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The art of work: Diego Rivera

Some parting thoughts of Labor Day

Some parting thoughts of Labor Day

By Porter Anderson
CNN Career

(CNN) -- "What we've learned of this man is that he was extraordinarily complex, brilliant," says Julia Bergman, Diego Rivera archivist with City College of San Francisco. "And in the 'Pan American Unity' mural, he painted a hymn to the working man."

Labor Day arrived this year at a time when many workers are in trouble. Since January 1, more than 1 million layoffs have been reported in the United States alone. The International Labor Organization estimates that some 160 million workers are unemployed worldwide.

Surveys now reveal that many who haven't been laid off in the past year are working in fear that they'll be next. Corporate restructuring has required many employees to take on additional duties and perform extensive multitasking to try to bear the load, often without a penny of additional compensation. The Stateside economic malaise has ravaged many laborers' 401(k) programs.

But then, there's this remarkable Rivera work.

graphic A serious question for Labor Day: How frequently do you feel some sense of the nobility of your work -- a feeling akin to that which inspired Diego Rivera to depict laborers as he did?

Daily. I'm in touch with this sense about my work.
Off and on. Not as frequently as I'd like.
Never. I don't think it's part of much modern work life.
View Results

As Will Maynez, one of Bergman's colleagues, writes in some commentary inspired by the Rivera piece, "Art must have been among man's earlier labors" -- the career muralist deployed his efforts in tribute to his fellow laborers.

"Look at this mural," says Bergman, a woman whose passion for her charge to protect and interpret the piece makes her run and rush as she talks of what she's seeing. Her talk about the work echoes Maynez's descriptive monograph.

"It's replete with the fruits of men's and women's labor: breathtaking pyramids, bridges, a dam and even an island. Indigenous Mexican artists are seen here creating works of utility and beauty. Art is shown being reconciled with technology. Workers mine, fell trees, embroider and farm. A female and male architect confer as an ironworker looks on."

Bergman and Maynez are precisely on-target when they describe the centricity of these images to the work. "My mural," Rivera himself said, "will picture the fusion between the great past of the Latin American lands, as it is deeply rooted in the soil, and the high mechanical developments of the United States."

This was a dream for the artist, a vision of "Pan American" potential for a "Unity" manifested -- in icons of labor. So immediate to this man's view of the world was the workday, the tools of our trades, the quiet and yet spectacular grace of laborers that work became one of the trademark idioms of his aesthetic conversation with us.

The City College of San Francisco and its Diego Rivera archivist, Julia Bergman, have provided us with a special full-width image of the "Pan Amercian Unity" mural. If you click here,   you can scroll at your own pace through it and look for some of its many features and comments, not only on work but also on society, art, sports, politics and love.

The "Pan American Unity" mural was painted in San Francisco as part of the "Art in Action" project of the 1939-'40 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. The great Mexican artist -- credited with reviving in modern times the Italian Renaissance tradition of al fresco murals (he studied in Italy to learn the technique) -- couldn't finish the "Pan American" until three months after the exposition closed.

A short public viewing gave 30,000 lucky people a glimpse of its splendor. And then World War II (the halt of non-essential construction), controversy over Rivera's turbulent alliances with the Mexican communists and the sheer size of the work -- 1,800 square feet -- kept it out of sight until 1961, four years after Rivera's death.

The campus theater lobby in which the mural was installed at that time is surely the best home for the work so far. But as Bergman explains, the building designed to house this massive statement by one of the world's most forceful artist-commentators was never built.

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  • There are hopes today. She tells us of a new solution, a more fitting setting at City College, a venue great enough in its own right to support the intensity, scope and eloquent density of this monumental work.

    "As it's turned out, this is an obscure location on campus. What we need is a real auditorium for this college. We have a place for it, we're going before the voters this fall to get a bond measure to get the money for it. We'll relocate our theater arts department in a new building, tear down the theater the mural is in now -- preserving the wall it's on, of course -- and build a the right kind of building around it to showcase it the right way."

    The "Pan American" is in superb condition and measures 22 feet tall, 75 feet wide. Only 12 Rivera murals are extant, just five in the States, the other seven in Mexico.

    "The settling of the West, miners, a logger cutting a redwood, a tractor driver," Bergman moves from worker to worker, "an auto assembly line in Detroit, a V-6 engine in front of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, gold pans, tin snips, drills, paint brushes, a hose for hydraulic mining, a sailor, goldsmiths, potters, tinsmiths, weavers, basket makers, a ship's figurehead sculptor, politicians good and bad -- Simon Bolivar, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Rivera was frantic about what the Nazis were doing, scandalized that the United States hadn't stepped in. Look and you'll see a fist coming out of the American flag and grabbing the arm of fascism.

    Julia Bergman, City College of San Francisco's Diego Rivera archivist, stands in front of the mural's image of Rivera's artist-wife Frida Kahlo.
    Julia Bergman, City College of San Francisco's Diego Rivera archivist, stands in front of the mural's image of Rivera's artist-wife Frida Kahlo.  

    "Here, you see Science," she's on to another portion of the work. "Here's the imposing figure of an Aztec king, a judge, an inventor with a flying machine in his hand, see it?"

    You can see it, too. We hope you'll take time here to click on our full-mural display -- it'll pop up a box that allows you go scroll the entire width of the "Pan American Unity."

    What Bergman has the privilege of doing each day in her career -- spent so near this work -- is feeling the artist's belief in the nobility of work. It's something we can forget too easily this Labor Day, amid mergers and acquisitions, downsizing and market sputters.

    "Rivera shows us himself working at making images on walls," Bergman reminds us. He wanted to join his people of effort, to be one of them -- and us -- bringing his mastery to bear on their, and our, endeavors.

    Diego Rivera gave us the worker as a person made noble simply through the integrity of her or his labor. Here's to all of us in the world's work force.

    We hope that Labor Day 2001 has opened a meaningful, satisfying and prosperous year in your career.


    • Diego Rivera's "Pan American Unity" mural at City College of San Francisco
    • City College of San Francisco

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