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Rivera, Diego (1886–1957)

Rivera, Diego (1886–1957)

Diego Rivera (b. 13 December 1886; d. 24 November 1957), Mexican artist, known primarily for the many murals he painted in Mexico and the United States from the early 1920s through the early 1950s. Over a period of more than fifty years Rivera also produced an extraordinary number of easel paintings, drawings, watercolors, illustrations for books and other publications, and designs for theater productions. A number of his easel paintings and murals, dating from every period of his life, stand out for their artistic quality and thematic coherence.

Rivera was born in Guanajuato. During his formative years in Paris from 1911 to 1921, he experimented with a number of styles before returning to Mexico in 1921 to begin his muralist career. Among the many exemplary works dating from his stay in Paris are Zapatista Landscape—The Guerrilla (1915) and The Mathematician (1918). Rivera expressed his feeling for his native land in the Zapatista Landscape, a major cubist work, by including references to the mountains surrounding the Valley of Mexico, the Revolution of 1910 (a sombrero, a serape, and a rifle), and traditional Spanish and Mexican painting (with the realistic depiction of a small piece of paper identifying the subject "nailed" to the lower right of the canvas). The Mathematician represents Rivera's deep involvement and assimilation of the work of Paul Cézanne. Rivera depicted a lone figure seated at a small table on which are placed two books. The sitter appears lost in thought. The artist defined every part of the picture with intersecting lines and angles that correspond to several eye levels consistent with Cézanne's approach to painting. He used all of these in a series of linear connections to create a spare yet visually cohesive composition.

One of the most important easel paintings dating from Rivera's mature period is the portrait Lupe Marín (1938), which demonstrates his continuing interest in formal and spatial problems. Marín is shown seated on a backless Mexican chair in a corner of the artist's studio. There is a mirror propped up against the wall behind her, in which she and the window she faces are reflected. Rivera paid homage to several artists he admired in this portrait: El Greco, in the exaggerated proportions and pose of the sitter; Velázquez, in the mirrored image; and Cézanne, in the complex structure of the composition.

Rivera's great artistic achievement is also seen in a few mural panels that form part of larger programs and in several mural cycles that have to be considered as a unit. Among the single panel masterpieces are The Deliverance of the Peon (1926), from the Ministry of Education in Mexico City (1923–1928); Germination, from the Chapingo Chapel mural cycle The Land Liberated (1926–1927); and Production of Automobile Bodies and Final Assembly, from the mural Detroit Industry (1932–1933), in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Each of these encapsulates the artist's deep involvement with formalist as well as thematic concerns.

Rivera used the Christian theme of the descent from the cross for The Deliverance of the Peon, in which the dead figure echoes the lowering of the figure of Christ onto a shroud. The scene is filled with tenderness and compassion. It is also a powerful image of a martyr of the Revolution.

Germination has a number of beautifully rendered nude figures that represent various stages from gestation to near birth. It is one of four panels on the right wall of the chapel that focus on the forces of nature. The process begins with chaos and ends with fruition. Comparable forces in society leading to revolutionary action are represented in four panels on the left wall. A synthesis of these forces is represented on the end wall with man at the center in control of nature for the benefit of humankind.

Rivera carried his positive view of technology further in his Detroit mural cycle, in which he devised a complex iconographic program to extoll its virtues. He merged U.S. technology with Mexican mythology on the south wall (Production of Automobile Bodies and Final Assembly) by including a reference to the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue as a fender-stamping machine. The deity, not immediately discernible, is seen to the right of the men working on the assembly line with an automotive chassis. The Coatlicue-like machine retains the silhouette of the deity but not its component parts. The artist's belief in material progress and the benefits to be derived from technology are evident in this panel and the many others that comprise the entire mural cycle. The other panels include the origins of human life and technology on the east wall; the industries of the air (aviation) and water (shipping) on the west wall; the production, manufacture, and assembly of the automobile, and the other industries of Detroit (medical, chemical, and pharmaceutical) on the north and south walls.

Rivera's roles as a political activist, lecturer, and writer pitted him against other artists, art critics, the Communist Party (which expelled him several times), his biographers, Frida Kahlo and his other three wives, and the general public. At the core of these many battles were his views regarding the essence, purpose, and function of art; his views on politics; his love of the Mexican Indian; and his belief that the pre-Columbian past had to be accepted before a true Mexican art and identity could be attained. These battles and controversies, as well as his art, have provided material for numerous articles, monographs, books, exhibition catalogues, and other publications by biographers, journalists, art critics, art historians, and others.

See alsoArt: The Twentieth Century; Kahlo, Frida.


Jacinto Quirarte, "The Coatlicue in Modern Mexican Painting," in Research Center for the Arts and Humanities Review (1982): 5-12, and Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries (1990), pp. 617-618, 633-634.

Ramón Favela, Diego Rivera: The Cubist Years (1984); Diego Rivera: A Retrospective (1986), esp. articles by Stanton Catlin, Laurance P. Hurlburt, and Francis O'Connor.

Laurance P. Hurlburt, The Mexican Muralists in the United States (1989).

Additional Bibliography

Cardoza y Aragón, Luis. La nube y el reloj: Pintura mexicana contemporanea. México: UNAM, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas: Landucci, 2003.

Lara Elizondo, Lupina. Referencias de Picasso en México: Ocho pintores (1900–1950): Angel Zárraga, Diego Rivera, Carlos Mérida, Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, Alfonso Michel, Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Gutiérrez, Federico Cantú. Mexico City: Qualitas Compañía de Seguros, 2005.

Tibol, Raquel. Los murales de Diego Rivera: Universidad Autónoma Chapingo. Chapingo: Universidad Autónoma Chapingo, 2002.

Vaughan, Mary K., and Stephen E. Lewis. The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

                                      Jacinto Quirarte

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