Diego Rivera: A Retrospective Essay
The expression routinely used these days to designated public art–“art in public spaces”–implies that there is nothing especially public about the art in question, apart from the external circumstance of its placement. So, on occasion, a given bit of statuary, whose natural habitat is the museum, is sent into the field to elevate and enhance…
When art is true, it is one with nature. This is the secret of primitive art and also of the art of the masters — Michelangelo, Cezanne, Seurat, and Renoir. The secret of my best work is that it is Mexican. — Diego Rivera
Mexican artist Diego Rivera, whose biography is full of controversial affairs and facts, is one of the most scandalous and prominent figures in the world of art. His artworks, civic views, and personal life were in the centerpiece all over his life.
The artist was born on December 8, 1886, in the small Mexican town. The father of the child belonged to the Spanish noble family, while Diego’s mother was a Jew. At the age of three, Diego felt that he had a passion for drawing. He drew a lot, so he ran out of paper quickly. That did not stop him because he painted all the walls. His father built a special room for the son. This was a first workshop, where Diego was allowed to paint everywhere. In 1892, his family moved to Mexico.
Diego stopped drawing and had many conflicts with the boys due to their relocation. Later, inspired by the landscapes of Mexico, Diego started painting again. The landscapes of this period are the only examples of Rivera’s romantic painting. At age 10, Diego was sent to the Academy of Fine Arts. He did not like to copy the artworks of famous artists and drew from life. This institution gave the young man such an excellent education. He even received a scholarship. Taking the opportunity, he went on a trip to Spain. Then he visited England, Belgium, Holland, and Italy.
Rivera was very enthusiastic about the works of Cezanne and came to Europe as his follower. One day, Rivera saw Cezanne’s canvas in the shop-window of Ambroise Vollard, the merchant. The owner of the shop went to lunch, and when he came an hour later he found Rivera looking at Cezanne’s work.
He supposed that Rivera was a robber. Later, the owner changed one picture of Cezanne to a new one. In a few hours, he changed the second one, then the third one and finally put three more pictures into the shop-window. It was getting darker, Vollard turned the lights on and put a new picture. Eventually, at half past two in the morning, the merchant looked out the doorway and shouted: “I’m sorry, I do not have any more pictures left. In 1915, Rivera met Vollard again and showed his appreciation. Diego remembered that that merchant did not kick the poor student out from his shop.
There are many rumors that Diego was a killer with the ladies. Therefore, Diego Rivera was nicknamed the “cannibal”. In 1911, Diego and Angelina Belova got married. They had a son. However, being obsessed with endless passions and betrayals, the spouse left Angelina and went to Mexico. The next marriage with Lupe Marin wasn’t long-lasting as well. In 1929, they divorced and Diego met the woman of his life, Frida Kahlo. In 1939, they divorced, but in a year they were together again.
In the beginning of the 30s, Diego Rivera has become the undisputed leader among the Mexican monumentalism. He definitely was one of the most famous and controversial artists whose political sympathies for communism, irresistible monumental frescoes, violent creative activity and social life generated the image of a rebel. The founder of the new trend in the art of the 20th century attracted the attention of the public more and more.
The debut of the artist took place in 1930 in San Francisco. On December 1931, Diego held his first, yet tremendously successful solo exhibition. After the exhibition, the artist was invited by Edsel Ford to visit Detroit. Here, he was commissioned to create the fresco (Detroit Industry Murals) for the Institute of Arts. Despite the fact that Henry Ford was the anti-communist, Diego Rivera, who was considered as a fighter for proletarian rights, accepted that commission.
Also, at the invitation of Nelson Rockefeller, he was commissioned to paint a mural in the Radio Corporation Arts building in Rockefeller Center, a project he completed in collaboration with Ben Shahn (1898-1969), the Lithuanian-born American artist who led the Social Realism movement in America during the Depression era. Unfortunately, because Rivera included a picture of Lenin the communist leader, this work was stopped and replaced. Rivera later completed a new version of this picture (Man, Controller of the Universe) in Mexico City. In June 1940, he returned for the last time to the USA to paint a multi-panel mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. The mural now resides at the City College of San Francisco.
Diego’s political views were reflected in his works and sometimes provoked severe conflicts with his customers. The fresco “Man at the Crossroads” was a bone of contention. Diego started painting it on March 1933. It consisted of three parts. The fresco was conveying the idea of two worlds, opposed to each other. On the one side Diego painted the idea of socialism, and on the other side, the artist depicted the essence of capitalism. The fresco was to be presented at the opening of the building on May 1, 1933. However, due to the huge scandal over the fresco, it was not demonstrated. This was Rivera’s biggest defeat in his creativity and politics.
The transition from his developed style to Cubism was a significant step for Diego Rivera. The last works of the artist were influenced by classical European styles in painting. In 1940, he achieved a tremendous success in fresco painting and was invited to work at the World Exhibition in San Francisco. In a few years, Diego was commissioned by the government to paint the National Palace in Mexico City.
His wife, Frida Kahlo, died in 1954. The following year, he married Emma Hurtado, his art dealer. By this time, Rivera had serious health problems and doctors could not cure him. Diego Rivera died of heart failure on November 24, 1957, in Mexico.