Diego Rivera completed Man at the Crossroads in 1934 although its original Spanish title was El Hombre Controlador del Universo. This mural was to become one of the artist's most famous and complex projects, making use of several highly detailed panels to complete the project.
This extraordinary artwork was deemed too politically divisive by its donor and, as a result, was left incomplete and later destroyed. Diego Rivera felt a great affinity for the piece and, as such, decided to reconstruct a second version in Mexico. He named that painting Man, Controller of the Universe and could now enjoy a fuller artistic control. Nelson Rockefeller had commissioned the painting and was content with the general theme of the piece but objected to the depiction of Lenin as well as a parade for the Soviet festival of May Day. For him to destroy it was extraordinary but in line with political sensibilities between capitalism and socialism at that time. Large murals such as this, particularly when multiple portraits are included, typically require considerable amounts of preparatory work.
Many photographs of these developmental stages existed and proved helpful in planning and executing the second version. The donor's original decision to choose Diego Rivera for the commission was due to the affection with which his mother had held the Mexican artist's work in as well as the difficulty in attracting his first two choices of Picasso and Matisse. Rivera's communist leanings were well known and not something he made any attempt to hide, so their decision to make use of his skills and then complain about the content of his work seems somewhat strange. Despite the US’s general disliking of Communism, the artist retains a great amount of popularity in the present day. There have been growing efforts to reflect a more diverse range of artists in recent years and this has helped to increase focus on the likes of Rivera, Kahlo and also Afro-Caribbean graffiti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. This selection were already highly regarded and so their inclusion was very easy to justify on artistic merit alone.
Man at the Crossroads featured an extraordinary level of detail. It is sadly impossible to quite appreciate this through a photograph of the painting online. With the mural having been controversially destroyed in 1934, we cannot see it in person, either. Thankfully, a wonderful reproduction of the original painting can be found in a recent publication titled, Diego Rivera - The Complete Murals. This huge book provides the best detail on his work that we have yet managed to find and is worth the high price that it commands. At the time of writing, copies are still available online from a variety of different sources. The book features an entire chapter on this mural alone, and also dissects the scene piece by piece. There are also a number of quotes from various individuals who were involved in this project, including the artist himself.
"...Those who engaged me for the work in Radio City were fully aware of my artistic trends and my sociopolitical opinions, the Detroit murals having evidenced my response to conditions in the United States. They were very insistent that I should accept the job, which I finally did on condition that I would have total freedom to paint as I saw fit. My interpretation of the subject and my sketches for the paintings were discussed and approved..."
The painting was intended to provide a clear contrast between communism and capitalism. At this stage in the US, this would be particularly controversial and several news outlets complained about the project and put pressure on its commissioners to abandon it completely. Rivera was rightly angered by this interference and chose to add further communist themes into the painting in response. It is unfortunate that any artist would struggle for their own freedom, and it is particularly surprising considering the consistent claims of western nations that these freedoms are entirely untouchable. That said, perhaps the Rockefeller family were entirely naive to think that this controversial, high profile concept could be completed without any criticism coming their way. They understandably would have had to carefully play politics with these complainants, but the decision to then destroy,the piece is particularly shocking and saddening.
The art world was angered by the treatment of Diego Rivera by these powerful figures and supported the artist’s decision to refuse to make any amendments to the piece, other than ones that he chose to make himself. He quickly took a number of black and white photographs of this complex mural in order to be able to refer back to in later years - he knew that its destruction was approaching and he was proved entirely correct. Those pictures then allowed him to construct the alternative version which he produced back in the safe surroundings of his native Mexico. He would continue to have a mixed relationship with elements of western society, inspired by some of the opportunities that it brought him, but also aware that his own beliefs were not entirely in line with the ruling powers of these nations.
The pressure put on the Rockefeller family had led to a public promise that although the mural would be covered and removed from display for an indefinite period, it would be protected. It was not that long before this promise was broken and the artwork was reduced to dust. Rivera was not naive and already had decided to produce a second version if this were to happen. He had a strong relationship with the Mexican government, and knew that he could at least trust them with his career development. After contacting them directly, they offered the location of the Palacio de Bellas Artes to him as a host to his planned follow up piece. They understood his frustrations with American capitalists and felt a desire to bring his extraordinary talents back to his home nation. Politically, it also showed strength of resolve against a foreign nation that had essentially humiliated their star artist purely on political grounds.
Dissecting the Composition of Man at the Crossroads
The central figure to this mural, both positionally and symbolically, is a steel worker who possesses extraordinary powers. He controls a time machine and is excited but also anxious about what the future might hold. Key achievements and concerns for humanity are symbolised in elements around him and the title of the piece essentially suggests that man itself is at a crossroads and that the right decision for our future needs to be made. Below the steel worker is an assortment of plants, that covers the full width of the main central panel. Above him in a series of machinery which serves to complete this idea of a time machine. The metal work continues into the background, partially obscured by a series of figures.
The top left and top right of the mural features two warring factions, with tightly compact groups of figures seemingly marching towards one another. They represent the battle between capitalism and communism in very literal terms. The bottom half of the mural is filled with supporters of these two groups, watching on intently. In viewing the detail found in this artwork, it must have been heartbreaking for the artist to learn of its demise, before we even consider the negative impact of this action on art history. Thankfully, there is plenty else to see and enjoy from this artist’s career and so this loss can be overcome, despite our collective tinge of sadness.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.