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Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and the Connection to the Rockefellers

By Karen HudesJul 16 2015
Arts & Culture
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Nowhere is the mark of the Rockefeller family more prominent than at Rockefeller Center. But if you look beyond Midtown, you’ll also see it in many other aspects of NYC culture, and even in art and architecture all over the world.

Case in point was the current exhibition Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life at the New York Botanical Garden. The show highlighted the iconic 20th-century Mexican painter’s work with an eye to the natural world, exploring the meaning of plants, fruits and flowers in her portraits and still lifes, as well as in the home she designed with her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera.

The exhibition also touched on Mexico City landmarks and their significance in the lives of Kahlo and Rivera. One of them is the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Rivera mural it houses, Man, Controller of the Universe. The work is a recreation by Rivera of Man at the Crossroads, the fresco he originally designed for the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Rivera began work on the Rockefeller mural in 1933. But famously, he added an image of Vladimir Lenin that hadn’t appeared in the original sketches. Nelson Rockefeller requested that he remove the image, but after Rivera refused, Rockefeller shut down the project. Ultimately the work was destroyed, but not before Rivera’s assistants had taken photos of it, so he could reproduce it in Mexico.

The story has been told many times through articles, books and exhibits, and was even dramatized in the movie Frida. In one scene, the film shows Rivera (Alfred Molina) at work in the RCA Building (as 30 Rock was then known). Having just arrived in New York, Kahlo (Salma Hayek) appears in the lobby with her suitcases, and the two soon sit down beneath the work in progress, drinking beers, talking politics and hashing out Rockefeller's demands. In another scene Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton) praises the mural as "thrilling" even as he urges Rivera to change it; he later hands the artist his walking papers.

What may be less widely known than this historic clash, however, is the vital friendship among Kahlo, Rivera and the Rockefellers that preceded it. John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller had been patrons of Rivera for several years before the Man at the Crossroads mural was commissioned. Abby, a cofounder of MoMa, was a major collector of modern art, and helped bring about a retrospective of Rivera’s work at the museum in 1931.

The New Yorker briefly remarks on the Rockefeller connection in its review of the current Kahlo exhibition. "In a world ruled by powerful men,” it says, Kahlo “married one; seduced others; and charmed, when not alarming, the rest, among them John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and Henry Ford.”

Elaborating in the book Great FortuneDaniel Okrent writes, “In early 1932, in the months immediately following the enormously successful MoMA show, Rivera was a regular guest at West 54th Street, frequently in the company of his 25-year-old wife Frieda Kahlo" (who hadn't yet removed the "e" from her name). "The entire Rockefeller family was captivated by the impish and impious Rivera. Nelson and his wife began collecting his work and seeing him socially, and David, the youngest of the brothers, who considered Rivera ‘great fun, charming and interesting,’ proudly hung one of the artist’s May Day watercolors on the wall of his room at Harvard.”

Okrent continues: “Abby developed a particular bond with ‘Frieda Rivera,’ as Kahlo signed her tender and touching letters to her new friend…Abby was almost motherly to her, especially after Kahlo miscarried in the summer of 1932. Frieda responded with equal warmth: 'I can not forget the sweet little face of Nelson’s baby,' she wrote, 'and the photograph you sent me is hanging now on the wall of my bedroom.'"

The "Riveras" had already earned acclaim before meeting the Rockefellers, and Kahlo would realize her greatest achievements later on. But it’s worth considering how this remarkable relationship impacted the art world as we know it. Before their friendship soured (and even well after that), the Rockefellers, both directly and indirectly, helped fuel the careers and the legacies of two major figures in 20th-century art.

Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden Life ran through November 1, 2015, at the New York Botanical Garden.

Guided tours of Rockefeller Center are available daily.

Photo: Nickolas Muray, Frida with Olmeca Figurine, Coyoacán, 1939.
© Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

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