The National Museum of Murals and Mosaics is proud to partner with the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in presenting Diego Rivera's The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. The fresco, permanently installed at the Institute, is characteristic of Rivera's devotion to depicting in his murals the nobility of the laborer, as well as his ability to condense an array of ideas and themes into a coherent whole. It continues to be one of Rivera's most popular American murals.
Making of a Fresco, completed in 1931, is the third in a sequence of murals Rivera did while in San Francisco, along with The Allegory of California, Still Life with Blossoming Almond Trees, and Pan-American Unity. An indication of Rivera's popularity at the time is evident in the fact that William Gerstle, the San Francisco Art Association official who commissioned Rivera for Making of a Fresco, had to outbid Mexican president Ortiz Rubio, who wanted Rivera to return to Mexico at that time to continue work on his series of murals in the National Palace. Rivera eventually decided to go through with his previous engagement with the Institute when he was given access to the interior walls of the gallery instead of the site originally set aside, the exterior loggia. Rivera preferred this site not only because he feared what impact the outdoor elements may have on his fresco, but also because it allowed him to paint on a continuous surface instead of the segmented surface of the loggia, which was broken up visually by its pillars and archways.
Perhaps wary of his well-known communist sympathies, the San Francisco Art Association specified that the fresco's subject matter could be “anything but of a political nature.” On this point Rivera seems to have largely conceded, but it is interesting to note that while early sketches of the mural show a relatively non-political motherly character as the central figure of the fresco, the final version employs the slightly more political image of an obviously working-class man.
Making of a Fresco is essentially a “mural-within-a-mural.” It depicts the creation of a mural in the background, with various characters belonging to different depths of reality within its frame, and a large central "working man" as the ultimate center of focus. Visually, the mural is divided into six main sections by real wooden scaffolding that is incorporated into the composition of the mural. The scaffolding, or "furring" as the specific technique is called, was necessary due to the size of the fresco and the susceptibility to moisture and cracking of the exterior wall on which the fresco was created. Instead of hiding it, Rivera incorporated the scaffolding into his composition, making it both the scaffolding holding up the fresco in real life, as well as the structure on which the artists and craftsman at work on the “mural-within-the-mural” are standing.Many of the mural's characters are portraits of some of the artists and patrons involved with Rivera's time in San Francisco. These include Ralph Stackpole, local artist and sculptor who studied fresco painting with Rivera in Mexico; William Gerstle, who commissioned Making of a Fresco; Mathew Barnes, who did the plaster work for Making of a Fresco and Rivera's earlier San Francisco fresco, The Allegory of California; Timothy Pflueger, the architect responsible for redesigning the San Francisco Stock Exchange, the site of Allegory; and many others. Rivera himself sits on a central beam with his back to the viewer, observing the work being done around him.
Determining which characters and objects belong to the background "mural-within-the-mural" and which belong to the foreground is no easy task. In the lower left-hand corner of the fresco, a sack near the foot of one of the anonymous workers crosses the edge of the scaffolding and appears to enter the "real" space of the viewer, while the central, larger-than-life "working man" clearly belongs to the "real" mural in the background. All the characters based on colleagues of Rivera's appear to be in the foreground of the fresco, working on the background mural, although there are few indications that this is necessarily so.
At times it seems as if Rivera wants to actively discourage viewers from becoming certain where a particular character or object exists. For instance, sculptor Clifford Wight appears no less than five times in the mural, holding opposing ends of chalk measuring lines; at one point Wight is visibly overlapping the scaffolding, while at another he is kneeling at a place where it appears there is no scaffolding beneath to support him. Rivera himself seems to enter "real" space, with his large rear end hanging over the edge of the scaffolding, perhaps as much a joke at his own expense as an assertion of his place within the mural.
One function of the “mural-within-a-mural” form is to draw the viewer into the space of the laborers. Unlike other murals by Rivera such as Allegory, where the viewer is clearly an outsider looking in on an implausible allegorical scene, Making of a Fresco depicts a plausible scene that is physically encroaching on the viewer's space: it is difficult without very close inspection to determine exactly where the scaffolding stops and starts. Even without determining exactly who does and does not belong to the "mural-within-the-mural," the theme of this "real" mural in the background is clear: the rebuilding of a city, perhaps mirroring the recovery of San Francisco after its devastating 1906 earthquake, with the noble, stoic working-man at the core of the effort. These images, combined with the foreground depictions of workers from many different disciplines working collectively towards a common goal, make Making of a Fresco one of Rivera's most direct and least allegorical murals.
While it is indeed straightforward and seemingly inoffensive, Making of a Fresco still managed to attract a little of the sort of controversy that seemed to follow Rivera throughout his career. Although much less noticeable than the portrait of Vladimir Lenin he included in his Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Center in 1933, which led to the mural's destruction and Rivera's firing from the project, the central working-man figure in Making of a Fresco has a small, red medal hanging out of his breast pocket. According to the SFAI, the medal resembles the Soviet Order of the Red Star, an honor given in reward for service to the Soviet Union, although “Rivera claimed that is was a Bull Durham tobacco tag--although that tag was black and white.”
For reasons not entirely clear, Making of a Fresco was concealed behind a false wall from 1947 until 1957. Institute officials at the time contended they feared the fresco would overshadow the other works in the gallery and therefore needed to be covered up, while author Laurance P. Hurlburt in his The Mexican Muralists in the United States attributes it to “the dramatic change in art styles and appreciation that occurred in this country during and after World War II.” Although one may not be able to draw a causal relationship between the events, it is interesting to note that the infamous anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, held his senate seat during this same period, from 1947 until his death in 1957. It might be reasoned that certain public perceptions about the threat of communism at least in part drove this concealment. In a seemingly unrelated and downright bizarre incident, the SFAI describes how the red medal was altered sometime in the 1980's to display the Soviet hammer and sickle, an alteration discovered by conservators in the 1990's to employ a substance which “turned out to be toothpaste.”
The National Museum of Murals and Mosaics would like to thank the San Francisco Art Institute for this opportunity to showcase The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. If you would like to read more about Making of a Fresco, the SFAI has some excellent web resources about Rivera and his fresco at sfai.edu. Additionally, a wealth of articles, images, and videos on the life and works of Diego Rivera can be seen at the artist's official website, www.diegorivera.com.