The Panels in Detail
Panel 1 is a celebration of Mexico's indigenous past, artistic genius combined with religious fervor set in a dramatic natural background.
Rivera wrote, "I depicted the South in the period before Cortes. The outstanding physical landmarks were the massive and beautiful snow-crowned Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl. Nearby were the temples of Nahuatl and Quetzalcóatl and the temple of the plumed serpent. Also portrayed were the Yaqui Deer Dancers, pottery makers, and Netzahualcoyotl, the Aztec poet-king of Texcoco who designed a flying machine."
Panel 1 forms the left side of a visual parenthesis that balances North and South. The right side of the mural completes the parenthesis with a celebration of Northern California's technological boom of the nineteenth century. See Panel 5.
With a graceful swan dive, the City College diver Helen Crlenkovich blends ancient Mexico into the Bay Area. Rivera wrote, "The conquest of time and space was symbolized by a woman diving and the Golden Gate Bridge spanning San Francisco Bay."
In the upper section, the contemporary Mexican artisan carving the sculpture of Quetzacoatl, the plumed serpent god, represents the continuity of Mexican ancient culture.
In the lower section, Rivera depicted himself painting the "portraits of the great liberators--Washington, Jefferson, Hidalgo, Morelos, Bolivar, Lincoln, and John Brown."
Rivera anchored the mural with the central figure, the Aztec goddess Coatlicue combined with a Detroit Motor Company stamping machine. Rivera wrote:
Symbolizing this union (between North and South) was a colossal Goddess of Life, half Indian, half machine. She would be to the American civilization of my vision of what Quetzacoatl, the great mother of Mexico, was to the Aztec People.
This idea was elsewhere expressed in a portrait of Dudley Carter an engineer who returned to a pure expression of plastics, using only primitive materials and implements, such as a hand axe. I also painted a portrait of my wife Frida, a Mexican artist of European extraction, looking to the native traditions for her inspiration. Frida represented the vitality of these traditions in the South as Carter represented their penetration into the North.
The kinship of the Mexican and American traditions was further represented by an old Mexican planting a tree in the presence of a Mexican girl, as an American boy looked on. Nearby I painted a portrait of Paulette Goddard, holding in her hands what she called in a press release, "the tree of life and love." Representing American girlhood, she was shown in friendly contact with a Mexican man.
Helen Crlenklovich continues to balance the right side of the mural, as her dive flows above the Treasure Island, the setting of the Golden Gate Expo.
Rivera wrote, "The creative force of the United States and the emancipation of women were symbolized by a woman artist, a woman architect, and a sculptress.
In the lower part of this panel, I represented two scenes from that typical art form of the North, the movies. One was from Charlie Chaplin's film The Great Dictator, showing in a tragicomic grouping Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin; the other from the Edward G. Robinson film Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Both works dramatized the fight between the democracies and the totalitarian powers. A hand rose up out of a machine as if to ward off the forces of aggression, symbolizing the American conscience reacting to the threat against freedom, in the love of which the history of Mexico and the United States were united."
Rivera was an avid movie fan. He saw movies as a type of modern day fresco, an art form that could carry important political messages to the masses. To learn more about Treasure Island and the fair, click here.
As a parallel to Panel 1, Rivera celebrates the technological genius of the North here in Panel 5.
Rivera wrote, "Just as the plastic tradition of the South penetrated into the North, the creative mechanical power of the North enriched life in the South. I depicted the greatness of the North in such engineering achievements as Shasta Dam, oil derricks, bridges set near the American peaks of Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen, and in portraits of such geniuses as Ford, Morse, and Fulton, the last two of whom were artists as well as inventors."