Monday, March 26, 2012

You get what you pay for.

Diego Rivera was a Communist.

The members of the Pacific Stock Exchange were not.

That the latter should have commissioned the former to paint a mural for its sumptuously appointed building at 155 Sansome Street in San Francisco (now home to the City Club of San Francisco) in 1930 is one of those odd mysteries that aren't.*   In America we don't have royalty to become the patrons of great artists; we have the captains of industry and commerce.  The PSE paying  to have the first fresco in the United States by the great Mexican muralist might on first blush seem to be not much different than Napoleon paying Jacques-Louis David to record his apotheosis.

One good look at the mural that resulted, "The Allegory of California," throws that analogy into question. If nothing else, David kept any contempt he felt for his patron well hidden.  Rivera only barely did.

The mural Rivera painted for the PSE represents Califia, the spirit of California. The central figure is a monumental woman, with beautiful golden brown hair and large blue eyes. Her arms overflow with scenes of the state's work: in one corner are Gold Rush-era gold-panners, and in the other their modern day counterparts. In between a lumberjack rests his arm on a redwood stump and talks to a young man with an airplane, next to Luther Burbank grafting sprouts onto a tree branch. A man holding a slide rule and calipers talks to a construction worker. The stark outlines of oil derricks cover the background of the painting.

Her hands are huge, much too large for the rest of her body; they seem to come from somewhere else. One hand drips with fruit, the state's agricultural bounty, while the other pulls back the surface of the ground, showing miners with powered chisels cutting a seam of rock.

An appropriate subject for a building built for and celebrating California's economic elite. 

On closer inspection, one thing stands out: no one is happy.  The gold miners look grim; the lumberjack, sad; Luther Burbank, tortured.  Most of all, Califia herself seems pained.  Her face is stony, not merely unsmiling.   She bears the empty, wary expression of someone hurt past the point of caring.

Opulent setting aside, this painting is not a celebration but a rebuke.  "You have done this to me," the beautiful, silent woman seems to say. "You gained your wealth from the labor of my workers, from the ingenuity of my scientists; you ripped my abundance from the ground;  your steel derricks stand like gallows poles on my golden hills.  You have plundered my riches and taken them for yourselves, and given nothing back."

I wonder if the wealthy men who walked past her every day got the message.

*According to the City Club's website, there were newspapers at the time that questioned the choice of Rivera to decorate the building, because of the incongruity between his political beliefs and those of his patrons.

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