fragments of an attempted writing.

happy birthday, comrade...

Happy birthday V.I.L.

In 1933, Rivera was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to do a mural for the lobby of the RCA Building at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Rivera, a leftist, was well known for his grand murals replete with sinewy laborers in all forms of working poses. He had just finished a large scale mural with a similar theme for the Detroit Museum of Art sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, and despite the bias for proletarian vistas, the liberal, art loving Rockefellers decided their center should have a Rivera mural too.

Rivera though added a portrait of Lenin in the mural and this was over the top for Nelson Rockefeller. Despite his wife Abby’s lament, who collected Riveras, Rockefeller confronted the artist demanding he remove the offending Lenin. Rivera, already paid for the mural, refused, was summarily fired, and the mural destroyed. Rivera would have his revenge by recreating the same mural back in Mexico with Lenin in his glory and the patriarch John D. Rockefeller inserted elsewhere drinking martini at the expense of the toiling masses.

Not sure I agree with the phrasing of everything above, but that description of this painting is found here.

A couple more images of the same:

Diego Rivera mural

Another description of the same:

John D. and Nelson Rockefeller destroyed a large painting they had themselves commissioned in 1932 from the famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera for their new Rockefeller Center building. Rivera called the painting “Man at the Crossroads,” and he included in the choices facing workers during the Depression a portrait of Lenin. When told he must remove the portrait, he refused, saying the commissioners knew his leftist record when they asked him to do the painting. He said he would balance the portrait with one of Lincoln. After the Rockefellers destroyed his art work in 1934, he recreated it in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, adding a portrait of John D. Rockefeller in a nightclub. The fracas inspired the best satirical poem of the century, by E. B. White. Can anyone match this for the dumb Maine governor?
      I Paint What I See
     [A Ballad of Artistic Integrity]
What do you paint, when you paint on a wall?”
      Said John D.’s grandson Nelson.
“Do you paint just anything there at all?
“Will there be any doves, or a tree in fall?
“Or a hunting scene, like an English hall?”
      “I paint what I see,” said Rivera
“What are the colors you use when you paint?”
      Said John D.’s grandson Nelson.
“Do you use any red in the beard of a saint?
“If you do, is it terribly red, or faint?
“Do you use any blue? Is it Prussian?”
      “I paint what I paint,” said Rivera
Whose is that head that I see on my wall?”
      Said John D.’s grandson Nelson.
“Is it anyone’s head whom we know at all?
“A Rensselaer or a Saltonstall?
“Is it Franklin D.? Is it Mordaunt Hall?
“Or is it the head of a Russian?” 
      “I paint what I think,” said Rivera.
I paint what I paint, I paint what I see,
     “I paint what I think,” said Rivera
“And the thing that is dearest in life to me
“In a bourgeois hall is integrity;
“I’ll take out a couple of people drinkin’
“And put in a picture of Abraham Lincoln.
“I could even give you McCormick’s reaper
“And still not make my art much cheaper.
“But the head of Lenin has got to stay
“Or my friends will give me the bird today,
“The bird, the bird, forever.”
It’s not good taste in a man like me,”
      Said John D.s grandson Nelson,
“To question an artist’s integrity
“Or mention a practical thing like a fee.
“But I know what I like to a large degree.
      “Though art I hate to hamper,
“For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks
“You painted a radical. I say shucks,
      “I never could rent the offices—
        “The capitalistic offices.
“For this, as you know, is a public hall,
“And people want doves, or a tree in fall,
“And though your art I dislike to hamper,
“I owe a 
little to God and Gramper.
     “And after all,
my wall.”
      “We’ll see if it is,” said Rivera.
- from here

A more full view of the painting, titled New Frontiers:

Diego Rivera's repainted mural, New Frontiers, originally painted on the Rockefeller Centre in New York in 1933

You will, of course, recognize the above painting from the cover of Fredric Jameson's book on dialectic.  


  1. I've long enjoyed the Rivera bit, but hadn't seen the White poem before. Fantastic.

    On a side note, can you (at some point - maybe in a future post?) recommend any good resources for thinking about the relationship between Orthodoxy and Marxism/Leninism/etc.?

  2. Wow, thanks for the reminder. I have so many fond memories attached to the Rivera murals in Detroit, which I haven't seen for 20+ years now. Wikipedia and the rest of the Internet seem to be missing the phrase engraved on the wall near the murals that always stuck with me; "He who makes a machine augments the power of man".

  3. Adam,

    To answer your question, no. But there are very few sources on Orthodoxy and political economy or on the relationship between the Orthodox Christian and the polis and/or the Church and the polis in the modern era, so this is one aspect of a bigger problem. In recent months I have encountered (in pixels) about 10 Orthodox who are espoused Marxists of various Marxist schools, most converts, a few cradle. I am told that one of the leaders of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) is still self-professedly Orthodox, which is something considering that the KKE is perhaps the most dogmatically orthodox of Marxist-Leninist Parties in the world today. I would love to have a conversation with that guy someday.

    If you find any materials along these lines you ask about, please let me know.

  4. JS,

    Seeing the Rivera murals at the DIA was one of my fondest memories of the brief time I spent in the Detroit metro area as well. I like the quote.

  5. I once asked a (rather anti-capitalist) Serbian monk about Orthodoxy and political economy; he referred me to Justinian.


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