Proletarian Unity © Estate of Diego Rivera.
"Diego Rivera is the great hero-figure
in the history of 20th-century Latin
American culture." - Paul Page
17.01.13: his life
The political situation in Mexico during the 1920s was favourable to the development of a national art. In the public eye, the primary role in the development of this new art was played by Diego Rivera (1886-1957), one of the great hero-figures in the history of twentieth-century Latin American culture. Rivera, born in the mining town of Guanajuato, was the son of a school-teacher. At the time of his birth, Mexico was ruled by Porfirio Diaz, an efficient dictator acting in the interests of the Mexican upper class. His policies included the 'scientific' use of land, brought together to form large-scale haciendas, and the encouragement of foreign investment.
Rivera's art education was thorough, and thoroughly conventional. His family had moved to Mexico City in 1892, and he studied at the official Academia de San Carlos (established in 1781) for seven years. In 1906 he was awarded a government travelling scholarship, and went first to Spain, then to Paris, arriving there in 1908. He gradually absorbed the Parisian avant-garde styles of the day, moving from Neo-Impressionism to Cubism. During this time he paid one visit to Mexico, in 1910, just before the outbreak of the savage revolution which lasted for the next decade and devastated the country.
By 1918 Rivera, still working in Paris, was well known in avant- garde circles. In common with a number of leading artists of the time (they included, for a brief period, Picasso) he had abandoned Cubism and was working in a consciously 'classical' style inspired by Cezanne. In 1920 he made a crucial trip to Italy, studying Giotto, Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna and Michelangelo. This trip was undertaken at the urging of Alberto J. Pani, the Mexican ambassador to France. Through Pani Rivera was in touch with Jose Vasconcelos, then rector of the University of Mexico. Both men encouraged Rivera to come home and devote his artistic skills to his country. In 1920, when Vasconcelos became Minister of Education in the new government of Alvaro Obregon, which finally put an end to the civil wars, Rivera decided the moment had come.
On his return to Mexico in 1921, Rivera was immediately drawn into the government mural programme planned by Vasconcelos but envisioned before the revolution by Dr Atl and others. His first murals, in the Anfiteatro Bolivar of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, were not as advanced as the work he had done during his Cubist period in Paris. The style was a version of what would later come to be recognized as Art Deco. Rivera's political ideas were at this point more radical than his artistic ones. In 1922 he was the leading figure m the formation of a new Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors whose manifesto borrowed the language of Russian revolutionary Constructivists, proclaiming a collective repudiation of'so-called easel-painting and all the art of ultra-intellectual circles' in favour of art works which would be accessible, physically and intellectually, to the mass public.
Looking for an idiom in which to make good this promise, Rivera turned to the flora and fauna of Mexico itself (which he tended to see through the eyes of Gauguin and Le Douanier Rousseau), and to Pre-Columbian art. The first murals in his fully mature style, a fusion of many elements taken from the Cubists, from Gauguin, from Rousseau, from Pre-Columbian narrative reliefs and perhaps most of all from fifteenth-century Italian fresco painting, were done for the east patio of the Secretaria de Educacion Publica in Mexico City in 1923. This gigantic series of compositions (117 fresco panels covering almost 1600 square metres of wall) was not finished until just over four years later. Rivera worked on them for up to eighteen hours a day. This mental and physical effort rightly established him as the leader of the new Mexican school, which the Obregon regime regarded as one of the chief means of creating a new identity for the country after so many years of turmoil.
There were, however, ironic aspects to Rivera's position. One was that, while his political beliefs implied opposition to the United States, his reputation was greatly helped by North American enthusiasm and patronage. His finest series of murals, in the loggia of the Palacio de Cortes in Cuernavaca, was commissioned in 1929 by the American ambassador to Mexico, Dwight D. Morrow. Rivera was to paint important murals in the United States itself- for the San Francisco Stock Exchange, for the Detroit Institute of Arcs and for the Rockefeller Center in New York. The last of these was destroyed when only half completed, after Rivera refused to remove a likeness of Lenin. The resultant scandal raised his public profile even higher. His work had tremendous impact on the American painters of the time, most of all upon the Regionalists, such as Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), who certainly did not share Rivera's political views.
Rivera's own political career, conducted very much in public, was stormy and sometimes had deleterious effects on his art. He regarded himself as a natural Communist but was frequently on bad terms with both the Mexican Communist Party and with the official Communists in the Soviet Union. He resigned from the party in 1925, was re-admitted in 1926, and then in the following year paid an official visit to Russia, from which he was ignomimously expelled at the request of the Soviet government. By 1932^ he was seriously at odds with orthodox Communism and was denounced as a 'renegade', the situation worsened when, in 1937. he was instrumental in getting President Uzaro Cardenas to grant asylum to the exiled Leon Trotsky who for a while lived in Mexico as Rivera's guest. The two men quarrelled before Trotsky's assassination in 1940, but Rivera, who now desperately wanted to be re-admitted to the party, had great difficulty in obtaining forgiveness. This was granted only in 1954, after many genuflections to the official Communist line, and a number of artistic compromises.
Rivera's stormy relationship with Communism is relevant to his relationship with the idea of Modernism. For much of his career he was trying to make art which would achieve objectives closely related to those of Soviet Socialist Realism. Rivera was a greater artist than any Stalin had at his disposal, and his work was less closely controlled than that of his Russian contemporaries. To say this, however, does not really address the main issue - that of Rivera's own aims. These were to speak directly to the Mexican people, and in order to achieve them he had to abandon much that was typical of modern art, at least in formal terms, such as fragmentation of imagery and the disguise of appearances. Above all, he had to subject himself to the demands of narrative - something which the early Modernists had been most concerned to reject.
Rivera found ingenious ways of telling stonestaking hints from Mexican popular engravers, such as Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), whom the Muralists turned into a revered ancestor figure, and also from the illustrated newspapers of the time, with their ingenious interlocking lay-outs. These borrowings cannot disguise the fact that his aims remained fundamentallv opposed to basic Modernist concepts. It is easier to relate what he did in Mexico to the work of Piero della Francesca and Masaccio rather than to that of Picasso and Matisse. There is even a resemblance to Annibale Carracci, whose narrative systems for the mythologies in the Farnese Gallery in Rome bear a certain correspondence to Rivera's solutions.
Recommended Reading: Diego Rivera, The Complete Murals
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