Art World

Diego Rivera’s historic mural ‘Pan American Unity’ at SFMOMA

Detail of The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent (Pan American Unity) by Diego Rivera, 1940. Image Courtesy City College of San Francisco.

One of the greatest works of public art in San Francisco, Diego Rivera’s The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent, commonly called Pan American Unity, is on display for an extended period at SFMOMA’s free-to-visit street-level Roberts Family Gallery. 

A project four years in the making, the work, Rivera’s largest contiguous mural, was painstakingly moved from the City College of San Francisco (CCSF). The 10-panel fresco was extracted from a 12-inch thick concrete wall, mounted on new steel frames and encased in travel frames. The panels were trucked across San Francisco one at a time, at a speed of five miles per hour, on a series of Sunday mornings at 4 a.m. 


When Diego Rivera arrived in San Francisco in 1940 to paint the mural as a participant in the Art in Action program at the  Golden Gate International Exposition, he had only the beginnings of an idea about the fresco he was about to create. Fairgoers could watch artists creating work in a Pan Am Clipper airplane hangar converted into a working studio and gallery. From June to December 1940, using the same buon fresco technique as the Italian Renaissance masters, Rivera chose to represent the exposition’s Pan American emphasis by depicting the fusion of preconquest Mexican art with motifs of North American industrialization. “For years I have felt that the real art of the Americas must come as a result of the fusion of the mechanism and new creative power of the north with the tradition rooted in the soil of the south, the Toltecs, Tarascans, Mayas, Incas, etc., and would like to choose that as the subject for my next mural,” he wrote.


The mural itself and its symbolism cannot be understood without taking into consideration the climate of that time. The political and historical context of a world in which Germany had already conquered most of Europe was directly reflected in paint. Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler — allied at that time — were painted emerging as a tree-shaped vapor surrounded by images from antifascist films including Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator

A sweeping panorama of the Bay Area, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, surrounds a central figure that combines a sculpture of the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue with modern machinery. Rivera himself is painted into the mural as well as Henry Ford standing above his V-8 engine and Thomas Edison complete with phonograph and light bulb. Amidst the turmoil of war, art and enlightenment save the day. Rivera saw Pan American Unity as a personal statement “… to ward off the forces of aggression.” “My mural will picture the fusion between the great past of the Latin American lands, as it is deeply rooted in the soil, and the high mechanical developments of the United States,” he said.


The Grand Library at City College, the mural’s planned home upon completion, was put on hold after the United States entered World War II in 1941, which halted all nonessential construction. The mural remained unseen and in storage throughout the 1950s, due in no small part to the McCarthy era’s reaction to Rivera’s controversial support of communist politics. The mural finally was accessible to the public in 1961 after it was installed in the foyer of the City College of San Francisco’s new performing arts theater, renamed in 1993 as the Diego Rivera Theater in honor of the artist.


As part of the public programs for Pan American Unity, local organizations will commission artists to paint small-scale murals live in the outdoor corridor adjacent to the Roberts Family Gallery. A comprehensive program of on-site conservation, public education, and talks will accompany the duration of the mural’s stay at SFMOMA, and will be on site in conjunction with the upcoming exhibition “Diego Rivera’s America,” opening in summer 2022.

Shanell Williams, president of City College’s Board of Trustees says, “SFMOMA and CCSF are two of the city’s most enduring institutions in the public interest, and the transformative power of art and education will come together in this visionary presentation of Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity. The sharing and display of this mural for all to experience represents City College’s historical actions to continue working towards a more just and equitable society.”

Pan American Unity: A Mural by Diego Rivera: Monday 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Thursday 1–8 p.m. & Fri.–Sun. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., through summer 2023, free, SFMOMA, 151 Third Street, 415-357-4000,

Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at

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