Artist of the Revolution: Diego Rivera's Artwork Reflected His Ardent Belief in Communism and His Rejection of God, Tradition, and Capitalism. Yet His American Admirers Included the Rockefellers
Telzrow, Michael E., The New American
Diego Rivera produced some of Mexico's most beautiful and competent art during the 20th century. A student of both classical and modern forms, Rivera's artwork ranged from portraiture to propaganda. But he is perhaps best known for the latter. His colorful, larger-than-life murals reflected his ardent belief in communism, and his rejection of God, tradition, and capitalism. Despite his politics, which were well known to all, Rivera's work was promoted in some unlikely places by some unlikely individuals, including America's super capitalists--the Rockefellers.
Diego Rivera was born in 1886, in Guanajuato, Mexico, to an upper middle-class family. By age two, his artistic skills were clearly apparent, and he was encouraged to develop them further. His father's political connections and relative wealth secured a sponsorship for young Diego from the state of Veracruz, and in 1907, at the age of 19, he left for Europe to immerse himself in the continental art scene.
Initially, Rivera studied in Spain but was later drawn to Paris where he became enamored with cubism and its principal proponents, Cezanne and Picasso. Cubism, the early 20th-century phenomenon that shook the art world for a brief period between 1907 and 1914, employed a vision that broke natural lines and reassembled them in abstract forms that suggested multiple viewing perspectives. The resultant works looked angular and presented no clear sense of depth.
While in Paris, Rivera found himself inspired by the cubist works of Pablo Picasso, and the two artists became acquainted in 1914. Picasso and Rivera shared similar interests. Both were noted for their portraits and appetites for women. Rivera would go on to marry four times before he died and Picasso twice. Each had numerous mistresses. Rivera achieved some success with his cubist paintings and began to establish his career as a successful painter after several exhibitions.
Cubism's jagged lines and angles, and unnatural perspectives, were lost on the masses and failed to impress some critics like the British writer G. K. Chesterton, who referred to cubism as just one of the "latest artistic inanities" of the age. Rivera never dumped cubism completely; it remained part of his artistic armory, but in 1920, after a brief return to Mexico, he went to Italy to study the early Italian Renaissance fresco murals. It was a move that would profoundly influence the rest of his life.
While Rivera studied art in Europe, his own country was being wracked by a bloody socialist revolution. In 1921, he returned to Mexico ready to embrace the reforms as an after-the-fact revolutionary. Although he played no part in the bloody conflicts of 1910-1921 that killed more than a million Mexicans, Rivera was inspired by the left-wing politics and socialist ideals of the revolutionaries.
Upon his return to Mexico, Rivera re-acquainted himself with the native art of Mexico's Aztec and Mayan cultures. Although he was steeped in the art of Europe, his mural work began to take on a Mexican feel. He created a highly distinctive style that became instantly identified as his own: large, colorful, monumental figures set in geometric compositions.
In 1922, Rivera began a government-sponsored project for the National Preparatory School. He followed with an ambitious mural that decorated the hallways of the Ministry of Education. During this period the Mexican government was actively supporting the arts in an effort to reconnect its population with the country's pre-colonial past. This approach dovetailed nicely with Rivera's socialist ideals that capitalized on a history of perceived oppression from both the Catholic Church and the state. His Ministry of Education mural hits complex themes of Mexican history with a decidedly revolutionary hammer. In one section, entitled The Burning of the Judases, Rivera depicts a Catholic priest, government officials, and other enemies of the revolution in smoke and flames above a rioting mob. …