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A brutal history told for a modern city, Diego Rivera's Sugar Cane

Diego Rivera's Sugar Cane fresco, created in 1931, depicts the harsh realities of a Mexican sugar plantation. The artwork, a blend of Italian Renaissance and ancient Mexican wall painting, highlights the racial and class struggles of the time. Rivera's work, part of the Mexican Muralist School, served as a powerful tool for communicating revolutionary messages. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Man] We're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art looking at a large portable fresco by Diego Rivera, called Sugar Cane, constructed and painted in 1931. - [Man] It shows a scene in Mexico on a sugar plantation. - [Man] This weighs roughly a thousand pounds, but that's because it uses an ancient tradition, the tradition of fresco. - [Man] Diego Rivera became world famous as a modern artist who brought back a tradition of wall painting that had roots both in Italian Renaissance fresco painting and in ancient Mexican wall painting. - [Man] And Diego Rivera was a precocious artist. He joined the oldest academy of art in the Americas as a teenager. - [Man] He was given a fellowship in order to travel to Europe. - [Man] And he spent 14 years in Europe amongst modernists like Picasso. And because he was in Europe, he missed the most violent period of the Mexican revolution between 1910 and 1920. - [Man] In 1920, Alvaro Obregon was elected president. Obregon recognized that the visual arts could be very, very important for communicating the messages of the revolution to very wide swaths of the citizenry in Mexico. Rivera was in Paris and then the new government in Mexico sent him to Italy to study Italian Renaissance fresco painting. And then he was called back to Mexico to become one of the founders of what we call the Mexican Muralist School. - [Man] One of the three great ones, Siqueiros, Orozco and Rivera. This was a truly public art. - [Man] Both in terms of the technique and in terms of the imagery. Rivera spends the 1920s executing a set of titanic fresco commissions around Mexico for government and other kinds of public institutions which stand for the revolution and the nation. - [Man] But, ultimately, the president was assassinated and funding for this kind of public art began to dry up. Rivera looks north for new patronage. He looks to the United States. - [Man] In the States in '20s and '30s, there's a great vogue for Mexican culture. The Museum of Modern Art decides that it's going to devote its second ever one-artist exhibition, the first one having been given to Matisse, to Diego Rivera, which is an index of exactly how prestigious and famous Diego Rivera was in New York at that time. - [Man] Rivera did have opportunities to produce murals in San Francisco, in the brand new Rockefeller Center and then, ultimately, in Detroit as well. - [Man] At the Museum of Modern Art his problem was that the work for which he was most well known was immovable and architectural. And so he need to invent a new hybrid kind of painting, which we call portable murals, large scale pictures on reinforced concrete with true fresco surfaces. - [Man] A series of ever finer layers of plaster would be applied. - [Man] It's said that he worked 15 hour days with three assistants in order to produce the first five. Those five would get kind of historical cycle of the struggle of the Mexican people against their oppressors from the time of the Spanish conquest in the 1500s to modern times. - [Man] And Sugar Cane is a representation of the inequality that prompted the revolution itself. - [Man] It's really a picture of race and class in the social system of a hacienda or a plantation. - [Man] These were enormous land holdings that were manned by small armies of laborers that were in almost every respect, except legally, slaves. - [Man] So, in the foreground, you have relatively benign image of an indigenous woman and you can tell she's indigenous because of the dark color of her skin and the way her hair is braided and also the white clothing that she wears. Together with her children, a boy and girl, they haul baskets, and she's cutting papaya from a tree. And one of the pillars of official Mexican cultural policy and one of the great themes of Mexican mural painting by Rivera and others was a celebration of indigenous people as a link to the foundational ancient cultures that preceded the Spanish conquest. So it's really a framing device, and as you look back, there is quite a strong contrast to the scene of brutality that fills up the middle ground and the background, laborers, their bodies bowed by the heavy bundles of cut sugar cane which they have pulled together with ropes. Then you have a blond, light-skinned, therefore, Spanish, overseer, with a gun, who's pointing a whip in the direction of these workers. Your eye zigzags into the background to find another armed man who is sitting, but is guarding the owner of plantation, who's also a European, but, more importantly, he's the person who is lying in the hammock with guard dogs for good measure protecting him on the veranda of the plantation house. - [Man] And it's in such contrast to the sense of purpose of the more innocent figures in the foreground. - [Man] This is a redo of a theme that Rivera had already painted in a mural in the palace in Cuernavaca. - [Man] But that rendering doesn't have the figures in foreground. - [Man] If we continue to the background, we see three more workers standing right above the bottoms of already cut stalks of cane continuing the cutting. So you have also the sugar cultivation part of the sugar industry. - [Man] Sugar was one of most lucrative crops that could be grown, but sugar is a labor-intensive crop and it required the exploitation of indigenous labor. - [Man] Rivera is a Marxist, but Mexico is primarily agrarian economy even in his time rather than an industrial one, so what he's doing is he's taking the Marxist idea of class struggle and he's showing how it plays out in an agrarian frame with a racial dynamic. - [Man] But what's so fascinating is that this is a painting that was made for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, founded by one of the Rockefellers. And, so, you have this clash between the ideology of capitalism and the ideology of Marx. - [Man] Rivera was an extremely politically self-aware artist, and you knew very well that there were hazards in taking as patrons wealthy Americans, but he also knew that he could do some good as a, kind of, cultural and political ambassador for Mexico. It was felt by Rivera and many of his colleagues that a realist style was the best because it would be widely appreciated by a broad public. What Rivera was doing was making political propaganda. But, of course, when he was in the U.S., the receiver was a little bit different. - [Man] But as complex as this particular panel is, it's just one of a series. In the museum in Philadelphia, it's directly across from another painting that is even more brutal. - [Man] Rivera executed five portable murals, tracing from the Aztec times to modern times. The next one is the tragic image called Liberation of the Peon, which tells the story of the revolutionary period in Mexico. - [Narrator] And a peon is somebody who was bound to a landowner by their debt. - [Man] This a scene of the whipping, maybe to death, of one of these indentured laborers on a hacienda. His body's being tended to by some revolutionary soldiers while the plantation where he worked is in flames in the background. The five scenes of Mexico were the ones that Rivera was able to complete by the time of the opening of his retrospective, but in the next few weeks afterwards, he went back and made three more scenes, also portable frescos, that represented scenes of New York. The largest and most powerful of which is called Frozen Assets and is a allegory of the American social system in desperate times during the Depression. - [Man] This confrontation between the growth of skyscrapers in the American skyline and the intense poverty being experienced by workers around the country. - [Man] U.S. audiences were very struck by Rivera's ability (people chattering) to tell historical stories in a way that brought out their tragedy and their grandeur and especially their complexity and ambiguity. (gentle piano music)