Diego Rivera Murals in San Francisco: Critical Guide for Visiting

There are three Diego Rivera frescoes in San Francisco, California. To get in to see them all is not easy, but it is well worth the effort. It was an incredible treat to be able to see these frescoes up close and personal. A word of advice: it’s very important to plan and confirm your visits in advance.

In Mexico, Rivera intended his murals to be accessible to the public. That was an important social and political premise of the Mexican Muralist Movement — art for and of the people. All are filled with consistent Rivera themes: the worker, the common soldier, the peasant farmer and industry. These murals mirror those in Mexico City of the same era (like Man, Controller of the Universe) and I recognize similar scenes and characters.

Looking for Diego Rivera + Frida Kahlo in Mexico City: 3-Day Art History Tour

These are the three murals in order of their creation:

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Pan American Unity, left half

Pan American Unity, left half

Pan American Unity, right side

Pan American Unity, right half

These are the three murals in order of accessibility:

San Francisco Art Institute

The most accessible fresco is The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City at the San Francisco Art Institute, open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. This is a private, degree-granting university. Doors are open to students and to the public Monday through Friday. Check for weekend hours. The challenge is to find parking around the steep Cow Hollow hills. But if you are in a taxi or take UBER, no worries.

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The mural is at the end of a student exhibition gallery space on the main level to the left of the entry courtyard. We followed good directional signs to get there. Once inside, the floor to ceiling wall art dominates the space.

This is a painting within a painting. Rivera included himself (back to viewer, with his ample frame centered on the scaffolding) with helpers making a fresco. His patrons who financed the project are part of the set. It reminds me of the caricature portraits we see at the Palacio Nacional depicting the history of Mexico that Rivera started in 1929 at about the same time. In fact, this Mexico City mural was not completed for another ten years because of commissions like this one in the U.S. It is very Rivera with a bold figures, the central one wearing a red star. You will see a lot of similarities here if you are familiar with his style.

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There is a small donation box in front suggesting support for mural preservation. We didn’t find hand-out information, art history notes or guestbook. The best descriptions are online, which I suggest you read before visiting.

800 Chestnut Street (between Jones and Leavenworth), San Francisco, CA 94133. Phone: 415-771-7020

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Looking for Diego Rivera + Frida Kahlo in Mexico City: 3-Day Art History Tour

City College of San Francisco

Located in the Sunset on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, City College of San Francisco boasts a comprehensive historical reference mural to The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and the South on this Continent.  Informally called The Pan American Unity Mural, Rivera painted it in 1940 for the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island.

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He was invited by civic and arts leaders to participate in the Exposition’s “Art in Action” program, joining other prominent artists. Fair-goers watched while Rivera and his assistants painted!

Frida Kahlo, who marries Rivera for the second time in San Francisco in 1940, stands front and center, while Rivera, his back to the viewer, holds the hand of actress Paulette Goddard. This mural is the most political of the three San Francisco pieces and is parallel in style to the Palacio Nacional mural of the same era, each featuring the founding fathers of Mexico and the USA.

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Because of state funding cuts, visiting hours at SFCC are limited. Please consult the website to see when there is a volunteer faculty/staff member scheduled to open the Diego Rivera Theatre where the mural can be seen.

This important mural is housed in a very cramped space. I was told that for years the intent has been to build a larger gallery to view it. But … the college depends on designated private gifts to realize project goals. A small donation box sits in front of the mural. We gave more than requested for a beautiful, thorough art history brochure with color photo. Thanks to the college for providing this!

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Notes: Be sure to walk upstairs to a small balcony (don’t trip, it’s also used for storage) to get the most expansive view of the mural. From above, the center view is obstructed by a large carved wood sculpture that obstructs the experience. Free street parking available.

50 Phelan Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94112. Viewing Hours are posted on the website. Phone only goes to voicemail: 415-452-5313

The City Club of San Francisco

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Rivera asked Olympic swimmer Helen Willis to model.

Our experience at The City Club of San Francisco, an exclusive, members only space on the 10th floor of the former Pacific Stock Exchange, proved that you can’t always trust what you read online, even from USA Today. We read the mural was open for viewing from 3 to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Not exactly true.

We found out the hard way that you can only gain entrance to see the mural if you make an appointment in advance with a City Club staffer. Denied entry and after repeated phone calls from the lobby that all went to voicemail, we finally connected with a live person. When I introduced myself and requested a visit, I got a harsh scolding about not having an appointment, a tirade about this being a private club, a rant about not to trust internet information, then a reluctant agreement to allow us upstairs to see the mural for ten minutes. We were shocked by staff behavior because of the club’s great reputation for hospitality.

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As we emerged from the elevator, the staffer hid a candy jar from her desktop where she sits sentry on the landing in front of the mural. Seems other riffraff before us dipped into the candy dish and she is keeping a watchful eye.

Lobby, Stock Exchange Tower Building, Art Deco

Lobby, Stock Exchange Tower

The staffer we met is definitely the gatekeeper. You need to call in advance, make an appointment and purr. I wouldn’t say you know me.

Do you think Diego would roll over in his grave?

Stock Exchange Tower, 155 Sansome Street, San Francisco, CA 94104. Phone: 415-362-2480

 

 

Recommendations:

  • Call in advance to each site to confirm opening times.
  • Make an advance appointment directly with The City Club to see the mural there.
  • Educate yourself. Read about each mural in advance since only the City College of San Francisco may publish an art history description.
  • Devote a half-day for visiting the three murals. They are in different parts of the city and traffic can be difficult.
  • Be ready to pay at least $16 per hour to park near the City Club if you are driving a car. Park farther out and use UBER.
  • Be prepared to be disappointed. You may not get in to all venues.
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View from the rooftop terrace, SF Art Institute with Alcatraz.

Looking for Frida Kahlo + Diego Rivera in Mexico City: Art History Tour

Suggested Visiting Route:

  • 11 a.m. — San Francisco Art Institute (open 9 a.m.-7 p.m.)
  • 1 p.m. — City College of San Francisco (open 1-3 p.m.)
  • 3:30 p.m. City Club of San Francisco (by appointment only — call 415-362-2480 well in advance. Purr when you talk to staff.)

A BIG thank you to East Bay friend Mary Ann for organizing this day and driving to all parts of The City.

Coit Tower from the SF Art Institute rooftop terrace.

Coit Tower from the SF Art Institute rooftop terrace. See the Bay Bridge?

 

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