CONSERVATION IN DETAIL
Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886–1957)
El hombre en el cruce de los caminos (Man at the Crossroads), 1933
Through the Art Conservation Project, Diego Rivera’s original mural sketches for El hombre en el cruce de los caminos (Man at the Crossroads) at the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City have been preserved. The drawings have unique historical value, as they reveal not only the creative process of one of the most prominent Modernist muralists, but also key moments of the political and social environment that existed during Rivera’s lifetime. Originally commissioned in 1933 for Rockefeller Center in New York, the completed mural is on display at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
The drawings that have the most severe structural damage, such as cracks and warps, have been conserved. This process will help counteract the damage caused by the passage of time and fluctuations in relative humidity, as well as exposure to both natural and artificial light. Although several of the sketches are on display, many remain in storage due to their deteriorated condition and are at risk. After conservation, the museum will be able to exhibit the complete collection.
Much of the deterioration of the mural sketches can be attributed to the materials and techniques used in previous restoration efforts, which were done in the 1970s and early 2000s. Damage included cracked filling and patches; tears and breaks; warping of the paper; restoration attempts in a shade different from the original paper; oxidation; surface dust, which renders paper brittle; and staining, some of which were actually original to the sketches. The conservators agreed to limit intervention to a minimum, and sought materials that were both chemically and physically stable and compatible with the original paper, charcoal and paint.
In the mural, a worker at the center, The Technical Man, stands at the crossroads of technologies of the past and future and the political ideologies dominating this period: capitalism (to the figure’s right) and communism, or The Death of Tyranny (to the figure’s left).
The most notorious controversy of the artist’s career came as he painted Man at the Crossroads, originally on view in Rockefeller Center’s Radio Corporation of America (RCA) building. Of the hundreds of provocative images in the painting, it was a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, added after the initial sketches were approved, that caused an uproar. A headline from the New York World-Telegram stated “Rivera Perpetrates Scenes of Communist Activity for RCA Walls—And Rockefeller, Jr. Foots Bill.” Ten days later Nelson Rockefeller, Rivera’s patron, asked the artist to remove the image of Lenin. When Rivera refused, he was paid in full and dismissed. The murals were covered up and later destroyed, as Rivera’s supporters rallied to save the work.