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Rivera’s MoMA murals revisited

After 80 years, works by the Mexican artist known for his volatile relationship with Frida Kahlo are again on view

In 1931, the Museum of Modern Art commissioned Diego Rivera to provide one of its galleries with five portable murals that were the subject of a five-week exhibition. Now after 80 years in storage, the murals are being re-hung, along with three other New York-themed pieces made at the same time.

“People think of this as a museum of Matisse and Picasso. They don’t think of Rivera as a lion of the institution,” says Leah Dickerman, the curator of the department of painting and sculpture. Considering his relative youth (he was 45 at the time), his nationality and political leanings, Rivera was a radical choice for the new institution, she says.

Unusually, Rivera was given a studio on the museum’s sixth floor, a move that drew the attention of The New Yorker and Fortune magazines. The exhibition was very popular, drawing no less than 60,000 visitors during its short run, but it failed to establish public art in the way the museum officials expected, says Dickerman. “With World War II and the Cold War, there was a greater scepticism of government-funded art. Public art in some ways has never fully recovered. Now we perceive art with big messages as naïve.”

The show includes drawings, watercolours and prints from the museum’s collection and other American and Mexican institutions. The show’s greatest challenge is moving the 1,000-lb frescoes. “Thank goodness for forklifts,” Dickerman says.