The Asia-Pacific Peace Conference in Beijing, 1952

The Art of Peace in the Early Cold War

Rachel Leow
Jun 24, 2017 · 7 min read

In June 1952, Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi became the Vice-Chairman of the All-India Peace Council, and travelled to Beijing to attend a preparatory meeting for a larger Asian-Pacific Peace Conference (APC) later that year. At the time, Kosambi was a prominent scientist on the staff of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and had become increasingly drawn into the world peace movement since the early 1950s, campaigning relentlessly over the next decade against the nuclearization of the world.

The APC is the subject of a paper I’m giving today at the WHA (#TheWHA17), on a panel which will form the basis of a collaborative publication.* Here, I want to share a little artistic puzzle arising out of some of the research I did for that paper.

Kosambi wrote an account of this preparatory meeting for the APC shortly afterward, describing it as a grand, inspiring affair in which no expense was spared.** Guo Moruo, the romantic-turned-socialist Chairman of the China Peace Committee, opened the ceremony. His was a stirring speech, warning of amassing violence in Asia, and highlighting the crucial position of the Asian-Pacific region in the quest for world peace. The largest reception room of the hotel was converted into a special assembly hall: a large oval table seated delegates from twenty different countries in alphabetical order, each with its own placard stating the country name in its own language and in Chinese, and a small silken national flag adorned each setting. The only other decoration on the walls was a huge reproduction of Picasso’s famous composition of the Dove of Peace, used to illustrate the 1949 Peace Congress in Paris, after which it rapidly became a symbol both of peace and world communism.

But on the final day of the conference, Picasso’s dove was joined on the walls by another painting, one by Diego Rivera whose description in Kosambi’s report matched no painting of Rivera’s that I knew:

On the final day, there appeared on the opposite wall a great black and white reproduction of Diego Rivera’s tremendous painting in which the woes of the common people are represented in a world gripped by increasing war tension, fighting in Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, oppression of racial, national minorities, and shooting of workers; at the left, the leaders of China and the USSR offer the Five Power Pact to obdurate France, USA and Britain. These two pictures were the most appropriate background for any real deliberation on peace.

I was intrigued: what painting could this be? Ever since discovering Diego Rivera back in 2009, I have obsessively adored his work, and thought I’d ferreted out images of all his major murals. I have coveted his Man, Controller of the Universe, and it remains one of my main reasons for wanting to visit Mexico. I have pored over catalogues of his pan-Americanist art, his portraits, his allegorical paintings. In the summer last year, in a kind of pilgrimage of rapture, I finally saw 27 of his frescoes in the flesh when I spent several hours in the Detroit Institute of the Arts with his Detroit Industry Murals. The visual weight of an in-the-flesh Rivera is really like no other: the Detroit murals engulf the viewer, a floor-to-ceiling vista of machines towering like gods over the realm of the working man. I have loved so much of Rivera’s art. But I could not place this painting Kosambi described.

In a most 21st century manner, a frenzy of googling ensued; not being an art historian, it took me a while. I finally discovered the painting that must have been the one to grace the walls of the conference: it is one of Diego Rivera’s last works and his great Missing Mural, Pesadilla de guerra, sueño de paz (1952), or, The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace. I later learned that a black-and-white copy of it was brought to Beijing by philosopher-logician Eli de Gortari, one of the Mexican delegates to the preparatory conference.† It was, apparently, the very first thing he brandished as he stepped off the plane.

Diego Rivera, Pesadilla de guerra, sueño de paz (1952), reproduced in Mary Coffey, How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), pp. 58–9.

The story of this painting is quite extraordinary, though not for Rivera, whose murals have consistently attracted scandal for their portrayal of controversial topics and figures, and Rivera’s sympathies for communism in an era of its widespread vilification. Commissioned by the Mexican government to feature in a travelling exhibition of Mexican art bound for Europe, the completed painting proved too much for the authorities to stomach. Rivera informed them that his mural would be dedicated to peace — which seemed innocuous enough, but Sueño de paz was anything but pacific. It was a painting within a painting, featuring Mexican workers congregating in front of two murals, ranged left to right in a symbolic invocation of the political spectrum. On the right: the nightmare of war. A faceless military persecutes civilians with distinctly Asian features, undoubtedly meant to evoke the ongoing wars in Vietnam, Malaya and Korea, while a Soviet soldier is crucified beneath a sky dominated by the dreaded nuclear cloud. Flames engulf the background, and are extinguished in the mural on the left. There, the dream of peace: handsome, heroic, larger-than-life Mao and Stalin offer a peace treaty across the Pacific to the shrunken caricatures of Great Britain, France, and the United States. A squat John Bull sports a pair of thuggish brass knuckles in his clenched fist. Belle Marianne, pugnacious and childlike; between them, a satchel of money undoubtedly symbolising European dependence on American reconstruction capital. And Uncle Sam: lanky, cadaverous, clutching a Bible and a rifle. Below the murals, copies of the Stockholm Appeal are being handed out and signed, most notably by Frida Kahlo in her wheelchair, as the signatories are ushered leftward by the central worker figure, who assumes a stance of crucifixion repurposed as a symbol of progress.

Rivera’s painting spent only a few days displayed in the Fine Arts Palace before being allegedly stolen by 15 masked men. Only later did it transpire that Carlos Chavez, the director of the Fine Arts Institute himself, might have orchestrated its disappearance himself. Rivera retrieved the painting after threatening to create a public scandal, and thereafter, it is said, it was sent to China at some point in the early to mid 1950s.†† It has since vanished. All that remains are a handful of photos and enticing, fragmentary traces: one by Juan Guzmán of the painting in process while Frida Kahlo is posing for it (below); one, by the Hermanos Mayo photographers, of Rivera standing in front of a completed version alongside some workers; and a large full-colour recreation of it published in a 1952 issue of Cuadernos Americanos, reproduced in Mary Coffey’s book on Mexican revolutionary art.‡ No true colour image of the mural exists, and the painting remains lost today, a mysterious fragment adrift from an age of transnational connections.

A rare glimpse of the original: Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in front of the unfinished Pesadilla de guerra, c. 1952. Photo by Juan Guzmán.

For what the Rivera depicts, and exemplifies, is an undeniably global, entangled worldspace: one in which an Indian scientist, a Chinese idealist, and an itinerant Mexican painting depicting three Asian wars and a Scandinavian petition, could converge in the newly revolutionary city of Beijing. In his painting-in-a-painting, the local features of Mexico city, in the background on the right, are obscured, almost cartoonized, unreal. What dominates the world of Rivera’s Mexico are global, larger-than-life imaginaries of peace and war, dwarfing the people by whom their real effects will be felt.

Peace movements of this era have been frequently dismissed for their naiveté, even venality as a tool of Soviet foreign policy. Yet this is surely too cavalier, certainly for the uncertain utopianisms of the early Cold War. Rather, peace was one of the key issues of the postwar world, providing vectors of solidarity across diverse groups — university students, workers, journalists, intellectuals, anti-imperialists, female activists, monks and farmers — united in their aspirations to reject war after the horrors of WWII. Their fates — usually suppression, disillusion or co-optation — constitute an instance of how the Cold War sowed central divisions within postwar polities, and intractable schisms across the landscape of the global left: above all in the conjoined worlds of Asia, Africa, and, so it seems, Latin America.


[*] My paper ‘Bandung across the Pacific? The Asia-Pacific Peace Conference and Early Visions of Third World Internationalism,’ is on a panel ‘Forms of the Left in 1950s Afro-Asia’, World History Association Conference, Boston 22–23 June 2017, with Gerard McCann, Su Lin Lewis, Carolien Stolte and Ali Reza.

[**] D. D. Kosambi, ‘For Peace in Asia and the Pacific, Peace is the World,’ Bulletin of the Preparatory Conference, vol. 11, 6 August 1952.

[†] Ke Qin, ‘Moxige heping zhanshi—huajia Liweila [A Mexican Peace Warrior: Artist Diego Rivera],’ Shijie zhishi (July, 1952).

[††] There are some variations in accounts of the mural’s disappearance. Secondary works mentioning this mural and incident include: Patrick Iber, Neither Peace Nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015); Manuel Aguilar-Moreno and Erica Cabrera, Diego Rivera: A Biography (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2011); Mary Coffey, How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). See also Diego Rivera’s own account in his autobiography My Art, My Life (New York: Dover Publications, 1991).

[‡] My thanks to Mary Coffey for clarifying the details of her image sources, via email correspondence 2 May 2017.

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

Rachel Leow

Written by

historian & postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. likes books which are axes for the frozen sea inside us. believes every pipe dream has a bibliography.

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

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