Diego Rivera: A Pioneer of Mexican Muralism
Portrait of Diego Rivera by Amedeo Modigliani. Amedeo Modigliani, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Diego Rivera was an influential Mexican artist and a pioneer of the mural movement in Mexican and international art.
Along with fellow artists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rivera established the Mexican muralism movement with his large frescoes with social, political, and nationalistic messages.
Diego Rivera was born on 8th December 1886 in the city of Guanajuato, Mexico, to Diego Rivera Acosta and Maria del Pilar Barrientos. He had a twin brother named Carlos who died at the age of 2.
Rivera was born into a fairly well-to-do family and was said to have had Jewish ancestry from his mother’s side. His mother had Spanish ancestors who were forced to convert to Catholicism from Judaism in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Even though Rivera never practiced the Jewish faith, he would later claim that his Jewish ancestry greatly informed his art, invoked within him sympathy for the downtrodden masses, and was overall a dominant element in his life.
Rivera was only 3 years old when he began drawing on the walls of his house. Looking at his interest in drawing, his parents put up canvases and chalkboards on the walls to encourage his talent.
When Diego Rivera was 10 years old, he was enrolled at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, where he began studying art.
Rivera showed great interest and promise in art and his talents attracted the attention of the governor of the State of Veracruz, Teodoro A. Dehesa Mendez, who offered to sponsor Rivera’s further art education in Europe.
Rivera accepted the offer and arrived in Madrid in 1907, aged 20, to study under the tutelage of Eduardo Chicharro.
Living in Paris
Shortly after arriving in Madrid, Diego Rivera made his way to Paris and began living in Montparnasse along with several other American and European artists and writers. It was in Paris that he met and befriended artists and writers such as Amedeo Modigliani, Max Jacob, Leopold Zborowski, Chaim Soutine, Moise Kisling, and Ilya Ehrenburg.
He also met Russian-born artist Angelina Beloff in Paris and went on to marry her in 1911. The couple had a son who died at the age of two.
During this period in Paris, young painters, led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, were experimenting with a new art form that would come to be known as Cubism. Influenced by this new experimental wave of cubism, Rivera too embraced and practiced the new style for almost four years from 1913 to 1917, until he became so inspired by the paintings of Paul Cezanne that he shifted his focus toward post-impressionism. He began using simple forms and large patches of vivid colors in his paintings and slowly departed from the cubist style.
It was during this period that his paintings began attracting some attention, opening up opportunities for him to display them at various exhibitions in Paris.
The Mexican Muralism Project
In 1920, Diego Rivera left France and traveled across Italy, where he studied the great frescoes of the Renaissance.
Shortly thereafter, he returned to Mexico to get involved in the new government-sponsored Mexican mural program planned by Minister of Education Jose Vasconcelos. The program was funded by the Mexican government with the intention to reunify the country under the government after the Mexican revolution.
The program encouraged artists to paint large murals on walls across the country containing political, social, and nationalistic messages, with the intention to promote and propagate ideas regarding the recently-concluded revolution so that people may realize how significant and pivotal the revolution was in Mexican history.
This art program was primarily headed by Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, who came to be known as The Three Greats or The Big Three. Other artists such as Jean Charlot and Rufino Tamayo were also part of this initiative.
The murals, beginning from the 1920s onward, were painted in many public settings such as schools, government buildings, chapels, etc., and they kick-started a tradition that lives on to this very day in Mexico and in the rest of Latin America.
In January 1922, Rivera created his first important mural Creation in the Bolivar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. The atmosphere at the school was so politically charged that Rivera kept a pistol with him to protect himself from right-wing students.
Developing a Unique Style & Second Marriage
In the year 1922, Diego Rivera helped establish the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors. The same year, he also joined the Mexican Communist Party, even becoming a member of its Central Committee.
It was during this period that Rivera began developing and honing his own unique style of painting murals. His style comprised large, simplified figures and bold colors with an Aztec influence present in the murals. His murals, similar to the steles of ancient Maya art, told stories rather than simply depicting a scene. The stories in his murals mainly dealt with Mexican society and the Mexican revolution.
In June 1922, Rivera married Mexican model and novelist Guadalupe Marin after his divorce from Beloff. The couple would go on to have two daughters together.
Trip to the Soviet Union
In the autumn of 1927, Diego Rivera visited Moscow after being invited by the government to take part in the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. His extended stay in Moscow resulted in him getting a commission to paint a mural for the Red Army Club in Moscow.
It was in the Soviet Union that he met American art historian Alfred Hamilton Barr Jr., who soon became his close friend and patron. Barr was also the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Unfortunately, something went wrong in 1928, and Rivera was asked by the authorities to leave the Soviet Union because of his alleged involvement in anti-Soviet politics. Before he could begin working on his commission, he returned to Mexico.
Expulsion from the Mexican Communist Party & Marrying Frida Kahlo
After the assassination of President Alvaro Obregon in 1928, the Mexican government suppressed the Mexican Communist Party. In 1929, Diego Rivera was expelled from the party after he was suspected of being a Leon Trotsky sympathizer.
Circumstances worsened for Rivera when he was accused of having knowledge of a planned murder of Cuban political activist Julio Antonio Mella.
As Rivera’s political life grew complicated, his personal life saw changes too. In June 1928, he met Frida Kahlo at a party held by Italian-American photographer and communist activist Tina Modotti. Kahlo asked him to judge her paintings to determine if they showed enough promise and talent for her to pursue a career as an artist. Rivera was impressed by her work and regarded her as an authentic artist.
Rivera and Kahlo soon began a passionate affair and entered into a relationship. By then, Rivera had divorced Guadalupe as well. Rivera and Kahlo married in August 1929, when he was 42 years old and she was 22 years old.
Work in the United States
In November 1930, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo traveled to the United States as Rivera was commissioned by architect Timothy Ludwig Pflueger for a couple of works related to his design projects in San Francisco.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, Rivera began painting a mural for the City Club of San Francisco Stock Exchange. After completing the mural, he painted a fresco for the California School of Fine Art (the fresco is now located in the Diego Rivera Gallery at the San Francisco Art Institute).
While in San Francisco, Rivera and Kahlo stayed and worked at the studio of artist Ralph Stackpole, who had first suggested Rivera to Pflueger. The couple went on to stay for six months in San Francisco.
In November of the following year, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective exhibition of Rivera’s work, which Rivera and Kahlo attended.
After their stay in San Francisco, Rivera and Kahlo made their way to Detroit, where Rivera had accepted a major commission. Between 1932 and 1933, Rivera worked at and completed the commission titled Detroit Industry, a series of frescoes consisting of 27 panels depicting industry at the Ford Motor Company and in Detroit. The frescoes were painted on the walls of an inner court at the Detroit Institute of Art. Rivera and Kahlo also met Edsel and Henry Ford in Detroit.
In 1933, Rivera received a commission from John D. Rockefeller Jr. for the Rockefeller Center in New York City. The three-panel mural titled Man at the Crossroads proved controversial as it included Marxist/Communist content, including a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. This led to protests from the press, the public, and even from Rockefeller Jr. himself.
However, Rivera refused to remove Lenin’s portrait from the mural and the mural was eventually removed and Rivera paid in full.
Before the mural was taken down, one of Rivera’s assistants took a few pictures of the work so that Rivera could recreate it later on.
The controversy and negative publicity that Rivera and the mural received led to his losing a commission to paint a mural for the Chicago World’s Fair. Shortly thereafter, he was asked to leave the United States.
A defiant Rivera issued a press statement saying that he would use the money he earned from the Rockefeller commission to repaint the controversial mural over and over again wherever he was asked until the money ran out. And on returning to Mexico in December 1933, Rivera did exactly that. He repainted the mural in 1934 in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (a prominent cultural center in Mexico City) and titled it Man, Controller of the Universe.
Returning to the United States
Due to their mutual infidelities and violent relationship, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo divorced in 1939 after almost a decade together.
In June 1940, Rivera traveled to the United States for the last time upon Pflueger’s invitation to paint a ten-panel mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Since the exhibition had already opened, Rivera painted the mural titled Pan American Unity in front of attendees.
In December 1940, a month after completing the Pan-American Unity, Rivera and Kahlo remarried in San Francisco. Although the two continued with their infidelities, they remained married until Kahlo died in July 1954.
Final Years, Death, and Legacy
Through the 1940s and 1950s, Diego Rivera continued to accept commissions but not as much as he did before. He remained one of the most popular artists in Mexico as well as internationally, and he also began focusing more on his political causes.
Diego Rivera still remained an avid communist and even attempted to be readmitted to the Mexican Communist Party in 1954.
After Kahlo’s death in July 1954, Rivera, aged 68, married Emma Hurtado (his agent since 1946) in 1955.
Three years later, on 24th November 1957, Rivera died at the age of 70 and was buried in the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons inside the Pantheon de Dolores in Mexico City.
Rivera is now widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential artists to have come out of the Americas. He is one of the most significant and important artists in Mexico’s art history, so much so that the Mexican Government declared his works to be national monuments of Mexico.
References to Rivera in popular culture have been made through books such as The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver and through films like Cradle Will Rock (1999), Frida (2002), and Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015).
Some of his most famous murals are featured at the National School of Agriculture (Chapingo Autonomous University of Agriculture) at Chapingo near Texcoco, in the Cortés Palace in Cuernavaca, and at the National Palace in Mexico City.
In 2018, Rivera’s 1931 painting, The Rivals, became the most expensive work by a Latin American artist ever sold at a public auction. Interestingly, his record was broken by none other than Kahlo in 2021, when her 1949 self-portrait, Diego y yo, was sold for $34.9 million.
The popularity and success of the Mexican muralism project led by Rivera and his contemporaries began a tradition that has not only influenced Mexico to this day but also other nations of the Americas including the United States, where it was responsible for inspiring the Chicano art movement.