Back Story

Fatso and Frida in San Francisco

The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, one of many murals painted by Diego Rivera in San Francisco, photo: Geigenot / flickr

Diego Rivera, the internationally renowned and controversial Mexican artist, had warm associations with San Francisco. He found it to be a fascinating bohemian city and a source for major commissions of his work. For example, he created a giant mural at the Golden Gate International Exposition that took place on San Francisco’s Treasure Island in 1939–40. Called Pan American Unity, the 1,800-square-foot fresco featured 10 giant panels. One depicted the artist, his back turned to his ex-wife Frida Kahlo, as he faced his lover, movie star Paulette Goddard, married to another Hollywood legend, Charles Chaplin, also shown in the mural. When asked why he painted himself holding the actress’s hand, he replied, “To promote closer Pan-American relations.” 

After the exposition, the mural was to be installed in a library building planned for San Francisco Junior College — now City College of San Francisco — but U.S. entry into World War II halted most construction projects, and it was kept in storage until Rivera’s death. It was finally installed in the school’s performing arts theater in 1961.


Frida Kahlo was Rivera’s third wife. They divorced in Mexico but later remarried in San Francisco. The pair remained together, but lived in adjoining houses in Mexico City until she died in 1954 at 47. A volatile woman, Kahlo met the famed artist in 1922 when she was a young student. She called him “Old Fatso” and declared that she wanted to have his child. They began courting and married in 1929. Kahlo became a brilliant surrealist painter. She had a series of physical problems and mishaps that left her disabled. Nevertheless, she was a powerful partner for Rivera, and their relationship was tempestuous. Kahlo equaled the charismatic Rivera in physical appetites. She matched his lifelong habit of romantic involvements with many affairs — including one with Leon Trotsky, the Russian communist and political refugee, then exiled in Mexico.


Rivera was a lifelong communist. Many considered him politically incorrect and a wide-eyed radical. He also enjoyed his well-deserved reputation as a womanizer. This was fueled by the depiction of Paulette Goddard and Charles Chaplin in the mural and by autobiographical accounts of his first mistress — he, aged 13, she, an 18-year-old American schoolteacher.

When Rivera came to San Francisco to paint Pan American Unity, it was not the first time he had been here. The city had embraced him in 1931 when he journeyed to the United States to undertake earlier commissions. One was for the Pacific Stock Exchange, the other for the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. During this earlier visit, Rivera cut an exciting swath through social and bohemian circles.


When he returned 10 years later to paint Pan American Unity, Rivera lived on Telegraph Hill at 42 Calhoun terrace and partook of the heady pleasures of nearby North Beach. Then, perhaps tiring of bohemian life, he sent for ex-wife Frida. She joined him, and in December 1940, they went to City Hall and were remarried. But the famous couple returned to a state of marital bliss only briefly. Frida returned to Mexico City before Christmas. She had exacted draconian premarital conditions — she would support herself. He would pay half of all household expenses. There would be no sex between them.


Born in 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico, Rivera studied traditional European artistic styles in school. He also absorbed traditions of Mexican folk art and combined them with European classicism. When he visited Spain, he studied Goya, El Greco and Brueghel in Madrid’s El Prado. Later, in Paris, he became a friend of Pablo Picasso, and was influenced by cubism. He also visited Italy and studied Renaissance fresco techniques and employed them for his major murals.


Returning to Mexico, Rivera became influenced by the Mexican Revolution of 1910–17 and the Russian Revolution that followed. He and other Mexican artists, notably David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Rufino Tamaya became committed to turbulent public art that they displayed in grandiose detail on the walls of Mexico’s public buildings. They explored what they believed was a direct artistic line from prehistoric Mexican rock paintings and sophisticated Mayan murals, to their own large works depicting in allegory and symbolism a tumultuous Mexico.

Rivera idealized the Mexican Revolution and gave underdog Mexicans something to be proud of. He became a leader of a cultural revolution and in the process became internationally famous.

Pan American Unity, on display in the Diego Rivera Theater at San Francisco Community College, photo: Geigenot / flickr

Pan American Unity, on display in the Diego Rivera Theater at San Francisco Community College, photo: Geigenot / flickr


Another San Francisco commission was for a large mural in the San Francisco Stock Exchange Tower, 115 Sansome Street, which opened in 1930. Today that same space is devoted to the City Club, still a members-only luncheon establishment. The centerpiece remains a Diego Rivera mural, Allegory of California, completed in 1931. One figure, the earth goddess, was modeled on tennis star Helen Wills Moody. Others were James Marshall who discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and horticulturist Luther Burbank.


That same year Rivera undertook another mural in San Francisco. It was for the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute at 800 Chestnut Street. Called The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, it’s divided into three vertical sections by trompe l’oeil wooden scaffolding that frames an urban construction site. In the center, Rivera painted himself sitting on the scaffolding — his broad backside to the viewer — holding a paintbrush and palette. A writer for a local arts publication said, “I would suggest his (Rivera’s) predominant characteristic is conspicuous showmanship. He is the P. T. Barnum of Mexico.”


In 1932, the prolific artist created a large mural in the Detroit Institute for the Arts, and in 1933 began one in New York’s Radio City for the Rockefeller family. Because it depicted Russia’s communist leader Nikolai Lenin, it was destroyed. Later Rivera re-created it in Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts.


The final word on Diego Rivera came from his fourth and last wife, Emma Hurtado. Just before his death in 1957 from complications of cancer of the penis, she said, “The more he lives the greater grows the desire for collectors to buy his paintings. It is no longer a question of what the world thinks of him. He is already a classic and his greatness insures him against everything.”

Editor’s note: San Francisco City Guides offers free tours of these Diego Rivera works; visit for schedules. In addition, the murals are open for free public viewing:

Pan American Unity: Diego Rivera Theater, San Francisco Community College, 50 Phelan Ave. (at Ocean), Monday–Friday; call 415-452-5313 or visit for hours

The Allegory of California: The City Club, 115 Sansome St. (near Pine), Monday–Friday 8–10:30 a.m. & 3–4 p.m.; confirm your visit at 415-362-2480 

The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City: Diego Rivera Gallery, San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut St. (near Jones), daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m., 415-771-7020 ext.4410,

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