Diego Rivera’s epic 1940 mural “Pan American Unity” has been installed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and visitors can see it for free.
Presented in SFMOMA’s street-level Roberts Family Gallery, the mural, officially titled “The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent,” is on loan from city College of San Francisco, where it had been on view since 1961.
Panels of the fragile artwork were recently transported carefully to the museum (at 4 a.m. on several Sunday mornings at the speed of five miles per hour).
Measuring 22 by 74 feet and weighing more than 60,000 pounds, the monumental work of public art was painted by Rivera as part of the “Art in Action” project at the Golden Gate International Exposition, on San Francisco’s Treasure Island.
Rivera participated at the invitation of architect Timothy Pflueger. Expo attendees were able to watch the Mexican artist and his assistants as they created the fresco (the long-established art form involves painting on wet plaster). But rather than paint onto a wall, Rivera made a portable artwork consisting of movable steel-framed panels.
The theme of the mural is the achievement of unity between South and North by combining the traditional arts of Mexico with the modern mechanics and technologies of the United States.
Rivera envisioned a thriving collaborative relationship between the two places in the Western Hemisphere at a time when Europe was mired in Nazism, fascism and war.
The painting’s 10 panels — four are stand-alone scenes and the rest are narratives that flow across panel boundaries — suggest a journey through time, rendered in Rivera’s familiar style, which reflects European and Mexican influences and includes nods to surrealism.
The panels on the left feature scenes of ancient and pre-Renaissance indigenous activity: metalworking, dancing, music making and the deity Quetzalcoatl teaching the council of leaders. Volcanoes and temples occupy the background.
A Bay Area panorama, at the top of the mural, contains bridges, ships, aqua waters and Alcatraz and Treasure islands.
At the center is commanding imagery in which Rivera merges pre-colonial Mesoamerica with the modern-era United States by fusing the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue with a large sophisticated machine.
Nearby and elsewhere, Rivera has painted dozens of historical and contemporary figures. There are U.S. presidents, Latin American revolutionaries and dictators Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin (Rivera, a communist, had soured on the Soviet leader).
We also meet actors who starred in anti-fascist movies, including Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson. (Rivera likened films to murals in their ability to deliver social messages.)
Panels on the right highlight industry and innovation and include inventors, such as Thomas Edison and Samuel Morse, appearing with their claims to fame.
Further scrutinizing of the picture (there’s lots to examine!) reveals the presence of architects, scientists, athletes (diver Helen Crlenkovich, appearing to be aiming stratospherically high, captivates), and artists. The latter include Rivera himself and fellow Mexican artist (and Rivera’s wife) Frida Kahlo. The couple’s dog, an Aztec breed, is on another panel.
Following its stay at SFMOMA, “Pan American Unity’ in 2023 will return to City College, where it will be displayed in the new campus performing-arts center.
SFMOMA is hosting special programs in conjunction with the mural presentation. Museumgoers also can look forward to SFMOMA’s upcoming “Diego Rivera’s America,” an exhibition opening next year.
IF YOU GO
Pan American Unity
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.; Roberts Family Gallery entrance off Howard Street
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays-Sundays; 1 to 8 p.m. Thursdays; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays; closes 2023
Contact: (415) 357-4000, sfmoma.org