Diego Rivera's Delayed Drawings for the Popol Vuh

The Newberry recently purchased a collection of correspondence, dating from the 1930s to the mid-1970s, related to what would have been the first English translation of the Popol Vuh.

Written by the author John M. Weatherwax in 1931, this English translation would have included watercolor paintings by the artist Diego Rivera. Weatherwax’s manuscript was titled Seven Times the Colour of Fire, and although it was never published, the unpublished manuscript survives as part of the John Weatherwax papers relating to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera held at the Smithsonian Archives of American art.

Rivera and Weatherwax met in the fall of 1930 through a mutual friend, the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Around the time of their meeting, Rivera was working on Allegory of California for the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco. Weatherwax would often visit Rivera as he was painting the mural and read chapters from his manuscript. As Weatherwax said, “(We) would start work on one or another design for the Popol Vuh, I reading from the text, and Rivera making rough or finished sketches…”

Despite such a promising start, the project never came to fruition. The correspondence now at the Newberry documents the tortured history of this project and includes four telegrams that Rivera sent from Mexico asking for more time to complete the illustrations and arranging the logistics for their transfer and payment. From start to finish the project was star-crossed, as we can see from a series of telegrams Rivera sent Weatherwax starting on June 20, 1931:

“Regret to trouble you but need five days longer to finish drawings than stipulated in contract stop please let me know at once if you can arrange this extension of time=Diego Rivera.”

In telegram dated June 28, Rivera mentions another delay:

“Unable to send work today on account illness have stopped work on palace to devote all time to drawings and shall send them in few days glad book will be published in house with my good friend Earnestine Evans Greetings=Diego Rivera”

In a letter dated August 13, from the managing director of publishing for J.B. Lippincott Company, J. Jefferson James writes to Weatherwax expressing his concerns and sincerest apologies for the project not being able to go forward due to delay in obtaining the paintings from Rivera.

Two of the last telegrams in the collection from Rivera, dated between October and December of 1931, mention how the drawings were completed by November 13—months after the initial agreed-upon deadline. It was too little, too late. On October 1, 1931 Weatherwax received a letter from J. Jefferson James indicating the cancellation of the project.

In correspondence from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Weatherwax wrote, “Rivera did many more of the illustrations for the Popol Vuh; but he was not able to meet even an extended Lippincott date for finishing; the (great) depression got deeper and deeper; finally Lippincott refused to wait longer, and the deal was off.”

One can understand why Rivera had fallen behind schedule: between 1931 and 1934, he painted the San Francisco Stock Exchange mural (and two more frescoes in San Francisco), a sizable mural project for the Detroit Institute of Arts, another for Rockefeller Center in New York City (later destroyed), and several other frescoes in the United States.

In all, this small archive at the Newberry offers an intimate and detailed look at the complex process of artistic collaboration, and provides important historical details on one of Diego Rivera’s lesser-known projects. It would indeed take many years before his Popol Vuh pictures were ever exhibited.

Having this collection in the Newberry speaks to our collecting scope within the Edward E. Ayer Collection of American Indian and Indigenous Studies material and complements the manuscript and printed materials of the Popol Vuh within the Newberry’s holdings.

By Analú López, Ayer Indigenous Studies Librarian