Diego Rivera, Man Controller of the Universe

Diego Rivera, Man Controller of the Universe (or Man in the Time Machine), 1934, fresco, 4.85 x 11.45 m in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Key points

  • Man Controller of the Universe is a fresco in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Part of a tradition of art for the people begun in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, it is a recreation of a mural, Man at the Crossroads, commissioned John D. Rockefeller Jr. in New York City, which was begun and then destroyed.
  • Diego Rivera was basking in the success of murals in San Francisco and Detroit, as well as a one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Rivera’s design for Man at the Crossroads included a portrait of the Russian communist leader Lenin, which angered the capitalist Rockefeller. He insisted Rivera remove it, but Rivera refused. In the end, Rockefeller paid Rivera for the commission, but locked the artist out and had the work destroyed.
  • The mural in Mexico City, retitled Man Controller of the Universe, depicts a world coming to grips with politically turbulent times as well as asking what the future holds for a humanity that had been able to peer deep into space as well as into the microscopic world.
  • Rivera emphasizes the differences between the good and evil that mankind is capable of, as well as the differences between capitalist and communist societies. He placed many portraits in the painting, including communist leaders as well as a portrait of John D. Rockefeller Jr. as a wealthy capitalist indifferent to the suffering of the starving, unemployed lower classes.
  • Throughout the painting, Rivera shows a hopeful vision of a world where people of all races and ethnicities are able to join together, be educated together, and work together towards the future. However, it is not certain that this is the world humanity will choose.

Go deeper

“Destroyed By Rockefellers, Mural Trespassed On Political Vision” at NPR

An analysis of the science and technology in Man, Controller of the Universe at Scientific American’s Symbiartic blog

Diego Rivera’s murals at PBS

More to think about

Diego Rivera’s vision of humanity in Man Controller of the Universe is meant to be inclusive in its representation of many different races and ethnicities, as well as men and women, capable of coming together and living in a better world. It also rejects the American capitalism of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the fascism of the Nazis. Why then do you think that the main “controller” figure of the mural is a blonde, blue-eyed man?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.