Frida Kahlo, Rivera's wife and Mexican artist, personifies the cultural union of the Americas for the South as Carter does for the North. Here she wears the traditional dress of Tehuantepec. On the right sit two women on the tree of life left of two children. Rivera depicts himself sitting with Paulette Goddard, Charlie Chaplin's wife. (Photo: Rachel Dornhelm/KQED)

San Francisco City College’s “Pan American Unity Mural” is Diego Rivera’s largest contiguous work of art.

It’s sprawling in size AND content. There are images of Yaqui Deer Dancers and early California gold miners, heavy engines of the industrial age, and front and center is Frida Kahlo — who remarried Rivera in San Francisco while he completed the work. William Maynez is one of the mural’s historian at the college.  He says Rivera started the   mural as both a bridge between cultures and a comment on the duality of art and science.

“In the center of the mural you have an emblem which is basically a hood ornament for the whole thing” says Maynez.  “Half of it is a stamping machine that Rivera previously painted for the Fords in Detroit.  And on the other half is an Aztec goddess Coatlicue.  It speaks to dualities … to yin and yang.”

This mural was originally painted on Treasure Island and was intended for City College from the start.  But the college building to house the mural was never built. World War II had started and steel and concrete were scarce.

So the mural was put in storage until 1961 when the college brought it out to hang in the entryway of the student theater.

But Maynez says the space is just too small.  “You should be able to get as far away from a work of art as it is wide,” he says. “Well this is 74 feet wide and you can only get back 14 feet.”

He compared seeing the mural up close to viewing it through a keyhole.  He says so many nuances of the work are hard to absorb up close.

The college wants to construct a new building that could house the mural appropriately, ideally as part of a new arts complex across the street.  But funds for the building, and for moving the enormous piece of art, are needed.

That’s part of the reason Carlos Felix, the Consul General of Mexico in San Francisco, signed a memorandum of understanding with Dr. Don Griffin the president of City College.

Felix says the Mexican government is happy to help with fundraising for a new building, and also provide expertise on the conservation of the mural: “We have experts for preservation of that characteristic that is contained in the mural.”  He says they also have experts in moving murals like these.

Felix says he especially appreciates the artwork’s message of unity between Mexico and the US: “The message [Rivera] wanted to express in 1940, is still right now well something that is alive and we need to continue spreading that message.”

Felix, pointing to panels about the ancient culture of Mexico, alongside a portrayal of Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Great Dictator,” says the historical breadth of the piece is also amazing.

“So you see the components too about the Nazis,” Felix says “So that this is a strong message about how it is necessary not to forget bad things in the future.”

The first bit of work towards finding a new home for the painting starts in June, when workers will knock a small hole in the wall supporting the mural to feed in a fiber optic cable and confirm how the pieces of the fresco are mounted.  That will help determine the cost of moving and remounting it.

Maynez says while San Francisco City College and the Mexican Consulate have worked together for many years, the memorandum of understanding is all about the long term future of the art work.

“Today was all about formalizing a relationship,” says Maynez.  “So it’s not relationships between people but relationships between institutions, which implies continuity and certainly if this mural is going to be around for 200 years, that’s the kind of relationship you need.”

Author

Rachel Dornhelm

Rachel Dornhelm has worked as a reporter, editor and producer in public radio for the last twelve years. She got her start in New York City at WNYC and went on to work with the national business program Marketplace, WBUR’s “On Point” and KQED News in San Francisco. Her work has been honored by the LA Press Club and the SF-Peninsula Press Club.

Rachel has a BA with honors in anthropology from Rice University and did graduate work at NYU.

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