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Nearly 80 years ago, the Rockefeller Center in New York City commissioned a mural from Mexican artist Diego Rivera. But its leftist themes outraged the Rockefeller family, and it was chiseled off.

A new exhibit in Washington, D.C., pieces the history of the mural together. NPR's Allison Keyes reports on a tale that illustrates the tensions between politics and art.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: When Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was commissioned in 1932 to do a mural at the center of the 14-building Rockefeller Center, some might have wondered whether industrialist tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. knew what he was getting into. But exhibition co-curator Susana Pliego says the family was aware of Rivera's leftist politics.

He was asked to show a man at the crossroads looking with uncertainty, but with hope and high vision to the choosing of a course leading to a new and better future. But Pliego asks...

SUSANA PLIEGO: What made the Rockefellers think that the vision that Rivera would have was going to be the same that they would have?

KEYES: Co-curator Pablo Ortiz Monasterio says the show illustrates the conflict between the rich, powerful family that hired Rivera and the artist's strong political point of view.

PABLO ORTIZ MONASTERIO: It was a bad decision for everyone. But it's about politics when you have to take this. There is no other way out. So that is why it's so important, you know?

KEYES: Pliego says the original sketch for the mural, and what Rivera agreed to paint, included three men clasping hands in the middle - a soldier, worker and peasant.

PLIEGO: A spiritual union of all the three elements that Rivera thought that man - humanity - was composed of.

KEYES: It also included everything from a people's parade in Moscow's Red Square to jobless workers lining up for food. But David Rockefeller Sr. told the Museum of Modern Art in 2012...

DAVID ROCKEFELLER, SR.: Unfortunately, what he painted was very different from the sketch.

KEYES: The leftist artist was taunted by those who felt he had sold out, says Rivera expert Linda Downs.

LINDA DOWNS: He was really provoked in New York by the leftist organizations and various communist groups that challenged him about painting for businessmen like Rockefeller.

KEYES: Then the World Telegram newspaper ran the headline: "Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity, And John D. Foots The Bill." Curator Pliego says he then decided to add a portrait of Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin to the mural.

PLIEGO: He sent his assistants to find a picture of Lenin because he said: If you want communism, I will paint communism.

KEYES: On top of that, David Rockefeller Sr. told MOMA that Rivera added a panel that the family felt was an unflattering portrait of his father.

ROCKEFELLER SR.: The picture of Lenin was on the right-hand side. And on the left, a picture of father drinking martinis with a harlot, and various other things that were unflattering to the family and clearly, inappropriate to have as the center of Rockefeller Center.

KEYES: In addition, Rivera persuaded them to let him paint a fresco - paint on wet plaster - instead of on canvas. That meant the work couldn't be moved. After a flurry of letters asking Rivera to replace Lenin, and the artists' declaration that he'd rather see the work destroyed than mutilated, Rivera was fired and the work was eventually chiseled off.

Again, curator Monasterio.

MONASTERIO: He had these two options. OK, he could erase that and solve the problem. But if he didn't, then that would be a scandal. That would be propaganda. So he, himself, was at the crossroads again.

KEYES: Linda Downs, the executive director of the College Art Association, says the piece would have been stunning had it survived.

DOWNS: He had this vision about the importance of technology in the future, and a hope that there would be a coming together of workers and industrialists and businessmen to further mankind in general. I mean, it was a very hopeful mural.

KEYES: Curator Susana Pliego says the exhibition illustrates a key question.

PLIEGO: Who owns a work of art? Like, for example, Diego said in a letter: If someone buys the Sistine Chapel, does he have, you know, the authority to destroy it?

KEYES: The exhibition, "Man at the Crossroads: Diego Rivera's Mural at Rockefeller Center," reconstructs the story of the mural through reproductions of documents, letters, photographs and Rivera's sketches. It'll be on display at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., through May 17th.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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