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Bertram Wolf, Diego Rivera’s biographer, states that the period from the late 1930s through the early 1940s was a solitary, confusing time for the painter due to the fact that his name was appearing constantly in newspaper headlines as the protagonist of a battle with the magnate Nelson Rockefeller in New York. When he returned to Mexico, his mystique had died down as a result of the overexposure, and it seems that job offers were scarce—so much, in fact, that by the mid 1930s, he was asked to paint a mural for the staircase of the Antigua Escuela de Medicina [Old Medical School] of the building that had once housed the Oficio de la Santa Inquisición [See of the Holy Inquisition]. As is made evident in the letter in question, Rivera accepted the offer because it was for the Medical School and began by sketching fragments of an outline that was never finished, as may be deduced from the letter sent to Dr. Ocaranza. The initial sketches of this outline are admirable. However, on May 11, 1935, Rivera wrote to Ocaranza—who at the time was the president of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), and apologetically explained that he would be unable to continue painting the mural due to illness. In his place, Rivera suggested José Clemente Orozco to carry out the work.


In 1854, the Antigua Escuela de Medicina [Old Medical School] settled into the 16th-century building originally built to house the See of the Holy Inquisition. Some of the greatest figures in medicine of 19th-century Mexico passed through this building, and Mexico’s first Museo de Medicina [Medical Museum] was established here. Around 1935, Dr. Fernando Ocaranza, the president of the UNAM, asked Diego Rivera (1886–1957) to paint the central mural on the landing of the staircase leading to the building’s second floor. By that time, Rivera had already painted murals for institutions related to health and medicine, such as those he undertook for the Departamento de Salubridad Pública [Public Health Department] in 1929. 

María Rosa Gudiño
CURARE, Espacio crítico para las artes, Mexico City, Mexico
D.R. © 2011 Banco de México, “Fiduciario” en el Fideicomiso relativo a los Museos Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F.
Archivo personal María Rosa Gudiño