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Current time:0:00Total duration:7:09

Video transcript

we're in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City surrounded by enormous murals by some of the most important mural painters in Mexico including Orozco and seek eros and Diego Rivera and the idea behind the mural painters in Mexico in the 1920s and 30s was to create a truly public art in the public spaces of Mexico City and other cities in Mexico the mural painting can't be moved unlike oil on canvas it can't be bought and sold and put in a private home and so this is really for the people this is shortly after the Mexican Revolution so this idea of establishing a new republic for Mexico that would distance it from its dictatorial and colonial past and this particular painting that we're looking at man controller of the universe is a true fresco that is painted directly on the wall with wet plaster but what's really fascinating is that this is not the first iteration of this painting the first painting was commissioned by john d rockefeller jr. for 30 rock that is the jewel of rockefeller center john d rockefeller jr. was one of the heirs to the great Standard Oil fortune and undertook major real estate investments like Rockefeller Center in the middle of Manhattan in New York City now Rivera was in the United States he had just received a large one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and it's important to remember that john d rockefeller his wife abby Rockefeller was one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art and Rivera had already painted murals in San Francisco he had painted murals in Detroit and so here he is in New York City in Rockefeller Center but that mural doesn't survive Rivera ran into problems because he included in the fresco images of communist figures but needless to say Rockefeller was not thrilled with having Lenin in the lobby of his centerpiece Rockefeller Center no he's a capital he's the enemy of communism and so we asked Rivera to remove the figures Rivera refuses they come to a standoff so the mural was destroyed this involved chipping away at the wall itself Rivera was paid everything that he was owed and he was locked out and then he gets the opportunity to repaint it here in Mexico City the original fresco is called man at the crossroads here in Mexico City the redone version is man controller of the universe and I have to say I like that title better we have an enormous figure at the center who looks as though he's operating a giant machine and he appears in control of the universe but this is also the crossroads it's clearly a composition which is divided in two and this idea of which way will the future go in the early 1930s when this was painted that was very much an open question the 1930s was a time of tremendous strife you have fascism rising in Europe economic depression around the world tremendous unemployment deprivation and people looked at capitalism as the cause there had been speculation on Wall Street there had been the stock market crash and people were starving could capitalism be replaced by a system that was more fair that didn't just seemingly to the Communist benefit and elite and Rivera was very sympathetic to these ideas and we see this in this mural let's take a close look at it the centerpiece as you said is man controller of the universe and look at that hand that's holding up this little orb that reflects in at a control panel the man is in the center of a large X that is constructed out of attenuated ellipses and in one we see the cosmos we see the universe in the other we see the microcosm we see bacteria and in fact there are two huge lenses that frame the figure on either side presumably this is man's ability now to look at the great reaches of space and to look at the smallest life the great things that science has brought us our ability to understand the Stars and the planets and the galaxies and our place within that and the other great thing science brings us is that understanding of the microscopic world which allows us to cure diseases the early 20th century is this moment of coming to terms with the amazing fruits of the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Revolution at the top left we clearly see war we see soldiers and gas masks we see a sky filled with planes and violence and fire and tanks in the distance on the right we see Moscow we see Red Square and we see the Communists workers of the world United and then on both left and right we see these huge classical figures sculptures that seem broke in on the left perhaps Zeus who seems to be wielding a thunderbolt he wears a cross around his neck perhaps suggesting that Christianity is just as false as ancient pagan religions and on the right the broken sculpture has the symbol of the Nazis but there's the suggestion that of the old order fading away the old classical structures that underpinned Western civilization no longer functioning and then we have a whole series of portraits on the right side we see Lenin we see Trotsky on the Left we see Darwin and then we see a group of the wealthy completely unaware or uncaring of the suffering of the poor and in fact if you look very closely you can see a portrait of john d rockefeller jr. diego rivera places him here in his anger at the destruction of his earlier artwork and it's been pointed out by some art historians that John du Rockefellers had is just at the bottom of some of the images of the microscopic world and some have suggested that the image just above his head is syphilis it's interesting to me is that on both sides we seem to have the promise of peoples of different ethnic backgrounds coming together if you look at the left we see figures of different ethnic backgrounds being educated and on the right we see Lenin who's grasping the hands of people of different colors when I look at this painting what I'm seeing is a man who's looking at all of the chaos of the modern world all of the advances all of the tremendous goods and all of the tremendous evils and he's trying to systematize it he's trying to understand it he's trying to organize it in a way that makes sense in a world that must have held to so many people like a top that was wobbling and was about to spin out of control we're still very much at these crossroads technology is ever more important in our lives what will technology bring us a more egalitarian society a world where everyone can be educated or will it bring greater inequality these are still things debated today we are still grappling with the increasing power of the tools that we have built the power that technology has given us and the choices that we make in terms of how we wield that power