Last Updated 27 Jul 2020

Rivera’s Pan American Unity: Economic Themes from the North and South

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Throughout the late 1920’s many American patrons of the arts had attempted to bring the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, to the United States for commissioned works. It wasn’t until September of 1930 that Rivera finally arrived in San Francisco to paint. His wife, the famous painter Frida Khalo, whom he had recently married, accompanied him. Fellow artist and instructor at the California Academy of Arts, Ralph Stackpole, had recommended to Timothy Pflueger that he use Rivera for a new project he was working on, the Pacific Stock Exchange.

This turned out to be a fruitful relationship with the successful completion of Allegory of California, in the stock exchange building. Nearly 10 years later and his last appearance in the US, Pflueger asked Rivera to return to San Francisco to be part of Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939/40. The fruit of those laborers is his Pan American Unity, the themes of which will be explored in further detail here. Timothy Pflueger commissioned the painting, Pan American Unity.

It was a replacement for an art exhibit of European masters on loan for 1939. Pflueger was a well-known architect in San Francisco, having built the Medical Dental Skyscraper on Sutter and worked on the Pacific Stock Exchange building. Jeremy Long LALS – 14 Landau July 6, 2014 Rivera’s painting are often controversial and spark debate in all kinds of circles, whether it be for his political affiliations or the subject matter of the paintings themselves.

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In a way, Pan American Unity avoids some of this controversy with his themes of unification and harmony. One might think that the North and South, in this case the United States and Mexico, stand diametrically opposed to one another, but Rivera sought to unite them in common themes. He showed how the labors of the Mexican farmers and ingenious people were not that dis-similar from the backbreaking work of the Detroit autoworkers. Most, if not all, scenes depicted show Mexicans and Americans side by side through their struggles for freedom.

The theme of economic differences between the North and South are evident in the many portrayals of the Mexican people, who are most often seen in traditional dress of centuries past. On the other hand, the American people are shown as a fully modern people with technology and ingenuity. The two ideas aren’t completely contradictory and Rivera seems to imply that you cannot have one without the other. The technology of the present is only informed by the progress of the ast and the same will be true of our future. Both America and Mexico have much to learn from and share with the other and only in this way can we truly achieve a greatness beyond the accomplishments of today. In another section of the mural, Stalin and Hitler are reviled for their crimes, creeping like a noxious gas over the painting stand in opposition to the Founding Fathers of the United States; a very interesting view point from an avowed socialist and often communist leader of Mexico.

Somewhat of a local celebrity at the time, a City College of San Francisco diver appears twice in the painting, springing from the center of the painting and arching over the figures below as fountain of hope and prosperity. Even his patron, Pflueger, makes an appearance in the painting, being shown with blueprints directing the construction of his now famous office building. While Pflueger died before he could find a permanent place for Rivera’s great and last work in San Francisco, his son, whom assumed the duties of design for the City College of San Francisco and the changes necessary to allow for the display of Rivera’s work.

Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity, strove to strike a balance between the natural forces of this world and the human desires of good and evil. He accomplished this by including elements of the North’s technological dominance, the South’s agricultural heritage, the evils of Nazism and Stalinism, and the eloquence and beauty of nature and the Bay Area, which all combine to strengthen the economic message of the painting’s central them of unity.

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