SAN FRANCISCO Many things about Diego Rivera’s mural “The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on the Continent” induce awe. There’s the sheer size of it: 10 panels, weighing more than 60,000 pounds. Then there’s the scope, with Rivera packing in so many scenes and characters, including weavers, embroiderers, miners, politicians, celebrities, inventors, and his friends and fellow artists.

Another thing that causes people’s eyes to widen is the mural’s recent move from the lobby of a theater at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Rivera gave the mural to CCSF after it was finished, and it will go back to the college once a performing arts center, which will house it, is finished. It’s now on display in a free street-level gallery at SFMOMA and will remain there for two years. Getting it there took seven trips, made at 4am on Sundays, at five miles an hour, on a route mapped out to avoid bus lines and overpasses.

At a preview before the official opening of the gallery on June 28, the speakers, including SFMOMA’s director Neal Benzera and the Consul General of Mexico in San Francisco, Remedios Gómez Arnau, appeared positively giddy that after four years of preparation, planning, and research with conservators, Rivera scholars, art handlers, and scientists at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Rivera’s largest portable fresco mural had made it to the museum.  

Diego Rivera, “The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent (Pan American Unity)” (1940) (© Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico D.F. / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, image courtesy City College of San Francisco)

Arnau said that getting the mural, commonly known as “Pan American Unity,” to SFMOMA served as a reminder of the importance of working together.

“We’ve had this terrible pandemic with so much death,” she said, “but the message of unity should prevail.”

Rivera painted the mural in front of an audience in 1940 as part of the Art in Action exhibition at the Golden Gate Exposition on San Francisco’s Treasure Island. SFMOMA curator Maria Castro talked about the details of the mural, which shows the technology of the northern hemisphere on one side and pre-colonized Mexico on the other, and how it highlights creativity.

“In a time of machines and mass production, artists are more vital and necessary than ever,” Castro said. “Art is an essential human activity.”

SFMOMA has a history with Rivera. In December of 1940, the founding director of the museum, Dr. Grace McCann Morley, wrote in a letter to Art Digest about this work: “In intensity of symbolic images, complexity and depth of thought he is of course here going into something much more profound than anything he has previously attempted.” The museum has 76 of Rivera’s works, and next summer, many will be on display when SFMOMA hosts the show Diego Rivera’s America.

At a tour of the mural, Castro talked about how displaying it at the museum makes it accessible to many people and how seeing other works by Rivera will help contextualize it. Two of the artist’s murals are in San Francisco (at the Stock Exchange and at the San Francisco Art Institute), but Castro says this one centers the city, showing the San Francisco Bay, the city skyline, a map of Treasure Island, and the Bay and the Golden Gate bridges.

Castro also pointed to images of the brightly colored feathered serpent and Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl; political leaders in the Americas, including Simón Bolívar, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and abolitionist John Brown, looking like a depiction of Moses with a long white beard; and fascist dictators Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

Rivera shows the art, technology, and science in the Americas before Columbus, Castro says, while calling attention to artistry in regular life. 

“Here’s this self-portrait of him,” Castro said. “All around him he paints craftspeople and workers, and he’s drawing that connection between his practice and the work of everyday people.”

Conservators prepare the surface of “Pan American Unity” before removal from the Diego Rivera Theater at City College of San Francisco (image courtesy Katherine Du Tiel/SFMOMA)

Castro described the front of the mural, and SFMOMA’s head of conservation, Michelle Barger, showed the steel structures at the back, where the frescos are attached. She says they faced unique challenges moving the mural, and that’s why they needed so much preparation and a large team. At UNAM’s Center for Mechanical Design and Technological Innovation, staff created two full-sized replica panels to stress test extracting and moving the frescos. According to Barger, transportation wasn’t a big deal — it was the unknowns about removing the murals from the concrete walls where they were attached.

“People get big eyes over, ‘Wow, you craned it over the wires and trucked it across town,’ but our art handlers and riggers do that kind of stuff with large things all the time, so for them it was like, ‘We got this,’” she said. “It was taking it off the wall with this art form that doesn’t exist anywhere else at this scale that we couldn’t learn from anybody how to do it.”

At the end of the preview, Benzera came back up to the podium to say he’d noticed the reaction to the mural out on the sidewalk. “I’m seeing people walking by and looking in,” he said. “Their lips are forming the word, ‘Wow.’”

The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on the Continent (Pan American Unity)” by Diego Rivera is currently on view in the Roberts Family Gallery at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 3rd Street, San Francisco) through summer 2023.

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California...