Three Magnificent Diego Rivera Frescos in San Francisco

San Francisco's culture is an eclectic mix of art, architecture, music and cuisine. The City by the Bay's bohemian vibe has long been a magnet for artists from across America and around the world. Nowhere is this international melting pot of artistic vision more apparent than in the frescos of Diego Rivera

One of the things we like most about San Francisco is its hidden gems. Scattered across the city are delightful treasures, which reward those intrepid travelers who venture off the beaten tourist trails in search of the real San Francisco. Some of our favorite San Francisco art highlights are the colorful and somewhat controversial Diego Rivera murals.

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Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera

Widely regarded as the most influential Mexican artist of the twentieth century, Diego Rivera was a controversial, larger-than-life figure. As a young artist, Rivera lived for several years in Paris hanging out with other talented painters such as Picasso. Rivera also spent significant periods of his career in the US.

Rivera's style fused European modern masters with Mexico's pre-Columbian heritage. In executing his work, Rivera embraced the techniques of Italian fresco painters. Rivera was one of the leading founders of the Mexican Muralist movement and his epic themes encompassed social inequality, the relationship between nature, industry, and technology, and the history and dramatic fate of Mexico. Rivera remains a revered figure in Mexico, celebrated for both his role in the country's artistic renaissance and for his outsized persona and stormy marriage with eminent artist Frida Kahlo.

From the 1920s through to the 1950s, Rivera traveled all over the Americas. In San Francisco, he created three powerful frescos. These frescos were intended to be a constant reminder of the power of public art, and they continue to inspire generations of artists. Let's take a looi at the three Rivera murals you don't want to miss when you are in San Francisco.

Allegory of California

Allegory of California

Allegory of California (1931) is the first fresco Rivera finished in the United States. It adorns the grand stairwell in The City Club in downtown San Francisco. The main female figure represents Calafia, the Spirit of California. The piece depicts the state of California at the time of its completion. It also includes well-known local and regional identities of the time.

  • 155 Sansome Street, 10th Floor, downtown San Francisco
  • Open to the public only on the 1st and 3rd Mondays of the month at 3 PM
  • City Club Website

The Making of A Fresco Showing The Building of A City

The Making of A Fresco Showing The Building of A City

This 1931 Diego Rivera fresco is the second one he completed in the United States. This work is considered a fresco within a fresco. It depicts the painters in action as they create the fresco. You can see all of the artists, together with their scaffolding, layered on top of the masterpiece they are completing. This fresco also includes Diego Rivera's backside as he watches the artists work on the fresco below.

The San Francisco Art Institute is an easy walk from either Fisherman's Wharf or North Beach. It's also just a few blocks from the bottom of Lombard Street, San Francisco's famous crooked street.

  • Diego Rivera Gallery, San Francisco Art Institute
  • 800 Chestnut Street
  • Open to the public daily between 9 AM and 5 PM
  • Website

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Pan American Unity

Pan American Unity

Considered the most magnificent Diego Rivera fresco in San Francisco, Pan American Unity stands 22 feet tall and is 75 feet wide. It comprises 10 panels and is the largest significant piece of work Rivera completed. It is also the last fresco he created in the United States. Pan American Unity was commissioned during the Golden Gate International Expo on Treasure Island. Rivera commenced work on it in June 1940, completing it later in December.

After briefly being on public display, the fresco was packed into crates where it remained for 19 years. In 1961, the Diego Rivera Theater was built specifically to house it. Each of the 10 panels of The Pan American Unity tells a different story, encompassing Pre-Columbian Mexico to the World War II's combatants, which was in progress at the time. The Diego Rivera Theater is set on the campus of the City College of San Francisco. Entry is free. Visiting hours change frequently due to volunteer availability.

The best way to get to the City College of San Francisco from downtown is by taking the outbound K train from the underground Powell Street Station near Union Square all the way to the Ocean Avenue and Lee Street stop. It takes about 45 minutes.

  • City College of San Francisco
  • 50 Phelan Avenue, A301
  • Website

Diego Rivera's Legacy

Diego Rivera's Legacy

Rivera's political perspective portrayed artists as craftsmen at the service of the community. As such, an easily accessible visual language was required to convey the artist's political vision. This concept greatly influenced American public art, including the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, whose artists showed scenes from American life on public buildings. With his politically expansive artistic vision, narrative discipline, and extensive use of highly symbolic imagery, Rivera inspired a wave of artists, including a young Jackson Pollock, believe it or not.

What Are Frescos?

Many visitors confuse murals with frescos. A fresco is a technique where the paint is applied directly to a freshly-laid, wet lime plaster. Water merges the pigment with the plaster, and as the plaster sets, the painting becomes an integral part of the wall. The advantage of this technique is that the vibrancy of their colors lasts forever while the colors in a mural can fade over time.

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Recommended Reading

For a captivating insight into Diego Rivera's frescos, it's hard to get better than Diego Rivera, The Complete Murals, which is unfortunately out of print (but check at the library).

Despite having a less-than-catchy title, Anthony W. Lee's Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco's Public Murals provides a historical and political perspective on Rivera's San Francisco works. It's still in print and is available in a large paperback edition.

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