Rivera, Diego (1886-1957)

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Rivera, Diego (1886-1957)

Probably more than the work of any other visual artist, Diego Rivera's murals and paintings are representative and emblematic of Mexico's history and culture. A man of his times, Rivera used a language very much his own to express his conception of the world. Through the use of figures representing his socialist ideology and others which went against his beliefs, Rivera created his compositions following simple horizontal and vertical lines. His murals, balanced in terms of colors, forms, and composition, offer us a peaceful world, static and inert yet filled with the energy of the search for a better and just world.

Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, Rivera began his art studies at the age of ten. Three years later, his father insisted that he enroll in a military college, but Diego only lasted two weeks, repelled by the regimented training, and was allowed to enroll in regular classes at the Academy of San Carlos. His first exhibit took place in 1906 at the academy. A year later, he took his first trip abroad, one of many to come, traveling to Spain to study and forming friendships with leading members of the Spanish avant garde. A couple of years later he traveled to Paris and Bruges and studied with several painters, exhibiting his work at the Societé des Artistes Independants. In 1910 he returned to Mexico.

Back and forth between Mexico and Europe, Rivera exhibited at numerous galleries, salons, and studios. In 1913 his work showed a transition to cubism while he was also executing Ingres-style drawings and Cezanne-inspired painting and pencil studies. Several years later he became obsessed with the sensuous quality of paintings by Renoir and traveled to Italy to study Renaissance art. Finally, in 1921, Rivera returned to Mexico and saw his country with new eyes, as a foreigner, the way Gauguin saw Tahiti. With his new outlook, Rivera began his long trajectory of mural painting for public buildings, schools, museums, and chapels. His figures became more and more indigenous, his themes political and social. A reevaluation and dignification of the Indian and the workers of the world would, over the years, turn into a longing for recovery and conquest of a better everyday life for the majorities.

In 1922 Rivera joined the Mexican Communist Party and, in 1927, traveled to the Soviet Union to participate in the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. The Soviets recognized him as a great Communist artist whose art was dedicated to the public and the masses.

In 1929 Rivera married Frida Kahlo, a union that lasted, on and off, for the rest of her life. Kahlo, a painter in her own right, and Rivera became a fashionable and much-talked-about couple in Mexico and abroad, their extramarital affairs and frequent separations and divorces the material of gossip columnists and art lovers alike.

The same year, Rivera was expelled from the Communist Party, and a year later he arrived in San Francisco to paint two murals for the California School of Fine Arts. He painted twenty-seven murals depicting auto history for the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932-1933), and in 1933 began working on a mural commissioned by Nelson A. Rockefeller for the RCA building in New York City. Depicting the Soviet May Day celebrations and a portrait of Lenin, Man at the Crossroads provoked a series of pro and con demonstrations. When Rivera refused to cover Lenin's face with the portrait of an unknown individual, the mural was destroyed and covered with canvas painted to match the adjoining blank wall. Rivera later reproduced the work at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City.

In 1937, Communist theorist-in-exile Leon Trotsky found asylum in Mexico, and Rivera became his host. However, in 1939, Rivera broke off with Trotsky. Rivera's painting career escalated to the point where he spent most of his time traveling and working. His political trajectory also moved from one end of the spectrum to the other. In 1954 Rivera participated in the demonstrations in support of the fallen Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz. That same year Kahlo died, and Rivera was reinstated into the Communist Party. Three years later, on November 24, 1957, Rivera died of heart failure in his San Angel studio and was buried, against his wishes, in the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres (Rotunda of Illustrious Men) at the pantheon of Dolores in Mexico City.

—Beatriz Badikian

Further Reading:

Bloch, Lucienne. "On Location with Diego Rivera." Art in America. February 1986, 102-23.

Herner de Larrea, Irene. Diego Rivera's Mural at the Rockefeller Center. Mexico City, Edicupes, S.A. de C.V., 1990.

Kettenman, Andrea. Diego Rivera (1886-1957): A Revolutionary Spirit in Modern Art. New York, Taschen, 1997.