Born in 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico, Diego Rivera is known worldwide for his incredible paintings, larger than life, boisterous personality, his tempestuous relationship with Frida Kahlo, and his radical, often incendiary, Communist politics. His art was as highy praised as his politics were often scorned. As he said, “An artist is above all a human being, profoundly human to the core. If the artist can’t feel everything that humanity feels…until he forgets himself and sacrifices himself…if he won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist.”
It is impossible to separate the man from the myth. ( Above, left with Frida Kahlo, center, a self portrait, right, with Trotsky.) Diego had a huge zest for life, was an incorrigible womanizer, an idealist, and a man who was always ready to put his ideas to the test of action. He was no arm-chair anything, ever. I’m only going to touch lightly on the Diego and Frida story. It is well chronicled in both film and print. I do intend to do a later post on Frida, individually, and then, subsequently, one on their relationship and the incredible artistic cross-fertilization between the two.
Born into a well- to-do family, Diego manifested an urge to create when he was three years old. He drew on the walls of his home, but instead of being punished, his family put chalkboards and canvases on the wall for him. He started formal training at ten, and was sponsored by the governor of his home state to study abroad. He spent almost fourteen years abroad, studying first in Spain, them for a long stretch in Paris, then finally in Italy, where he was introduced to great frecso painting. In Spain and Paris, he drank deeply of the contemporary avant garde art scene. Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse were his biggest pictorial influences, as they were for all young, aspiring modernists.
Left is a cubist portrai Rivera did of his friend Jacques Lipschitz. On the right, is a portrait his friend Modigliani did of him.
It was in Italy, however, studying the great European frescoes, that Diego was to find his destiny. He realized right away, that the fresco’s size and public nature was the perfect forum to expound on the grand themes of history, human development and politics. Every painting for Rivera was a political statement, and the fact that it was not in an private gallery or museum squared with his increasing view of himself as champion of the everyday man. He saw it as his duty to chronicle their relentless exploitation. In 1921, Diego was called back to Mexico to become involved in the government sponsored mural program, that was to also include three other great Mexican artists, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and to a lesser degree, Rodolpho Tamayo.
In 1922 Rivera started work on his first public mural. Such was the political climate and his outspoken political rhetoric, that he felt the need to carry a gun while he worked, to protect himself from the right wing students. At this time, he also helped found the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, and joined the Communist Party’s Central Committee. His passion was to represent visually the social ideas of the Mexican Revolution. The mural format was perfect in that it was not bought and sold privately, but existed only publicly, for the celebration, education, and edification of the ” people.” It also told their story in a monumental format that had profound emotional resonance by virtue of size alone. He was determined, as well, to establish a new visual vocabulary to elevate his subject matter. He wanted to incorporate both the modern and the traditonal. He ” developed his own native style based on large, simplified figures and bold colors with a clear Aztec influence.” In his style, we see his unique synthesis of modernist French painting with the native, folk images of his own culture.
Diego put his sympathetic treatment of the poor, oppressed worker into these large, historical narratives. He always depicted them with great dignity and beauty in their daily travails.
Diego continued his mural work and political activism through the 1920′s. He was also an outspoken atheist, often attacking the church and clergy. “…I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis.” This was a delicate position in such a devoutly Catholic country, even among Communists. Most people know about Frida and Diego’s famous houseguest, Leon Trotsky, and the violence his presense engendered. Controversy in both politics and art, was a juggernaut that they rode and that rode them, throughout their lives.
In 1927 Diego was invited to Moscow, for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. Even though he painted a mural in the Red Army Club in Moscow, he was asked to leave the country because of certain ” anti – Soviet” politics. He did not always agree with the Russian interpretation of Communist doctrine. He saw unjust treatment and oppression of the workers, even in mother Russia. Diego was never one to hold his tongue if he thought his ideals were being compromised.
In 1930, Diego was to embark on a series of trips to the United States that was to have a profound and lasting effect on American art. It seems both politics and art do, indeed, make strange bedfellows. The Mexican Communist was invited by three bastions of capitalism to create huge murals on their behalf. The mind boggles. It started in California when the modernist architect, Timothy Pflueger, announced that he had hired Diego to paint a fresco in the new Pacific Stock Exchange. The appointment was highly controversial from the get go, among artists, the business community and the public. The subject was the building of a city. Diego loved the possibilities of new technology building a more inclusive and just society.
The history of everything for Diego started and ended with the working man. Here he has painted himself into the history of America’s effort to build a great industrial society. He sits in the middle of the scaffold, 2/3′s of the way towards the top.
There was no quit in the man, nor in his ideals and passions. Next stop, the belly of the beast, Detroit and The Ford Motor Company. What better ode to the workers could there be than the industrial life of America at an automobile plant in the midst of the Great Depression.
Top left is the north wall, right, the south wall. As you might expect, this work also generated a large amount of controversy. Edsel Ford, however, the founder’s son, who hired Diego, always defended the work and championed him as an artist. Such was not to be the case with Diego’s next experience, in New York, with the Rockefellers, in 1933. Diego was number three in line for the commission in Rockefeller Center. Picasso and Matisse, choices one and two, were not available.
The subject of the mural was to be “Man at the Crossroads ,” depicting the social, political, industrial and scientific possibilities of the 20th century. Somehow, I don’t think Rivera’s patrons were expecting a May Day parade led by none other than Lenin, himself.
Here on the left is the depiction of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin that so offended the Rockefellers. They demanded he remove the image,
and Rivera refused. They then fired him, though they did pay him in full, and destroyed the mural.
Diego returned to Mexico, and in 1934 repainted basically the same design at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, in Mexico City. This version was called, “Man, Controller of the Universe.”
Back in Mexico, Diego continued to work on many public murals, as well as private easel paintings.
Diego continued to be a major force in the development of Mexican art for the rest of his life. He died in 1957 in Mexico City, at the age of 70. His spirit, his artistic and political passion, never dimmed. He was a great lover of life and mankind. He sought to channel his country’s history and energy, it’s very identity, through the power of his art. In this campaign, I think he succeeded profoundly. His works, no matter what the subject, are also, incredibly beautiful, and full of grace. It is an overall achievement for which he is justly celebrated through out the world.