In June 2021, one of the most important works of public art ever created in the Bay Area was rescued from semi-oblivion. Diego Rivera’s enormous 1940 fresco Pan American Unity, which had languished inside a poorly lit theater building at City College of San Francisco, was unveiled in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s free Roberts Family Gallery. It had taken four years of preparation and seven trips to move the colossal panels by truck. SFMOMA will display the mural until January 2024, when it will be returned to a new performing arts center on the City College campus. The museum is also mounting the exhibition Diego Rivera’s America—more than 160 artworks and objects that reflect his visits to the United States and life in Mexico—which will run from this July through January 2023.

Pan American Unity (whose actual title is The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent) is not the only fresco Rivera painted in San Francisco that has made headlines recently. In January 2021, the San Francisco Art Institute considered selling its own Rivera fresco, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. The proposed sale was greeted with widespread outrage and led the city to award the mural landmark status, thus preventing it from being removed.

This flurry of publicity could only have occurred in San Francisco. It’s one of the three U.S. cities where Rivera created frescoes. One in New York City was destroyed on the orders of Nelson Rockefeller in 1934; those in Detroit were funded by Edsel B. Ford of Ford Motor Company and continue to hang inside the city’s Institute of Arts.

Rivera created The Making of a Fresco and another mural, The Allegory of California, which hangs inside the City Club of San Francisco, during a trip he made to the city with his third wife, Frida Kahlo. The lengthy visit took place soon after they married and embarked on what promised to be an artistic tour of the United States. He executed his third and final San Francisco mural—Pan American Unity—during another stay. This second trip, nine years later, took place under much darker conditions for both Rivera and Kahlo. The three frescoes reflect the circumstances of two tumultuous periods in the artists’ lives.

in early 2021, the san francisco art institute considered selling diego rivera’s the making of a fresco, 1931
In early 2021, the San Francisco Art Institute considered selling Diego Rivera’s “The Making of a Fresco” (1931). The city responded by designating it a landmark and preventing its removal.
CHRIS HARDY

POLITICS OF ART

In November 1930, Rivera and Kahlo took the train from Mexico City to San Francisco so he could begin work on two commissions, one for the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and the other for the Pacific Stock Exchange Lunch Club (now the City Club of San Francisco). Kahlo had dreamed for years about going to San Francisco, which she called “the City of the World.” But their visit got off to an inauspicious start. The city’s artists were up in arms over the fact that a foreigner, and a Communist to boot, had been commissioned to decorate the new stock exchange building. As prominent painter Maynard Dixon told the San Francisco Examiner, “The whole art world could not provide a less appropriate man that this committee has chosen.… He is perhaps the greatest living artist.… But he’s not the man for the Stock Exchange job.”

The kerfuffle, and Rivera’s flamboyant reputation, made irresistible copy, and the city’s newspapers dispatched reporters to meet the couple when they arrived at Mills Field (now the San Francisco International Airport). The press found the “jovial, big joweled” Rivera to be charming and sophisticated, an “hombre muy agradable,” and were equally captivated by his 23-year-old wife, two decades his junior. Rivera “brought with him a contradistinct living picture, the charming, slim-waisted, high-heeled, nugget-beaded senorita who is his wife, Mrs. Frieda Kahlo Rivera, herself a portrait artist of ability,” enthused the San Francisco Chronicle.

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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The papers also sided with Rivera in the controversy over his Communism. The Chronicle wrote, “It is not the artist’s political opinions or what he thinks about the best way to catch fish, but the murals he produces.” Even the stridently anti-Communist Examiner supported Rivera. “The Stock Exchange Luncheon Club…has proved that it is not provincial-minded. The club is acting in the true San Francisco tradition, which has been cosmopolitan from the start in esthetic matters,” the paper editorialized.

For his part, Rivera treated the charge that he was a Communist as a big joke. He told the Examiner with a laugh, “The Soviet government thinks I’m a tool of the capitalists, and the capitalists think I’m a bomb-throwing Bolshevik. They’re both wrong. I’m neither. I’m an artist!”

Rivera was a notorious fabulist, and he was not telling the whole truth about his political convictions. In fact, he was deeply committed to Communism. As Patrick Marnham notes in Dreaming with His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera, the artist’s expulsion from the Mexican Communist Party a year earlier had led to a nervous breakdown. During a town hall in 1933, Rivera revealed that after he was expelled from the party, “one thing was left for me: to prove that my theory [of revolutionary art] would be accepted in an industrial nation where capitalists rule.… I had to come [to the United States] as a spy, in disguise.” But Rivera was also telling the truth when he talked to the Examiner, even if he himself was not fully aware of it. For at bottom, he was far more of an artist than a Communist.

The furor against him turned out to be a tempest in a teapot. The local artists soon abandoned their opposition, and San Franciscans embraced the hulking artist and his diminutive wife. (Rivera was over six feet tall and at the time weighed 300 pounds; Kahlo was five foot three and weighed 98 pounds.) As Rivera’s first biographer, Bertram D. Wolfe, wrote in The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, “Diego and Frida were feted, lionized, spoiled. The city…found him thoroughly fascinating and her altogether charming.” At one gathering, the San Francisco Call Bulletin reported, the crowd consisted of “nearly everyone in San Francisco who has written a book or a poem, cornered the stock market, painted a picture, sung a song, represented his country as consul, crossed a desert on a camel, edited a magazine, or trod the boards.”

diego rivera’s the allegory of california, 1930 and 1931, one of his three frescoes in san francisco, at the city club
Rivera’s “The Allegory of California” (1930–31), one of his three frescoes in San Francisco, at the City Club.
CHRIS HARDY

San Francisco was enraptured by Kahlo, who had taken to wearing Indigenous clothing. Photographer Edward Weston wrote that she looked like “a little doll alongside Diego, but a doll in size only, for she is strong and quite beautiful.… Dressed in native costume even to huaraches, she causes much excitement on the streets of San Francisco.”

The apparently happy couple settled into quarters at sculptor Ralph Stackpole’s studio. Rivera started research for his mural, a celebration of the state’s bountifulness. At a reception, he met tennis champion Helen Wills, known as Little Miss Poker Face for her unflappable demeanor on the court, and he asked the beautiful athlete to be the model for his work’s central figure of abundance. Although the 25-year-old Wills had been married for less than a year, she began a relationship with the 43-year-old artist, whose extramarital affairs were incessant.

Kahlo was not enjoying herself as much. Like Rivera, she was an ardent Communist, but she had a harder time accepting “Gringolandia”—the capitalist society in which she found herself. “I don’t particularly like the gringo people,” she wrote to a friend. “They are boring and they all have faces like unbaked rolls (especially the old women).”

Still, Kahlo fell in love with San Francisco even as Rivera disappeared for days, sketching or enjoying Wills’s company. At such times, writes Hayden Herrera in her biography Frida, Kahlo would explore the city on her own, riding the cable cars over the hills. “The city and bay are overwhelming,” she wrote to a friend. “What is especially fantastic is Chinatown.… I have seen an enormous number of new and beautiful things.”

Kahlo was also carving out an independent love life. Marnham writes that it was in San Francisco that Kahlo “first established an area of personal autonomy in her marriage.” She may have begun sleeping with Cristina Casati Hastings, who was married to one of Rivera’s assistants, and with Nickolas Muray, a dashing Hungarian photographer with whom she would have a long and passionate relationship. But unlike Rivera, who made little attempt to hide his numerous affairs, Kahlo kept her infidelities secret.

Rivera, a nearly inexhaustible worker who sometimes fell asleep on the scaffold, had finished The Allegory of California by mid-February 1931. The 30-foot-tall fresco is topped by a female figure with a benign visage based on Wills. She holds a cornucopia of California fruits and vegetables in one massive hand and is surrounded by depictions of the state’s agriculture, industry, and working men and women. On the ceiling is a full-length flying nude, also modeled on Wills. The fears that Rivera the Red would bite the hand that fed him proved groundless: the mural was not even slightly critical of capitalism.

After a six-week break, Rivera started work on his second commission, for the California School of Fine Arts. He completed the mural, The Making of a Fresco, on May 31, in just one month. Ingeniously self-referential, the fresco conflates Rivera’s creation of it with the construction of a city. Rivera drew himself sitting on a scaffold, his substantial derrière hanging over the board, and looking at the mural’s central figure, a gigantic worker holding controls in each of his hands.

Like The Allegory of California, The Making of a Fresco was warmly received. There were a few anti-Rivera holdouts, one of whom asserted in a letter to Seattle’s Town Crier that the artist’s depiction of his “fat rear (very realistically painted)” was “a direct insult” to the city. But this literal rump faction was no more than that. When Rivera and Kahlo departed for Mexico on June 4, 1931, they had won the city’s heart. The couple would not return to San Francisco until nine years later.

diego rivera’s mural pan american unity, 1940, painted during the couple’s second visit to san francisco
Rivera’s mural “Pan American Unity” (1940), painted during the couple’s second visit to San Francisco.
CHRIS HARDY

ARTISTS IN ACTION

On June 5, 1940, Rivera landed at Mills Field. With only the clothes on his back, he had fled a safe house in Mexico where he had been hiding for more than a week. A longtime friend, architect Timothy L. Pflueger, had pulled strings with the U.S. consul to covertly fly him to the States.

Rivera had been in his Mexico City studio with Irene de Bohus, a young Hungarian painter with whom he was having an affair, when actress Paulette Goddard, with whom he was also having an affair, called to warn him that a platoon of policemen had surrounded his workspace. While de Bohus snuck outside, the terrified Rivera turned on the lights in his studio to lure police there, then escaped into de Bohus’s waiting car.

Rivera had good reason to be fearful. A few days earlier, a team of 20 Stalinist assassins had managed to get inside the heavily guarded house where Rivera’s former close friend and political mentor, the exiled Russian Communist Leon Trotsky, was living. They opened fire on Trotsky’s bedroom with machine guns. Trotsky and his wife survived by hiding under the bed. The gunfire would have been clearly audible from Rivera’s house, just a few hundred yards away.

Although the artist had recently had a public falling-out with Trotsky, the Stalinists who had tried to murder Trotsky also hated Rivera. He had been listed as an enemy of the Mexican Communist Party, which had denounced him at its 1940 congress as a traitor who warranted “punitive action.” Meanwhile, the Mexican police suspected him of plotting against Trotsky.

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Fortunately for Rivera, just six weeks before the Trotsky assassination attempt, Pflueger had commissioned the artist to paint a large mural for the San Francisco world’s fair, the Golden Gate International Exposition, on Treasure Island. To attract visitors, Pflueger came up with the idea of a live studio exhibition, Art in Action, where the public could watch artists at work. The world-famous Rivera, standing on a scaffold creating one of his celebrated frescoes, would be the star attraction.

After buying some clothes and taking an apartment—where he was soon joined by de Bohus—Rivera started working on Pan American Unity in June. The next month, a Stalinist assassin smashed a mountaineer’s ice axe into Trotsky’s brain in Mexico City. After the murder, an armed guard was stationed at the bottom of the scaffold in the Art in Action exhibition. But it wasn’t necessary. Rivera’s stay in San Francisco was uneventful, except insofar as his hectic love life (he flew at least once to Los Angeles to see Goddard while living with de Bohus) provided juicy fodder for gossip columnist Herb Caen.

frida kahlo’s frieda and diego rivera,1931, painted during the couple’s first trip to san francisco
Frida Kahlo’s “Frieda and Diego Rivera” (1931), painted during the couple’s first trip to San Francisco.
© 2022 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Meanwhile, Kahlo was at a nadir in her life. She and Rivera had divorced a year earlier, Nickolas Muray had ended their long affair, and her health was terrible. The Mexican police suspected her of complicity in Trotsky’s murder and had roughly questioned her. At this distressing moment, a close friend from her earlier trip to San Francisco, Dr. Leo Eloesser, urged her to fly to the city, accept Rivera’s infidelities, and remarry him. Kahlo took Eloesser’s advice.

In early September, she arrived in San Francisco, where Eloesser checked her into a hospital. To cheer her up, Rivera introduced her to a handsome young refugee from Nazi Germany, Heinz Berggruen, with whom she began an affair in her hospital room. Berggruen, later to become an eminent art dealer and collector, was unceremoniously abandoned when Kahlo and Rivera retied their extremely unorthodox knot a few months later at City Hall.

Several of the characters and events from this tempestuous period in Rivera and Kahlo’s lives are depicted in Pan American Unity, the last fresco Rivera painted in the United States. As its title suggests, the work is a celebration of the cultural heritage and achievements of Mexico and the United States. But to those familiar with Rivera and Kahlo’s biographies, it tells more personal stories. At the bottom center of the 22-by-74-foot fresco, Rivera painted himself holding hands with Goddard, who stares soulfully into his eyes as she holds a tree of life and love. Kahlo, in Tehuana battle dress, stands nearby, looking fiercely the other way, as if embracing the pain-filled destiny that would lead her to become one of the most acclaimed artists of the 20th century, her fame eclipsing even her husband’s.

The most intriguing section of the mural, however, is the panel that bears on Trotsky’s assassination. A revelation in Marnham’s biography offers an intriguing perspective on it—both what Rivera depicts in it and what he does not. Rivera portrays Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini as an oddly zany trio of evil tyrants. The sinister Stalin holds a dagger and a bloody ice axe, the latter a reference to the murder of Trotsky. However, the recently martyred victim of Stalin—Trotsky himself—is not shown. This is noteworthy. Rivera had been friends with Trotsky, and it was Rivera who had arranged for Trotsky, who was being hunted by Stalin’s hit men, to be given safe haven at his own home. Further, Rivera embraced Trotsky’s brand of Communism.

According to Rivera, the panel was meant to celebrate the cinema as North America’s great modern art form; Charlie Chaplin appears no fewer than four times. (This was an inside joke of Rivera’s: Chaplin was married to Goddard.) Seen this way, it may make sense that the evil figures are buffoonish caricatures.

But another fact casts the panel, and Rivera himself, in a more complicated light. Soon after Trotsky took shelter in Rivera and Kahlo’s home, the 29-year-old Kahlo began having an affair with the smitten 57-year-old Communist. For her, taking Trotsky as a lover was, in part, payback for an affair Rivera had had with her sister. Yet Kahlo didn’t take the relationship seriously and ended it after a few months.

Her affair with Trotsky is well-known. What happened next, however, is not. In the fall of 1938, Rivera had an inexplicably violent quarrel with Trotsky. It escalated to the point that Trotsky moved out of Rivera and Kahlo’s home and into a nearby house, the one where he was assassinated.

Rivera claimed they had fallen out over politics, but that was a lie. The truth, revealed by Marnham, is that Rivera broke with his friend because he had learned about the affair with Kahlo. Rivera tolerated his wife’s same-sex liaisons, but he was ferociously jealous of her male sexual partners.

Rivera was far from displeased to learn that Trotsky had been killed. A reporter who asked him about the assassination wrote that Rivera “smiled valiantly, tried not to laugh, and then went quietly to sleep.” As Marnham writes, “Rivera was relishing the consequences of the quarrel he had initiated.… The man who had so recently been his mentor was, quite simply, painted out of the picture.” It can be argued that by ejecting Trotsky from his home, where the exiled Communist had enjoyed quasi-official protection, Rivera played an indirect part in his murder.

In February 1941, Rivera flew back to Mexico City, where Kahlo had already returned for Christmas a few months before. Neither of them ever expressed any regret for what had happened to Trotsky. And they never returned to the United States. They left behind a trio of treasured frescoes—and an indelible record of their turbulent and passionate lives.•

Correction: A previous version of this story contained several misstatements, including an editing error that misgendered Hayden Herrera. All have been corrected.