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Monday, June 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
A Diego Rivera mystery: Did Mao destroy missing mural, or does it live on?
By Hugh Dellios
MEXICO CITY An enormous mural, nearly 40 feet long and 10 feet high, is not something that could easily go missing.
Especially if it was painted by a country's most famous muralist and is considered an important part of the national artistic patrimony. And especially if it was so controversial that the government refused to exhibit it.
Yet lost indeed is Diego Rivera's "Nightmare of War, Dream of Peace." One of the well-known muralist's last works, it mysteriously disappeared 50 years ago but has resurfaced in the Mexican imagination as the government vows to investigate a new theory about its fate.
Some think it may be hidden in a museum storage room in Moscow. Others believe it went to China, where Mao Zedong had it destroyed, even though it portrayed him and Joseph Stalin as peace-loving figures confronting a war-mongering Uncle Sam.
"There is an enormous curiosity to know where this mural is, and if it doesn't exist anymore, why was it destroyed?" said Carlos Phillips Olmedo, director of Mexico City's Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum, which has one of the largest collections of Rivera's work.
Though Rivera died in 1957, he still is beloved in Mexico for his grand, historic murals that decorate entire walls of important buildings. He is almost as famous for his idealistic pro-communist views and his stormy marriage to fellow painter Frida Kahlo.
Interest in the mystery of his missing mural was rekindled when a Chinese expert in Latin American art recently claimed that Rivera gave it to Mao in the 1950s but that Mao destroyed it during China's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early '70s.
In an interview with Mexico City's Reforma newspaper, the Chinese expert, Xing Xiaosheng, said Rivera delivered it to the Chinese government during a secret Cold War-era visit to China.
While some art experts and Rivera relatives dispute the expert's claims, the new theory pushed government arts administrators to promise renewed efforts to find the mural. They asked Mexico's ambassador in Beijing to look into it.
The mural was not Rivera's only controversial artwork. As portrayed in the 2002 movie "Frida," the Rockefeller family contracted him in 1933 to paint a mural at Rockefeller Center in New York but tore it down after the artist included the face of Vladimir Lenin.
The missing "Nightmare" mural was painted in 1952, when the government of President Miguel Aleman asked Rivera to produce a work that would represent Mexico in a global exhibition in Paris. Rivera said he would paint a mural "dedicated to peace."
For Rivera, that meant images of a benevolent Mao and Stalin offering a peace agreement to a sour-looking Uncle Sam and two figures representing England and France. Nearby are a nuclear bomb's mushroom cloud, a soldier dying on a cross and a laborer guiding Mexicans toward peace offered by the communists.
Government officials refused to send the work to Paris because of its anti-U.S. theme. A livid Rivera later would blame the Americans, saying he first heard objections about the work from the U.S. ambassador's wife at a dinner party.
What happened next is in dispute among Rivera contemporaries and members of Mexico's art community, who often are at bitter odds over Rivera's legacy and works.
Most concur that Rivera decided to give the mural to Mao. But, because Mexico did not have official relations with China, he had to send it through Europe and Russia.
Many believe it was first sent to a peace congress in Vienna. From there, it likely went to Moscow along with another Rivera mural that depicted the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew a left-leaning government in Guatemala in 1954.
In 2000, a German researcher told acquaintances she saw the "Nightmare" mural, in bad shape, in storage at Moscow's Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. One of those she told was Raquel Tibol, an art critic and former Rivera secretary, who told the Mexican media about the sighting.
Russian officials denied that at the time. One media report said the mural was presented to the Soviets by Rivera in 1956. The report speculated that the mural is in Poland.
Contacted last week, Pushkin officials said they have no knowledge of the missing mural ever being at the museum.
The Chinese expert's theory is that the mural went to China and hung in the Congress of World Peace building in Beijing for years. Mao may have destroyed it, Xing said, after deciding it was too foreign and "bourgeois," and he also may not have wanted to be portrayed next to Stalin.
Rivera's daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marin, told the Mexican media that the new theory is "viable." Others remembered that a British film crew claimed in the 1980s to have seen remnants of the burned mural in Beijing.
But others, including Tibol, a longtime Rivera associate, dismiss the notion that Rivera went to China or that Mao would destroy a mural so flattering to him.
Tibol, 80, said she remembers being with Rivera when the mural arrived in a huge tube at Kahlo's famous blue house in Mexico City after it was returned by the government in 1952.
"I often make a joke, following the Rivera style, that it's probably still in the warehouse of (Mexico's) interior ministry, because it was an era when artistic works were kidnapped easily," she said.
At the Olmedo museum, the continuing interest in the missing mural can be seen in the black and white photo of it that takes up an entire wall.
Phillips, the museum director and son of Dolores Olmedo, a close Rivera friend and model in the 1930s, said that as far as his mother and others knew, the mural eventually made it to China.
Discussing the possibility that the mural could be found one day and returned to Mexico, Phillips rejected the notion that it would not be received well because of its historically questionable message.
"The theme of the mural, which is peace, would never be seen as an embarrassment," he said. "Not then, not now."
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