Virginia Tieman

City College’s Diego Rivera Mural

In Artist, Public, Purpose on December 4, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Today I sat down with Karina Lopez, a student docent for the mural titled Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent, and picked her brain about the facts surrounding the mural painted by Diego Rivera.

*Sections with a star before text denote information later added. William Maynez, who has done research on the mural for 15 years, took the liberty to clarify some information.

When did Rivera paint the mural and how long did it take?

He painted this mural in 1940 and it took him four months.

What was the main message he was trying to send and why did he do it for the setting of a college?

It represents the unity between Latin America and the United States; he tried to portray that throughout the mural. He painted it at Treasure Island for the Golden Gate International Exposition and it was an exposition where different artists were being featured. It actually took 21 years for the mural to come to City College of San Francisco.

Can you go into further detail about why it took so long for the move?

That is actually the interesting part. That guy in the brown suit (points to part of the mural) his name is Timothy Pflueger and he commissioned Rivera to do the mural for us. He was also the architect for our science building so he had connections with our campus. And, as you notice from the mural right there (points to Pflueger again) he is holding blueprints in his hand — he was supposed to be the architect for the CCSF Library where the mural would be moved but he ended up dying in 1946. So he didn’t complete it. Also, back in the 1940s our college was smaller than it is right now and the college had no idea were to put this jumbo sized mural. So it wasn’t until 1961 were his younger brother Milton came in and built this theater for us. (Referring to the Diego Rivera Theater). That is when the mural ended up being with us.

*The mural arrived to CCSF from Treasure Island in June 1942. It was in storage for about 18 years on campus until it was erected. (So for all but 1-1/2 years of the mural’s existence, it’s been on our campus.) The original site for the mural, the grand library was not built because of the scarcity of materials during WWII. (The library that eventually got built in Cloud Hall was more modest and could not accommodate the mural.) After Timothy’s death, his brother Milton Pflueger, became the school architect and it was his idea to bow out the theater’s lobby wall that finally allowed the mural to be installed. The up side was that the mural was on display. The downside was that the viewing distance was lacking by about 60 feet.

Rivera was fully aware of his intentions to move the mural to CCSF?

O yeah, for example, notice the ram right there? (Pointing to the high middle of the mural). That’s actually the CCSF mascot. And the swimming leaping from both sides she is a CCSF alumni.

What are some of the prominent messages in the mural?

The mural as you know was done in 1940. So here is Rivera putting his political views with the big strong American hand crushing the Nazi hand. 

He also puts a V shape which represents a mason symbol which he does throughout his mural just like the ones he has done in Mexico.

Did Rivera have any help completing this mural?

O, yes. One of the people who actually helps with the mural is painted in it with a red sweater. She is actually the main assistant on this mural. And after Diego and Frida (Diego’s wife) left, she took notes about what food they ate and what music they were listening to but she did not published any of her notes. So we really don’t even know what she was writing about. (Lopez chuckles)

* Diego’s primary assistant Emmy Lou Packard (ELP), who had met Rivera in Mexico when she was 13, went and stayed with Diego and Frida for 10 months in 1941 after the mural was finished. She took notes about her stay there. A famous photo of Diego and Frida in their kitchen was taken by ELP in 1941. Well known photos of Frida and ELP are the only documented pictures taken by Diego (with ELP’s camera.)(Of the myriad assistants, she is one of only three who actually got to
paint on the mural.)

Tomorrow I’m having lunch with our good friend Donald Cairns, ELP’s son, and the little boy in the lower center of the mural by Diego and Paulette Goddard. Many years ago he gave us access to all of ELP’s notes (compiled over decades) and we very well know what she wrote about and have copies in our CCSF Rivera Archives. Half of the originals are in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art and the other half may soon possibly be donated to the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. These notes
and the extensive Pflueger notes we have give us a compelling picture of the whole process of doing the mural project. Our archives are used by scholars from all over the world.

Did Rivera want his work viewed as a whole or in sections?

You can actually take each panel off and it’s not just one big piece. I’m not sure because the thing about him is that when Rivera finished his exposition in Treasure Island he left and I believe he died before this mural was actually put right here. So he never stepped foot right in this building or saw his mural featured right here.

* The fresco mural (painted on wet plaster) was meant to be seen as a whole and is actually only 1/3 of what was planned. It was built on robust steel framed panels because it was always intended to be transported from Treasure Island to CCSF. The upper panels weigh almost three tons. Their size was determined by the ability to transport them across the Bay Bridge in a vertical orientation. Together their dimensions are a mathematical metaphor for the GG Bridge.

Why did Pflueger wants to commission Rivera to do this mural?

He was a huge, huge supporter and fan of him. Also, if you supported Rivera he would most likely put you in the mural. He is in two spots of this mural. Notice the red building in Treasure Island, that is connected to Pflueger and this building right here, which is at 450 Sutter St., Pflueger was the architect.

* Pflueger was not in the original drawing and was added belatedly in the mural. As head of the Art In Action program at the GGIE, he was able to gather pieces from the program (Ram, DaVinci bust, Volz mosaic murals) to adorn the Science Building, which in 1940 comprised the whole school. He had previously worked with Rivera in 1931 on the Pacific Stock Exchange project. Rivera’s “Allegory of California” mural resides in what is now the private City Club, the old stock exchange dining room.

Do you think that is a theme with frescos? Putting your friends and family in your work?

I think it could be. Rivera put his friends and families.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yeah. This is an interesting part. So, basically here is Frida, which is his third wife by the way. They actually got divorced because Rivera cheated on Frida with her sister. But they got married here in San Francisco for a second time on Dec. 8 which happens to be Diego Rivera’s birthday. And it has been rumored that the earrings she has on were a gift from Pablo Picasso.

* (This is documented and the earrings have recently surfaced at the Casa Azul Museum, Frida’s home.)

One last thing?

I can talk about the mistakes in the mural. So, you know how it was done as a fresco, fresco is this paste that dries really fast, you see this bumping part right here? That part is not supposed to be bumpy it’s supposed to be smooth. And you can see this little line below this girl’s skirt, Rivera kept changing his mind. And right above us, notice *Otto Deichmann’s foot, you can see it kind of overlapping with the women’s foot. Rivera didn’t chip away at it because he didn’t have the time and had to work past. He also signed the murals three times. He signs it on the side, in a letter, and on a pocketbook. It’s super tiny on the pocketbook and most people won’t see it.


From there I had the opportunity to speak with William Maynez on the phone, the Curator for the mural, and he shared with me some additional information.

The mural’s nickname is Pan American Unity and the college plans on moving the mural to a better location for the viewing eye.

“The mural is 60 feet short of being in the optimum place for viewing,” said Maynez.

He said they plan on creating a space next to the new Performing Arts Center that will be built along Phelan Ave.

I regret not having the opportunity to speak with Maynez for a longer period and urge my readers to seek out the mural and enjoy the information there for the benefit of learning. Click here to go to the mural’s website.

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