The Bruton Sisters and Diego Rivera

Pan American Unity mural by Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera Mural Project

During the Art in Action program at the Golden Gate International Exposition most visitors were drawn to the scaffolding on one wall of the Fine Arts Palace, where the famous Diego Rivera was toiling on his Pan American Unity fresco.  When Rivera came to the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940, he was divorced from his wife Frida Kahlo.  While Rivera was working on his fresco, Kahlo joined him in San Francisco and the couple were reunited; they remarried later that year.  

New York Daily News, 9 Dec. 1940, p. 51B

Rivera commuted daily to Treasure Island from the apartment he shared with Kahlo in the Russian Hill district of San Francisco.  Helen Bruton found working with the unpredictable Rivera intensely frustrating.  Although she clearly appreciated his talent, she admitted that they “had a terrible time with him… he’s supposed to go to work at 11:00 in the morning… [but] he didn’t get started until 5:00 or 6:00 at night when most of the people were gone--they had come to see him paint on the scaffold.”[2]   If “the plaster was working right,” Rivera would stay well into the evening, resulting in an even later appearance the next day.  It was clearly a problem for Helen--and for the reputation of Art in Action--when the most popular artist was absent during the busiest hours of the Fair. 

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
Carl Van Vechten photograph collection (Library of Congress)
[public domain]

Rivera’s fresco was painted on movable panels so that after the Exposition it could be installed at San Francisco’s new junior college.  According to Rivera, his mural was “about the marriage of the artistic expression of the North and of the South on this continent… in order to make an American art, a real American art, this will be necessary, this blending of the art of the Indian, the Mexican, the Eskimo."[3]  The fresco ended up almost twice as big as the planned 900 square feet, yet it was still nowhere near the size of the Bruton sisters’ massive 8,000 square foot Peacemakers mural.  

Unsurprisingly, Rivera’s fresco was still incomplete at the end of the Fair, and he and his assistants continued to toil away for an additional two months in the abandoned hangar.  On December 1, 1940, more than 1,000 people returned to Treasure Island to see the completed mural, which had grown to 22 feet high and 75 feet wide.  The San Francisco Examiner reported that although the public viewing of Rivera’s fresco was a “great success,” it also served as an unofficial “silent memorial service” for the once vibrant Fairgrounds, now bleak and still.[4]  Afterwards, the fresco was disassembled, crated, and stored for almost two decades. In the interim, Rivera had become controversial and unpopular due to his political views and his membership in the communist party.  In addition, the public was uncomfortable with the mural’s caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin.[5]  It wasn’t until 1961, more than twenty years later, that Rivera’s Pan American Unity mural was finally installed at the City College of San Francisco, where it still hangs today. 

Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini in Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity mural.
Charlie Chaplin in his role in The Great Dictator is in the foreground.

Helen Bruton’s Art in Action program was an enormous success.  It was called “one of the most interesting and successful innovations at the Fair this year”[6]and “held the greatest emotion for the public.”[7]  The Magazine of Art reported that “the Art in Action project so dominates the Fine Arts Building at the San Francisco Fair that it breathes its life into all sections, including those respectfully if vaguely termed Old Masters.  Last year the collection of Old Masters stole the show.  It seems fitting that this year the living artists of California should be the center of attention.”[8]  Famous war correspondent and journalist Ernie Pyle concurred, claiming that the Art in Action display was “even better” than the Old Masters; he could barely contain his enthusiasm when he described the “batch of artists actually drawing pictures, chiseling sculptures, carving wood and painting murals right before your eyes like performers in a circus.”[9]  Diego Rivera also praised the Art in Action program.  “What a show!” he enthused.  “This is the most stimulating way to create a richer understanding of the arts among the public.  One of the really gratifying things in the period of art renaissance in Mexico was the active interest our people took as they watched muralists work on public buildings. I am confident that from this Art in Action project here, similar enthusiasm for the arts will grow.”[10]  Museum director Grace McCann Morley claimed that Art in Action would “set a pattern for all exhibitions of the future.”[11]  The program was so successful, that after the close of the Fair, the concept was repeated at the Society of Women Artists exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Art.[12]  Many other museums and schools considered implementing similar live art demonstrations for educational purposes.

As the Art in Action program came to close, Helen organized a costume party to thank the artists who had participated. Sculptor Ruth Cravath, who remembered Helen Bruton as “a very prominent artist,” went to the party dressed as Frida Kahlo.  She was surprised and somewhat embarrassed to run into Diego Rivera, but he took no offense and assured Cravath that she “looked like Frida.  He was quite pleased.”[13]

Diego Rivera’s stunning Pan American Unity mural will be on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2020.  You read more about it here.

[2]Interview, 26 Feb. 1975, p. 2.
[3]Diego Rivera Mural Project (
[4]San Francisco Examiner, 2 Dec. 1940, p. 8.
[5]The Times (San Mateo, CA), 25 Nov. 1940, p. 12.
[6]Placer Herald (Rocklin, CA), 21 Sept. 1940, p. 2.
[7]Oakland Tribune, 29 Sept. 1940, p. B-7.
[8]Jane Watson. “Art in Action at San Francisco.” Magazine of Art. Washington D.C., Aug. 1940, p. 462-9.
[9]Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), 15 July 1940, p. 4.
[10]Oakland Tribune, 16 June 1940, p B-7.
[11]H.L. Dungan. Oakland Tribune, 19 May 1940, p. B-7.
[12]San Francisco Examiner, 3 Nov. 1940, p. D-11.
[13]Interview with Ruth Cravath, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Calif., 13 Feb. 1975, p. 105-106.


  1. One reason the mural wasn't finished when the fair ended was that Rivera spontaneously decided to make it bigger when he got to San Francisco. The three panel-width mural became a 5 panel-width mural, but he still painted it all in 4 months. As Rivera left at the end of 1940 he signed a contract to return and triple the size of the mural. WWII segued into the Cold War and Diego never returned.


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