Celebrating The Pan American Unity Mural by Diego Rivera with SFMoMA in 2020

December 18, 2017

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, backed by the City College of San Francisco, announced plans to display Diego Rivera’s historic mural best known by its unofficial title Pan American Unity.

As things currently stand, this incredible artwork will be the cornerstone of a major exhibition scheduled to take place in 2020.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a long and rich history with Diego Rivera - this institution has already held seventeen solo and group exhibitions of the artist's work, so it's fair to feel rather optimistic about what the popular SFMoMA will pull off in about two years time when the mural becomes available to the public.

Diego Rivera - The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent (Pan American Unity), 1940
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 & Frieda Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico D.F. / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image: courtesy City College of San Francisco

The History of the Mural

The full name of this splendid work by Diego Rivera is The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on the Continent but, as we said earlier, the piece is more commonly known as Pan American Unity.

The mural was created in 1940 as a part of the Art in Action program at the Golden Gate International Exposition, an event that saw both the local and international artists create numerous paintings, sculptures, weavings, glass works, prints and engravings in front of an audience.

Measuring 22 feet high and 74 feet wide, and covering nearly 1,800 square feet of surface, Pan American Unity is the largest mural Rivera ever created. It's also the last one he made on the US soil.

The piece is rich in symbolism and imagery as it depicts crucial moments that shaped and guided the North American continent throughout the centuries.

Diego Rivera shaking hands with Timothy Pflueger, 1940
Diego Rivera shaking hands with Timothy Pflueger, 1940. Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The Story Behind Diego Rivera's The Pan American Unity

Using fresco techniques, Diego Rivera created a mural with a strong social function. He made ten steel-framed panels that allow the individual sections to be transported and relocated separately, so the entire piece can be moved with relative ease.

Four outside panels on the lower row are discrete scenes while the top five panels, alongside the middle fifth one below, form a continuous view that can safely be described as Rivera’s most dynamic montage narrative.

Pan American Unity is a sweeping panorama of the Bay Area that extends from ancient civilizations to architectural icons like the Golden Gate Bridge. The main guideline was to establish a symbolic relation between the ancient and the modern, the North and the South, in a way that shows everything existing in harmony while also highlighting mutual technological and cultural advancements.

Rivera explained his artistic intent with the following statement made before the first panel was even created:

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.

Aside from incorporating topical events and a rich selection of important figures from history, Diego Rivera also referenced his previous Mexican murals and artworks.

He used scenes from Hollywood movies as well, depicting images associated with such films as The Great Dictator, Confessions of a Nazi Spy and All Quiet on the Western Front.

Detail of the Diego Rivera Mural Depicting Home Germany
Detail of the Mural Depicting Rivera's Interpretations of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and the Edward G. Robinson film Confessions of a Nazi Spy, via pinterest.com

First Six Panels of the Artwork

The first two panels on the mural's left side are a celebration of Mexico's indigenous past.

Set in a dramatic natural background, Rivera highlighted the country's artistic genius as well as its religious fervor. Depicting scenes in the period before Cortes, Diego placed Yaqui Deer Dancers, pottery makers and Netzahualcoyotl, the Aztec poet-king of Texcoco, in massive illustrations of the snow-covered Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl.

The next vertical panel pairing presents the City College diver Helen Crlenkovich as she symbolically blends ancient Mexico with the Bay Area. By showing her in the middle of a dive, Rivera incorporates a symbol of the conquest of time and space.

In the upper section, the contemporary Mexican artisan is carving the sculpture of Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpent god whose presence stands for the continuity of Mexican ancient culture that's still alive to this day.

In the lower segment of these panels, the artist depicted himself painting the portraits of the great liberators Washington, Jefferson, Hidalgo, Morelos, Bolivar, Lincoln and John Brown.

The central panel pairing is anchored with the figure of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue combined with a Ford Motor Company stamping machine.

A portrait of Frida Kahlo, Diego's wife, is present in this section as well.

There's also another symbolic scene here, one that displays the kinship of the Mexican and American traditions by showing an old man planting a tree in the presence of a Mexican girl and an American boy.

A Detail from the Fourth Project of the Mural
A Detail from the Fourth Panel of the Mural © Mike Tsoupko-Sitnikov

The Fourth and Fifth Pairs of Panels

The fourth vertical pairing of panels is also balanced by Helen Crlenklovich, a symmetrical visual solution that corresponds to the left half of the entire composition. In this panel, her dive is above the Treasure Island.

Two scenes from the movies can be found here, one from Charlie Chaplin's film The Great Dictator and the other from the Edward G. Robinson film Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Both scenes dramatize the fight between the democracy and the totalitarian powers threatening freedom.

As a parallel to the two panels on the far left, the scenes depicted on the right two panels celebrate the technological genius of the North. Rivera shows us how the creative mechanical power of the North enriched life in the South.

Here, he painted engineering achievements like Shasta Dam, oil derricks, bridges near the American peaks of Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen, and portraits of such geniuses as Ford, Morse and Fulton.

A Detail from the Second Panel of the home project
A Detail from the Second Panel of the Mural © Mike Tsoupko-Sitnikov

Pan American Unity Mural at SFMoMA in 2020

The Pan American Unity mural is not only one of the finest artworks of Rivera's career, it's also one of the most important public works in San Francisco.

Keeping that in mind, SFMoMA decided that the upcoming 2020 exhibition should display the mural in the museum’s Roberts Family Gallery on the street level that's the institution's unticketed, free-to-see space.

As it is usually the case with such landmark shows, this exhibition will be accompanied by a comprehensive program of conservation, public education and CCSF student internships, but we'll have to wait a while before The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reveals more detailed plans for the Rivera 2020 exhibition.

Editors’ Tip: Diego Rivera: The Complete Murals

A veritable folk hero in Latin America and Mexico’s most important artist―along with his wife, painter Frida Kahlo―Diego Rivera (1886–1957) led a passionate life devoted to arts and communism. After spending the 1910s in Europe, where he surrounded himself with other artists and embraced the Cubist movement, he returned to Mexico and began to paint the large-scale murals for which he is most famous. This volume features numerous large-scale details of the murals, allowing their various components and subtleties to be closely examined. In addition to the murals is a vast selection of paintings, vintage photos, documents, and drawings from public and private collections around the world.


  1. Anonymous, December 11, 2017, SFMOMA and City College of San Francisco Partner on Historic Display of Monumental Diego Rivera Mural as Part of Major Exhibition on Rivera's Work in 2020, SFMoMA [Dec 14, 2017]


Featured image: Rendering of Pan American Unity in the Roberts Family Gallery at SFMOMA, courtesy of SFMoMA; An Observer Looking at the Mural, via ielightsf.com; Pan American Unity on Display, via netdna-cdn.com. All images via SFMoMA.

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