Today would have been Diego Rivera's 125th birthday, and Google is celebrating his big 1-2-5 with a Doodle. If you need a good Diego Rivera anecdote for the watercooler, here's a piece Elizabeth Lunday wrote for us about "Man at a Crossroads."
During the Great Depression, Mexican artist Diego Rivera was on a roll. In 1931, he painted a massive mural for San Francisco’s Pacific Stock Exchange. And by 1933, he’d completed two more enormous murals of Ford’s assembly line for the Detroit Institute of Arts. But there was a disconnect in Rivera’s work. Although the artist was a vocal and committed communist, his art was decidedly capitalist. After a few friends pointed out the hypocrisy, Rivera decided to put his paintbrush where his mouth was.
Opportunity knocked in 1932, when the Rockefeller family hired Rivera to create one of his signature paintings in the lobby of the new RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. Their suggested theme for the work was “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future”—an allusion to the crossroads between industry and technology. Rivera’s final product depicted a crossroads, but hardly in the way the Rockefellers had intended. Instead, the sprawling 63-foot masterpiece illustrated two alternate futures: a communist heaven and a capitalist hell.
Rivera might have gotten away with his political statement if it hadn’t been for one detail—he painted his personal hero, Vladimir Lenin, into the piece. When building managers realized Rivera was filling their lobby with Red propaganda, they ordered him to cease and desist. To preserve the art, the Rockefellers asked Rivera to morph Lenin’s portrait into an unrecognizable worker. But when the artist refused (Rivera offered instead to balance the picture with a portrait of Lincoln), he was paid his full fee, then barred from the site. The mural was immediately covered, and months later, workers were ordered to destroy the piece altogether.
It wasn’t long before the artist got his revenge. Later that year, Rivera re-created the piece for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Only this time, he added a portrait to the capitalist side; it was of Nelson Rockefeller, holding a martini glass, under a swarm of syphilitic bacteria.
This article was excerpted from "4 Public Works of Art Gone Terribly Wrong," which originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you ever see a Doodle that you'd like to read a story about, email me!