Diego Rivera, a prominent Mexican painter and giant of 20th century art, was commissioned by the Rockefellers to create a monumental fresco for the lobby of the newly-built RCA building, the largest structure of Rockefeller Center. The mural was to be titled, laconically, “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.”
Nelson Rockefeller, a son of John Rockefeller Jr., was in charge of hiring artists for the Rockefeller complex. The Rockefellers were known art collectors, with Abby Rockefeller, Nelson’s mother and John Rockefeller Jr.’s wife, founding MOMA, one of the largest and most influential museums of modern art in the world. The Rockefellers initially offered the commission to Matisse, who declined due to being busy with another project, and Picasso, who simply neglected to answer. Since Abby Rockefeller greatly admired Diego Rivera’s work and already had several of his pieces in her collection, the commission for the grandiose project was awarded to him.
Rivera proposed a composition illustrating many aspects of contemporary social and scientific life. A workman controlling machinery in the center of the composition would be flanked by scenes depicting capitalism and socialism. According to Rivera’s verbal description of the planned mural, the center panel would portray a person at the literal intersection of these two ideals (hence the “man at the crossroads”).
It was fair to assume that in a building created by the Rockefellers, the “man at the crossroads,” upon being presented with a choice between capitalism and socialism, would lean towards capitalism. Owing to Rivera’s strong political convictions, however, the mural clearly stated the opposite. On the forefront of the mural, four propeller-like shaped elongated ellipses represented the discoveries made possible by the telescope and the microscope. The right side of the composition was dedicated to the cheerful depictions of a bright communist reality while the left illustrated the pitfalls and depravity of capitalism. On the right Lenin solemnly held hands with representatives of all races, while on the left idle wealthy ladies played cards, gentlemen smoked and drank, and a couple danced most likely to the degenerate sounds of jazz. On the right, happy workers engaged in the orderly singing of communist songs. Organized in uniform rows, women in red headscarfs and men with their heads covered with black caps sang beautiful revolutionary songs while their brothers-in-arms marched in a May 1st demonstration. The people on the capitalist side, in contrast, engaged in all kinds of wickedness, with faceless, masked soldiers menacingly marching to war. While people on the capitalist side were subjected to police brutality, healthy young communist women engaged in organized, wholesome sporting activity. If that weren’t enough, the capitalist left side was of the mural was dominated by an angry Jupiter armed with a thunderbolt. The communist side featured a headless, seated statue of Caesar, which for some reason was supposed to represent the replacement of superstition with the scientific mastery of nature, and the overthrow of authoritarian rule by liberated workers.
Not surprisingly, Nelson Rockefeller was not thrilled and asked at least for Lenin to be removed. Diego Rivera, citing artistic integrity, plainly refused, offering to add Abraham Lincoln to the mural in lieu of a compromise. The negotiations which Rivera called “the battle of Rockefeller Center” failed to produce results. Diego Rivera was asked to stop all work and the mural, unacceptable to the Rockefellers, was destroyed.
The mural was preserved in a black-and-white photo which Rivera’s assistant took before its destruction. The artist re-painted the fresco on a smaller scale for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, where it was renamed Man, Controller of the Universe. The new version added figures of Leon Trotsky, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels holding on tightly to a red flag urging the workers of the world to unite. John D. Rockefeller Jr., a lifelong teetotaler who never consumed a drink in his entire life, was depicted drinking in a nightclub with a woman; a dish of syphilis bacteria is placed above their heads .
In the end, Jose Maria Sert was hired to create the 30 Rock lobby mural, titled American Progress. It depicts a vast allegorical scene of men constructing modern America, and contains figures of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other good guys happily building America’s bright capitalist future.