Published: December 25, 2014
The Mural (Diego Rivera)
The Making of a Fresco [Making a Fresco] Showing the Building of a City (1931) is one of four murals in the Bay Area painted by Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957). The gallery is open daily from 8am to 9pm free of charge, and is the venue for changing exhibitions of Art Institute students’ work.
Filling the entire end wall of the gallery, the fresco is visually divided into six sections by a trompe l’oeil wood scaffold. As the title indicates, there is a fresco within the fresco showing the building of a modern city, including portraits of many of the individuals who worked directly on the fresco or indirectly as advisors and patrons. In the upper left section English sculptor Clifford Wight is sharpening a chisel; sculptor Ralph Stackpole (in cap with goggles) works with a pneumatic tool on the head of a monumental stone figure; wearing the same blue pants, red shirt, and cap Wight appears again on Stackpole’s right, kneeling on the scaffold. On the scaffold below them a sculptor works with a chisel on the lower section of the stone figure while two men in overalls tend a small forge and the compressor for Stackpole’s tool.
At the center of the upper central panel is Rivera, who has painted himself sitting on the scaffold with his back to the viewer, holding a paintbrush and a palette. He watches his assistants working above him: Clifford Wight again, wearing corduroy pants and a white shirt, upper left, holding one end of a vertical chalk line, and, on the upper right, holding the end of another, diagonal chalk line, which passes directly behind Rivera’s head; and Mathew Barnes, the plasterer, to Rivera’s right—applying the wet plaster ground around the largest figure in the fresco, a worker operating the control levers of a machine. Below and to the left of Rivera, Wight appears again holding the other ends of the two chalk lines. On the scaffold below Rivera stand three men wearing suits and hats, looking at a large piece of paper (from left to right): architect Timothy Pfleuger, who designed the San Francisco Stock Exchange, the location of another Rivera mural; William Gerstle, president of the San Francisco Art Association, who commissioned The Making of a Fresco; and Arthur Brown, Jr., architect of the school’s new building, Coit Tower, City Hall, and many other San Francisco landmarks.
In the upper right panel a group of three workers in blue overalls guides a red steel girder into position. Two men are suspended from a cable in the distance, with an airplane passing close above them. Three men are at work in the middle distance astride the steel beams of a skyscraper. In the lower right panel architect and painter Michael Goodman, who worked with Pfleuger, stands at the side of a drafting table, holding a scale ruler; Geraldine Colby Frickie, an architect and designer, stands behind the table, holding measuring calipers; and Albert Barrows, an engineer who turned Rivera’s sketches into full-scale cartoon stencils for the mural, bends over the table.
Rivera made a number of preliminary studies for the overall composition of the fresco, and individual studies of faces and people. Several early studies show a large, nude woman floating over San Francisco Bay, as if seen from the Berkeley hills through a telescope (perhaps from Observatory Hill on the UC Berkeley campus, which had seven telescopes at that time). Below and behind her are the piers of the San Francisco waterfront, Telegraph Hill, and the Golden Gate (without a bridge). The gallery stairs are shown in the sketch, so it was made for the north wall on which the mural was eventually painted.
A completely different study was made for the south wall in the gallery, where a circular window occupies the upper center of the composition. In the sketch, a single level of scaffold divides the composition in half horizontally. On the left side of the upper level, two sculptors stand on the scaffold, working on a sculpture of a construction worker holding a machine lever, with a background of skyscrapers and cranes. On the right side, painters work on a fresco of rolling hills behind another sculpture of a man holding fruit and/or vegetables. Below the scaffold on both sides, sculptors work on the pedestals of the sculptures and painters decorate the central panels of the pedestals. In the center of the lower level a worker and two men in suits and hats stand together, examining a large sheet of paper.
Rivera made a second version of this scheme for the north wall with the stairs, and in this study the scaffold is multi-tiered and close to its final form. The left and right sides of the composition are similar to the finished fresco, with the left side representing sculpture and the right side architecture. The central section shows four painters and a plasterer on the scaffold, working on a fresco depicting a woman holding an armful of fruit, who strongly resembles the central figure personifying California in the Stock Exchange fresco, which Rivera had just completed. In front of her stand two large, nude women, each gesturing towards her crotch, which is covered by leaves. In the center are two men in suits and hats, looking at a large piece of paper; to the left of them a person is preparing paint, and to the right a worker is mixing plaster.
The Fresco within the Fresco
In Rivera’s first version of the final scheme, the distinction between the depiction of artists working and the artwork being made is clearly defined: there are two larger-than-life sculptures on pedestals set against fresco backgrounds. In the second study, the right side appears to be fresco, but the left side is more ambiguous. In the finished mural, Rivera presents even more of a challenge to the viewer to find the fresco within the fresco.
In the upper right section showing the steelworkers, the wood scaffold structure continues in the fresco-within-the fresco as steel girders, and, although the workers in the foreground are the same size as the figures on the wood scaffold, the scene depicted is clearly not within the gallery space. The three architect/engineer figures in the lower right panel are ambiguous—are they painted or working on site in a very confined space? Is the blue rectangle behind them an open window or a blueprint? Most likely it is a blueprint, since other rolled prints are leaned against the wall nearby.
In the upper left section, three sculptors appear to be standing and kneeling on a partially enclosed section of the wood scaffold working on a stone figure. The scene behind them, like the upper right section, is a painted depiction of a city—a row of steam vents (which resemble Marcel Duchamp’s “Malic Molds” of 1913), some light-blue tiles, a half-built brick wall, and a few distant skyscrapers. However, we can’t see the feet of the two standing figures, due to the perspective, and the sculpture stops abruptly at the vertical section of scaffold that also divides the left section from the center. With this spatial discontinuity, the two standing figures and the sculpture can shift into the painted background. The kneeling figure of Wight in a red shirt seems to be finishing up a section of the fresco in which he is depicted wearing the same clothes, a kind of visual pun. But if you look below him, the section of scaffold on which he appears to be kneeling doesn’t exist.
In the bottom left corner, a sack of coal for the forge extends a little beyond the frame of the scaffold, and we can see the feet of the two workmen who stand near the edge of the scaffold, so they seem to be “real,” rather than part of the painted background.
The appearance of Wight (in beige corduroy pants and white shirt) in three places in the central section—holding all three ends of a triangle of chalk lines—contradicts the “reality” of his solid presence on the scaffold, and further calls into question his “real”—as opposed to painted—existence in the left section.
The three men standing together in the lower center appear on the same plane as the figures in the lower section to the left, and the compressor crosses over from the left to the center behind the scaffold. These three are typical patron figures found in painting since the Renaissance, and if they are not part of the finished fresco, then they are in danger of having paint fall on their heads from Rivera’s palette and brush directly above them. The least ambiguous section of the fresco is the vertical stripe of fresh plaster on the right edge of the central section, behind the table with jars of pigment and buckets.
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