Money to murals
Diego Rivera wasn’t known for traversing the Mission when he lived in San Francisco with his wife, Frida Kahlo, some 90 years ago.
It was the Great Depression when the two artists arrived in San Francisco, “the city of the world” as Kahlo described it. The internationally renowned muralist had in 1930 been commissioned to paint a mural for the San Francisco Pacific Stock Exchange, now known as City Club of San Francisco. But there was one problem: An outspoken communist was painting a mural for the city’s “citadel of capitalism.”
In classic Rivera fashion, the artist sparked controversy. Sending Rivera to the stock exchange was like asking a butcher to tend to a garden.
Nevertheless, Rivera persisted and pleased his patrons. With his brushes, he created the “Allegory of California,” a mural that celebrated the abundant resources of The Golden State and its working-class laborers, a reminder to those in the stock exchange of the source of their wealth. If Rivera couldn’t paint a mural for the public to see, at least he could paint a mural to influence those who have power over the public.
“The success of Rivera’s mural at the San Francisco Pacific Stock Exchange was very important, because his ability to paint murals elsewhere in the U.S. depended on it,” Rivera’s assistant, Emmy Lou Packard, said in an interview for the documentary “Rivera in America.”
Rivera would go on to paint two more murals in San Francisco, and others in Detroit and New York. His U.S. murals gave visibility to the working man, celebrated the riches of the land and imagined an American identity that transcended borders. Or, in Rivera’s own words, “I mean by America, the territory included between two ice barriers of the two poles. A fig for your barriers of wire and frontier guards.”
Now, for the first time, residents of San Francisco can explore Rivera’s vision of America through the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit: Diego Rivera’s America. The exhibit, which opened Saturday, is being launched in conjunction with Proyecto Mission Murals, a digital publication documenting the history of the murals in the Mission District.
Rivera would never know that the success of his mural at the Pacific Stock Exchange would do more than just springboard his artistic endeavors in the United States. Some 30 to 40 years after Rivera painted in the stock exchange, local artists in the Mission District would paint hundreds of murals on the empty walls of their neighborhood.
“It’s a visual treat to walk through [the Mission District] and say, you know, ‘There’s art,’” Joel Ernst, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and who works at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, said. “Everywhere I look in the Mission District, on the side of the laundromats, on garage doors and alleys. Where else do you see that in San Francisco? Where else do you see public art in San Francisco by somebody that wasn’t commissioned?”
Some 43 years after Rivera painted in San Francisco’s “citadel of capitalism,” a trio of young, twenty-something artists began working on a 90-foot mural at the bastion of wealth at 23rd and Mission streets (better known as the Bank of America).
“I had mixed feelings about painting in the Bank of America,” Michael Rios, one of those artists, said in an interview with Mission Local. In 1970, the bank was facing widespread protests for the institution’s connections to the Vietnam War.
“But Rivera also painted murals in places where he had to compromise his principles,” Rios said. This fact helped Rios justify painting for Bank of America.
When Rios joined the other two artists, Jesús “Chuy” Campusano and Luis Cortázar, the themes and sketches for the mural were pretty much chosen. Rios mostly assisted with refining the sketches and painting the mural, using the same fresco technique as Rivera. Packard, Rivera’s former assistant, advised the painters.
“She didn’t pick up a brush, but she would come over and correct our brushstrokes,” Rios recalled. “We were very fortunate to have her as a technical advisor. She also took us over to City College to show us her role in working on the Pan-American Unity Mural.”
After many hours and many corrections, the Bank of America mural was finished. The final product: a collage of farmworkers, doctors, construction workers and schoolchildren. In the center, a crucified Christ figure lies below César Chávez’s words: “Our sweat and our blood have fallen on this land to make other men rich.”
Like Rivera’s work, the mural wasn’t supposed to conform to the rules, but rather tell a complicated story with images. It was a mural “for the people in the Mission who stand on the long lines in the bank on Friday afternoon,” said Campusano.
As a mural that showcased the harsh realities of capitalism, it, too, sparked controversy. Packard, however, convinced the bank of the artists’ right to self-expression, which allowed them to stick with their original ideas and vision.
A doctor, Kahlo’s chronic pain, and two paintings
When Rivera wasn’t tirelessly painting working-class struggles, he and wife Frida Kahlo could be found exploring the streets of Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill and Chinatown, where Kahlo found herself mesmerized by the silk shops, and those around her were mesmerized by Kahlo’s long skirts.
The pair could also be found schmoozing with other artists and intellectuals at sculptor Ralph Stackpole’s studio on Montgomery Street. Kahlo’s friend, writer John M. Weathermax, referred to her as the “Queen of Montgomery Street.”
“A swish of her long silk skirt. A glimpse of her bare feet in Mexican sandals; but only a glimpse, for her skirt is very full,” Weathermax wrote in an unpublished manuscript about Kahlo.
But the time the two artists spent in San Francisco wasn’t all silk shops and schmoozing. Kahlo suffered from chronic pain due to a street car accident she experienced years earlier. Her body needed care, badly.
That’s when Dr. Leo Eloesser steps into the picture.
A thoracic surgeon, friend of Rivera, passionate musician and humanitarian at heart, Eloesser would become more than just someone to tend to Kahlo’s medical needs. Even though Kahlo wasn’t fond of most Americans (she once described Americans as “boring” and having “faces like unbaked rolls”), Eloesser and Kahlo would become lifelong friends.
As a token of their friendship, Kahlo gifted Eloesser a portrait of the doctor. The portrait was accompanied by Rivera’s painting of a woman making a tortilla.
“I was really touched by the story behind the portrait of her and Leo Eloesser,” Wynne Bamberg of the vice dean’s office at the UCSF School of Medicine said.
“There’s a story, I don’t know how true it is, that he was actually instrumental in convincing Rivera to remarry after their divorce,” Bamberg laughed. “It’s just really cool that so much of [Kahlo and Rivera’s] actually fairly brief time living in San Francisco was integrated with somebody who was a part of the hospital community, and the UCSF community.”
Today, the paintings hang in the lobby of San Francisco General Hospital as a donation from Eloesser, with the stipulation that they must be displayed in the hospital for patients to see. They serve as a marker of the friendship between the doctor and the artists. But to the hospital community, the paintings do more.
“I remember vividly my first day of work at this hospital, indeed my first hospital job ever. I can recall walking in the main entrance, being a little lost, and being pleasantly surprised to notice the Kahlo and Rivera originals in the lobby,” Raymond Solis, a certified nursing assistant at ZSFGH, said. “I stood for a minute or so experiencing them, and feeling a sense of timelessness, continuity, of being a part of something greater. Most times I pass by them, to this day, I still give them a look and that transports me back to that almost spiritual sense.”
Living legacies in the Mission
Juana Alicia Araiza, well known for her Mission murals, grew up in Detroit, and she remembers skipping school as a teenager to hang out by the Diego Rivera mural in the Detroit Institute of Arts.
When Rivera went to Detroit in 1932, it was known as the industrial heart of America, and the Mexican artist painted 27 panels that celebrated the process of working in a factory.
The young Araiza soaked up this mural’s beauties and themes. To her, Rivera’s fresco “reflected the 1930s, but they weren’t that different from the themes of the ‘60s,” a decade marked by class struggles, the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War protests.
“Rivera and his generation set an example for how to paint about social issues,” Araiza said.
Moreover, Rivera taught Araiza that “the beautiful does not have to be separated from the political.”
Araiza would continue this legacy of intertwining the beautiful with the political.
“The best artists aren’t just influencers; they misinterpret and reinterpret the work of their predecessors,” Araiza said, emphasizing that the goal of other artists of her generation was not to be “a bunch of little Riveras.”
For her part, Araiza drew on her experiences as a woman farmworker who organized with César Chávez when she painted her first major mural in the Mission: “Las Lechugueras.” In the mural, Araiza depicts her experience with pesticide poisoning as a pregnant woman. Unlike Rivera, she painted the mural outdoors. It was an act of reclaiming public space in the neighborhood.
Araiza would go on to paint hundreds of murals in the Mission and even studied with two of Rivera’s assistants: Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff.
“They were amazing,” Araiza recalled. “Stephen was an endless storyteller. Lucienne was a philosopher … Stephen told me I reminded him of Frida.”
Now, Araiza finds herself as a mentor to younger generations of artists, helping them reinterpret and misinterpret the work of older generations. And she’s not alone in this process.
Susan Cervantes at Precita Eyes Murals is another Mission muralist who is helping nurture the next generation of artists. She helped put on the workshop that Araiza attended with Bloch and Dimitroff.
“We all have some links to Diego Rivera,” Cervantes said of Mission muralists.
Cary Cordova, author of “The Heart of the Mission,” echoed Cervantes’ sentiment.
“I think it’s hard to recognize the tremendous imprint and influence of Rivera and Kahlo on artists in San Francisco,” she said. “It’s also important to recognize that they can sometimes be overly powerful or overly used to describe Latino art as a whole, in a way in which it’s hard for subsequent generations of artists to express themselves apart from that history, that legacy, that legendary legacy.”
But the murals do more than just continue the legacy of great Mexican artists.
“They’re accessible to the public. They’re accessible to people. It impacts their lives on a daily basis. It impacts their lives and their hopes and their dreams … They reflect the people. They are made by the people,” Cervantes said.
The exhibit “Diego Rivera’s America” is on display from July 16 to Jan. 2, 2023. More information about the exhibit can be found on the SF MOMA’s website.