Daughters Back An Artful End To The Rivera-Rockefeller Rivalry Story

Feb 24, 2015
Originally published on February 24, 2015 6:48 am

It's been called one of the great rivalries of the art world — a clash between egos, riches and ideologies. In the spring of 1932, capitalist (and prolific collector of Mexican art) Nelson Rockefeller hired Mexican painter and staunch socialist Diego Rivera to paint a mural for the lobby of the newly erected Rockefeller Center in New York City. Sketches were drawn and approved, but when reporters leaked that Rivera had added an image of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, a battle began.

In the end, the painting was destroyed, ideological differences hardened and the two families lived with a legacy of animosity. But now the daughters of the two men have teamed up to leave the past behind and preserve not only their fathers' legacies, but the art they both loved. Guadalupe Rivera Marin, 90, and Ann Rockefeller, 80, aim to raise $3 million each to build individual galleries in their fathers' names at the Mexican Museum, set to break ground at a new and bigger site this year in San Francisco.

In the dining room of her Mexico City home, Rivera Marin recounts meeting Ann Rockefeller in the 1980s. She says the two took an immediate liking to each other. They had much in common — after all, they were both daughters of famous fathers. During that meeting, Ann Rockefeller told Rivera Marin that as a young girl she didn't want the family name — she wanted to make it on her own.

"In that sense," Rivera Marin says, "I was exactly, more or less, the same, you know? I never [wanted] to be the daughter of Diego Rivera, and I always [wanted] to be myself and to have my own life."

Rockefeller says she never harbored ill feelings toward Rivera Marin. "Between us there were no wounds."

Andrew Kluger, chairman of the museum's board, calls the collaboration a "peace-making motion." "They just decided, 'Let's put it aside,'" he says. "'That's the old men; this is us.'"

According to Ann Rockefeller, the breakdown between the men was political: The mural was just too radical for her father, and especially for her grandfather, John D. Rockefeller. She says, "They saw it as a terrible, unjust and outrageous attack on what they understood to be their own morals and ways."

Not only did it depict Lenin, but there was also a scene of a wealthy man drinking and cavorting with women. (John D. Rockefeller supported Prohibition.)

For Rivera, the fight over the mural and its destruction was devastating. According to Rivera Marin, her father was never the same. "[It] was [a] terrible moment," she says. "There are photos in which you can see he is destroyed — completely destroyed."

Rivera did get a chance to repaint the mural in Mexico City's Palacio de Bellas Artes — this time with funding from the Mexican government and no censorship. Years later, he and Nelson Rockefeller even became friends again.

And before Rivera died in 1957, Rivera Marin also got a chance to repair her relationship with her father, which was strained for many years over political differences. Rivera told her he was proud of her accomplishments. "That was a great satisfaction for me," Rivera Marin says.

Now she works to preserve her father's work and legacy, and so does Ann Rockefeller, who donated her father's vast collection of Mexican art to the Mexican Museum. Her contribution now makes up the bulk of the museum's collection.

The Rockefeller and Rivera galleries are expected to open when the Mexican Museum debuts at its new location in 2018.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's been called one of the great rivalries of the art world - a clash of egos, riches and ideologies.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In one corner was capitalist Nelson Rockefeller, in the other, Mexican painter Diego Rivera, who's a little bit at the left - (whispering) a Socialist. The fight was over a mural Rivera was painting for the newly built Rockefeller Center in New York City.

MONTAGNE: In the end, the mural was destroyed and the men never settled their differences. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico City, daughters of the two men have teamed up to leave the past behind and preserve their father's legacies and the art both men loved.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It was the spring of 1932. Nelson Rockefeller, 23 at the time, was already a prolific collector of Mexican art. He hired Diego Rivera, some 20 years his senior, to paint a mural for the lobby of the new building bearing his family's name. Sketches were drawn and approved. It was to be a 63-foot mural of the worker at the crossroads of industry, science and the competing political ideologies of the time - capitalism and communism. When reporters leaked that Rivera had added the image of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, the battle began, one that's been recounted in numerous books and in the 1999 movie "Cradle Will Rock," starring Ruben Blades as Diego Rivera and John Cusack as Nelson Rockefeller.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRADLE WILL ROCK")

JOHN CUSACK: (As Nelson Rockefeller) You understand that it is entirely inappropriate to feature a communist leader in the lobby of a Rockefeller building?

RUBEN BLADES: (As Diego Rivera) No. I believe nothing in art is inappropriate. I paint what I see.

CUSACK: (As Nelson Rockefeller) We're going to have to insist that the face be removed.

BLADES: (As Diego Rivera) Absolutely not.

KAHN: Neither man capitulated. Rivera was paid in full and given his marching orders. The unfinished mural was later destroyed. The two men were at odds for years. But for their daughters, the family rivalry is a thing of the past. As Guadalupe Rivera Marin, now 90, recalls in the dining room of her Mexico City home, she met Ann Rockefeller in the 1980s and the two took an immediate liking to each other. They had much in common - after all, they were both daughters of famous fathers. And Guadalupe says Ann confided in her that, as a young girl, she didn't want the family name. She wanted to make it on her own.

GUADALUPE RIVERA MARIN: In that sense, I was exactly more or less the same, you know? I never want to be the daughter of Diego Rivera, and I always want to be myself and to have my own life.

KAHN: Now 80, Ann says she never harbored ill feelings toward Guadeloupe.

ANN ROCKEFELLER: Between us there were no wounds.

KAHN: The two are now teaming up to raise $3 million each to build individual galleries in their fathers' names at the Mexican Museum, set to break ground at a new and bigger site this year in San Francisco.

ANDREW KLUGER: This is a peacemaking motion.

KAHN: Andrew Kluger is the chairman of the board of the museum.

KLUGER: They just decided let's put it aside. That's the old men, this is us.

KAHN: Ann Rockefeller says the breakdown between the men was political. She says the mural was just too radical for her father, and especially her grandfather, John D. Rockefeller.

ROCKEFELLER: They saw it as a terrible, unjust and outrageous attack on what they understood to be their own morals and ways.

KAHN: Not only was there Lenin, there was also a scene of a wealthy man drinking and cavorting with women. Rockefeller Senior was a prohibition supporter. For Diego Rivera, the fight over the mural and its destruction was devastating. Guadalupe says once back in Mexico, her father was never the same.

RIVERA MARIN: Was terrible moment. There are photos in which you can see he is destroyed, completely destroyed.

KAHN: Diego Rivera did get a chance to repaint the mural in Mexico City's Fine Arts Museum, this time with funding from the Mexican government and no censorship. Years later, he and Nelson Rockefeller even became friends once again. Guadalupe says before Diego died in 1957, they too repaired their relationship, strained for so many years over political differences. Diego told her he was proud of her accomplishments.

RIVERA MARIN: That was a great satisfaction for me, you know? Finally, (laughter) finally.

KAHN: She now works to preserve her father's work and legacy. And so does Ann Rockefeller. She's donated her father's vast collection of Mexican art, which makes up the bulk of the San Francisco Museum's collection. And she says the fundraising project lets her spend time with Guadalupe once again.

ROCKEFELLER: So she and I get to hang out together again (laughter).

KAHN: The Rockefeller and Rivera galleries are expected to open when the Mexican Museum debuts at its new location in 2018. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.