Home » City Guide »

Diego Rivera’s Massive Mural is Coming to SFMOMA

This 74-foot mural moves from CCSF to SFMOMA in 2020 and will be free and open to the public
By - posted 12/13/2017 No Comment

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) announced plans to display Diego Rivera’s historic mural, Pan American Unity, as the cornerstone of a major exhibition of the artist’s work at SFMOMA in 2020.

The mural—one of the most important works of public art in San Francisco—will be on view in the museum’s Roberts Family Gallery on the street level, part of the museum’s free, unticketed space.

A comprehensive program of conservation, public education and CCSF student internships will accompany the exhibition of the work and will be announced in greater detail at a later date. Early funding for these initiatives has been provided in part by the Koret Foundation.

Want to view the mural at CCSF before it moves to SFMOMA? It’s open to the public at CCSF’s Ocean Campus (50 Phelan Ave.) at the Diego River Theater. Though December 22, 2017, open hours are Monday – Thursday from 10am to 4pm, Friday from 11am to 4pm and Saturday from 10am to 4pm (closed Sundays). There are also tours 3-4 times a month. Please note hours may change seasonally and is typically closed during school breaks. CCSF details.

The History of Pan American Unity

Diego Rivera’s The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on the Continent, more commonly known as Pan American Unity, was created in 1940 as part of the Art in Action program at the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, where local and international artists created works of painting, sculpture, weaving, stained glass, prints and engravings before an audience of fairgoers. Measuring 22 feet high and 74 feet wide (nearly 1,800 square feet) and comprised of ten fresco panels, the mural is the largest created by Rivera and his last made in the United States.

As a result of a partnership between one of the GGIE’s commissioners and Rivera, from its inception the mural was slated for permanent display at what is now known as City College of San Francisco. Rich in symbolism and imagery from across the North American continent, including Mexico, the United States and Canada, Pan American Unity has been on view in the Diego Rivera Theater on the main campus of City College of San Francisco since 1961.

At the conclusion of the planned SFMOMA Rivera exhibition, the mural will return to City College of San Francisco for permanent display.

Content and Themes

“For years I have felt that the real art of the Americas must come as a result of the fusion of the machinism and new creative power of the north with the tradition rooted in the soil of the south, the Toltecs, Tarascans, Mayas, Incas, etc., and would like to choose that as the subject of my mural.”

– Diego Rivera in a letter to Timothy Pflueger, April 1940

Using fresco techniques in the manner of Italian Renaissance painters, but updating its themes and reimagining its social function, Rivera created ten steel-framed panels allowing individual sections to be transported and relocated. Four panels on the lower row are discrete scenes, with the top five panels and the lower center panel forming a continuous view featuring one of Rivera’s most dynamic montage narratives.

“My mural will picture the fusion between the great past of the Latin American lands, as it is deeply rooted in the soil, and the high mechanical developments of the United States,” described Rivera. Pan American Unity is a sweeping panorama of the Bay Area that merges with generalized reference to the pre-Conquest cities of the Valley of Mexico City (left side) and other scenes of Northern California (right side). Rivera’s imagery extends from ancient civilizations (Toltec, Aztec) to Bay Area architectural icons (the Golden Gate Bridge, 450 Sutter, 140 Montgomery St, Alcatraz). Rivera also incorporated topical events, as well as references to his previous murals and artworks. He used scenes from Hollywood movies such as The Great Dictator, Confessions of a Nazi Spy and All Quiet on the Western Front to attack the tyranny of the World War II Axis powers and subtly encourage the United States to join the war against Germany.

The mural centers on a binational “deity” that combines the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue with a modern machine. Around this symbol of ancient-modern/North-South, he depicts numerous notable contemporary and historical figures from across the continent and across time: inventors and their inventions (the 15th century Texcoco king Nezahualcóyotl as well as Samuel Morse, Robert Fulton, Henry Ford), political figures both heroic and demonic (Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Simón Bolívar, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler), artists and architects (Frida Kahlo, sculptors Mardonio Magana and Dudley Carter, architects Timothy Pflueger and Frank Lloyd Wright, and Rivera himself) and actors including Paulette Goddard, Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson. The mural also features a cross section of ancient and everyday people including athletes, scientists, artisans and Rivera’s assistants and visitors he met while at the GGIE.

Mural Image Credit:
Diego Rivera, The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent (Pan American Unity), 1940. © Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frieda Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico D.F. / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image: courtesy City College of San Francisco.