Frozen Assets by Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera

Frozen Assets, 1931–32, Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework, 239 x 188.5 cm, Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico, Credit: © 2019 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico City / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Schalkwijk / Art Resource, NY

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‘The Root of All Kinds of Evil’

Commentary by

Diego Rivera arrived in New York as the Great Depression lengthened and deepened, and what he encountered there informed and inflamed the leftist political leanings he had already developed in his native Mexico. In this mural, painted during his time in the city, Rivera captures and comments upon the instrumentalization of humanity, as the grandeur and built environment of the city is undergirded by the suffering of its inhabitants—suffering which itself rests on a bank vault, guarded and minded by the beneficiaries of capitalism.

As is common in the later writings of the New Testament, this part of 1 Timothy is keen to offer advice for the living of life. Especially prominent here is a warning against wealth and the desire for it, both as a personal principle (it plunges people into ruin and destruction) and as a force that works on an almost-cosmic scale (it is the root of all kinds of evil). Framed as advice to a young believer, from a beloved pastor–mentor to a protégé in the faith, the warning is clear: wealth has sundered many from their faith.

While Rivera’s painting is oriented vertically, with one scene atop another, it editorializes the horizontal—the relationships between persons, which are conditioned and severed by the vertical disparities of wealth. At the top, the city rises with its skyscrapers, and cranes imply that more are on the way. But in that urban landscape there are no persons; only in the bottom two-thirds of the image do we find any human beings, and they are diminutive ones.

In the middle register, in a scene that almost evokes a morgue, the anonymous sleeping bodies of the homeless are packed into a shelter as a policeman looks on. And at the bottom, the bankers and their customers are the only people with faces. Their features are indistinct, but they exude calm and self-satisfaction.

1 Timothy’s warning is more intelligible to the masses in the middle frame than it is to the wealthy at the bottom, but Rivera puts the root beneath the ground just as the epistle does—the root of evil sending up both the triumph of the city and the misery of its labourers.

 

References

Dickerman, Leah, Diego Rivera, and Anna Indych-López. 2011. Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art)


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