La Creacion by Diego Rivera

Article excerpt

The mural cycle, La Creacion, painted by Diego Rivera (1886-1957) (Fig. 1) between December 1921 and March 1923, (1) is the inaugural work of the celebrated Mexican art movement of the twentieth century. Sponsored by Jose Vasconcelos (1882-1959), Secretary of Public Education and one of the most controversial figures of national culture in Mexico, La Creacion is an enigmatic work of philosophical depth and extraordinary artistic quality, which, despite its essential founding role, has not received its due academic attention.


Located on the main wall of the Simon Bolivar amphitheater of the once prestigious National Preparatory School and currently part of the Museum of the Old College of San Ildefonso, (2) La Creacion was planned as the first section of a vast mural cycle which, in perfect harmony with the university ceremonies and cultural activities taking place there, would represent, according to Rivera himself, "the relationship of Man and the Elements, that is to say, the origins of the Sciences and the Arts; in a certain way, a kind of summary of the essential history of Man." (3) La Creacion was the only part of the project actually carried out.

Even prior to its official inauguration, La Creacion became an unavoidable topic of discussion. Surviving primary sources reveal that public opinion, which mainly referred to the formal characteristics of the work, consisted of strong expressions of distaste and only a few favorable judgments. (4) Some years later, Vasconcelos summarized the predominantly hostile reaction of contemporaries thusly:

   the workmanship was disliked, in spite of the ballyhoo over the new
   encaustic process. The violent, calculated ugliness provoked such
   protests that the painter was for two years unable to carry out
   another important creation. (5)

Rivera's eclectic style, influenced as much by Christian Renaissance iconography and Byzantine golden backgrounds as the intense fauvist palette and the formal cubist synthesis, was not appreciated by a great part of the Mexican public, unfamiliar with the new freedom of artistic expression among international vanguards.

Soon after the inauguration of La Creacion, Rivera himself echoed the unfavorable commentaries, describing his first mural as "an uncertain beginning", much too affected by Byzantine and Italian sources and little committed to the nationalist and revolutionary ideals that motivated the era, and which would later characterize his work. Subsequent criticism, completely dependent on the judgments made by Rivera himself, also considered La Creacion an exponent of the tentative beginnings of Mexican muralism, without recognizing the unique characteristics that make the cycle stand out from others. (6)

This paper examines the possibility that the negative reactions to the mural cycle were due not so much to the explicit aesthetic characteristics of the work, but rather to its mysterious subject matter that few people studied at length or understood. The perplexities caused by the sources Rivera may have used and the figures' identifications, have been aggravated by the deviation of the work from the traditional story of divine creation as narrated in the Book of Genesis and imbedded in the collective imagination through the extraordinary mural cycles of the Renaissance. (7)

Examining the philosophical sources consulted by Rivera while planning La Creacion--mainly the view of the cosmos developed by Vasconcelos in his writings (8) derived in great part from his interest in Theosophy and Pythagorism, combined with Judeo-Christian tradition--this paper will demonstrate that the apparent iconographic heterogeneity of the work, referred to by the academic Antonio Rodriguez as "a poetic and philosophical medley of Christianity and paganism; symbols of knowledge and wisdom, constellations, halos and angels," (9) in reality shows great coherence and a profound metaphysical sense. …