: "Pneumatic Drill", "Electric Power" and "Frozen Bottoms". The exhibition was open from December 22, 1931 to January 27, 1932, and in 2013, most of the eight moving murals were again exhibited to great acclaim at MOMA.

The mobile murals at MOMA followed the experience inaugurated in Cuernavaca, and due to the short time he had for their realization before their inauguration, and the demands of the fresco technique, it is clear that the fresco frames were generated before Rivera's arrival for the eight murals. Diego and his team had to work out a technical solution that we now know is complex, not only for the execution of the mural but for its future stability. The technical strategy included a metal and wood frame and a system of assembling metal mesh in a diamond pattern that gave the frame structural strength and flexibility to avoid fracturing, as well as several layers of cement and other mixtures typical of the fresco technique.

Thus, the visual artist Diego Rivera would have prepared himself in Mexico and Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century until his return to the country in 1921, to participate in a collective project of aesthetic character that technically takes the form of the public mural. This technical strategy of muralism as a vehicle of the aesthetic phenomenon crosses in its form and function the political and economic realms. Diego was a militant of socialism since 1916, but he lives without ever being able to remedy it, in a practical economic sphere of capitalism and this contradiction will dynamize all his creative work from now on, greatly tinged by his protagonist, fabulist, a strident and eccentric character that he always maintained.

The aesthetic phenomenon produced by Rivera in his murals during the 1920s is fixed in the mural and the rate of profit for his work is limited to reproducing his labor force. His work in the Palacio de Cortés not only opened a turning point in his mural production for the interests of the North American bourgeoisie by working for Morrow, but also opened the production of the transportable murals from that same experience, a strategy that will keep the painter working "under two fires", the one inflicted on him by the Communist Party that accuses him of being a traitor, and the intransigent bourgeoisie itself that places the beauty of his work in the background, to condemn him for the signs of socialism exposed in his work.

The production of the mobile murals for the MOMA in 1931 and 1932 is immediate proof of the implementation of this new strategy devised by Rivera for his work, the eight mobile murals end up being bought by the Weyhe Gallery, and despite the conflicts with the Rockefellers, it is Abby Aldrich Rockefeller who later buys " Zapata Agrarian Leader" for the MOMA and becomes an icon to this day for this museum.

For Diego Rivera, easel painting was long before the mural, and he never stopped practicing it, despite his clear position that he came to build on the bourgeois phenomenology associated with the easel. The mobile murals was a great strategy of Diego Rivera to reproduce his public work of murals, to commercialize them, and to propagate his art, signs, and ideas.

In Cuernavaca Diego Rivera painted a pair of murals for Santiago Reachi Fayad in 1953 for his house at Humboldt 61, very close to downtown, as a gift for his young wife, the Cuban actress Carmita Ignarra; one more he would finish three years later for the same estate, called Río Juchitán, a mosaic mural.

The painter executed his work at Reachi's house in a mobile format, perhaps anticipating what would happen in the near future. The marriage dissolved in 1959, and by 1960 Reachi reportedly sold these murals, as well as a portrait of his wife in an easel oil painting, also by Rivera. The two fresco murals called "La piñata", and "Los niños pidiendo posada" would eventually be obtained by the McAshan Educational and Charitable Trust, Houston, Texas, and donated to the Children's Hospital of Mexico in 1960 where they are still preserved.

The Río Juchitán mural would be bought by Manuel Suárez y Suárez, and would be exhibited for a time at the Hotel de México. After many vicissitudes that this project went through to consolidate, the mural would be removed to be exhibited again after years of storage, in front of the extinct Museo Muros, now Museo del Papalote in Cuernavaca between 2007 and 2011; finally it would be moved to the lobby of the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City, being its owners the heirs of Manuel Suárez.

If Diego did not foresee it, this work made in Cuernavaca for the enjoyment of the bourgeoisie, ended up anyway within the reach of the general public, perhaps as a happy event, as a reorientation of the facts to the course of the painter's socialist thought, or perhaps as a mockery of the destiny that these cultural forms remain for the time being, before the general public.

In his writing "Defensa y ataque contra los stalinistas" ("Defense and attack against the Stalinists") published by Rivera in Claridad magazine in 1935, he argues about his mobile mural art: "As for transportable painting, it represents in Rivera's work two types of work: the document, which is the direct translation of reality in order to give it a raw material for the development of his compositions, and the paintings, which without being agitation painting continue to be propaganda like all painting." Painting, production, art, and transportable work, this is how Diego conceived of his mural work on mobile panels that were indeed bought by the bourgeoisie of all kinds, but which allowed him to reproduce the political discourse in which he gestated an aesthetic of liberation.

By Raúl Francisco González Quezada, Translation of the article in Spanish Estética y política de Diego Rivera en el Palacio de Cortés. Source: INAH Morelos