Diego Rivera Biography

Born Jose Diego Maria Rivera in Guanajuato, 13 December 1886. Died in Mexico City, 24 November 1957. Married 1) Angelina Beloff, 1914, one son; 2) Guadalupe Marin, 1932, two daughters; 3) the painter Frida Kahlo, 1929 (divorced, 1939; remarried, 1940); 4) Emma Hurtado, 1955; also had a daughter by Marevna Vorobev-Stebelska. Attended schools in Mexico City; San Carlos National Academy of Fine Arts, Mexico City, 1898-1905: also studied in Spain, 1907-08; lived in Paris, 1911-21; Director, Academy of San Carlos, 1929-30; painter and muralist in Mexico and the United States.

Diego Rivera was one of the leaders of the Mexican mural renaissance of the 1920's and 1930's. In his life and work he celebrated indigenous Mexican culture and promoted social change through revolution. He has not received continuous critical acclaim in the United States and Europe because of his Communist political activism. However, he has had an enormous popular following on an international scale from the 1930's to the present. His work is officially designated a national treasure of Mexico.

Until he developed a distinctive mural style in 1923, Rivera's work reflected both the European academic tradition and the concerns of the avant-garde. The Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, where Rivera received his early training, relied on a regimen that was heavily influenced by 19th-century French academic practice. The academy emphasized the development of technical expertise as well as study from nature and scientific investigations of such things as proportion and perspective. During his ten-year sojourn in Spain and Paris, Rivera experimented with historical styles from El Greco to Cezanne, and became part of the Cubist circle (1913-18). One of the finest paintings of this period, inspired by the events of the Mexican Revolution, is the Zapatista Landscape- The Guerrilla, 1915 (Mexico City), in which a Cubist iconic image of revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata floats on the picture plane in front of a realistic landscape depicting the Valley of Mexico. This first evidence of political content in Rivera's work reflects his concern for events in Mexico and his emerging interest in the relationship between art and revolution.

It was while he was in Paris that Rivera began to develop his extraordinary persona by mythologizing every aspect of his life-artistic accomplishments, political dedication, sexual prowess. Rivera's need for recognition and acceptance became a double-edged sword which ignited controversies that often hindered his career. In 1917 he was ostracized from the Cubist circle after engaging in a fist fight with the critic Pierre Reverdy. Only in 1984 with the exhibition Diego Rivera: The Cubist Years was his extraordinary body of Cubist work brought to light and critically acknowledged.

Rivera's first mural commission after his return to Mexico in 1921 (the Anfiteatro Bolivar of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria) in Mexico City was neither a critical nor an artistic success. His study of Italian Byzantine mosaics and Renaissance frescoes is clearly evident in visual quotations that are held together by a curvilinear Art Nouveau style. At this point. Rivera still maintained a predominantly European perspective. Through travel (particularly to the Tehuantepec area) and through study, Rivera gradually began to understand the indigenous beauty and rich cultural heritage of his native land and to begin to incorporate it into his work.

Rivera first used indigenous Mexican subjects in the Ministry of Education, Mexico City. While he continued to rely upon the compositions of Italian Renaissance murals, he abandoned allegorical figures, the use of gold leaf, and western European themes. In the Ministry of Education murals he devised an integrated program of images related to the festivals and the occupations typical of the various regions of Mexico. He viewed his use of the medium of true fresco as another link to Mexico's pre-Columbian past. His political activism also emerges in his murals in the form of overt Communist themes and symbols. Rivera's figural style owes much to the 14thcentury Italian artist Giotto. The simplified forms of Mexican peasants in traditional clothing enacting events from their own history and culture became the focus of his murals. The universal didactic themes interpreted through idealist revolutionary eyes became the hallmark of Rivera's murals.

The Ministry of Education mural was the most ambitious mural commission of his entire career. But the apogee of his early mural work is the chapel at the Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo, 25 miles northeast of Mexico City. Here Rivera created a spiritual realm through the depiction of secular themes-natural evolution and social revolution. This masterpiece is both a catechism of the ideal of social change through revolution and control of nature by the resulting new society of Mexicans. As with the Ministry of Education murals, there are explicit Communist themes and symbols which do not detract from the aesthetically pleasing conception and form.

Rivera painted over 17 major mural commissions in Mexico. The finest work of his mature style, however, is not in Mexico but in the United States. From 1930 through 1934 Rivera painted six murals in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York. (The New York mural in Rockefeller Center no longer exists. Rivera insisted on including in it a portrait of Lenin and a controversy erupted which led to the work's destruction.) Rivera's murals in the United States show his fascination with industrial and architectural technology. Like his Mexican works, they are didactic, but the subject is no longer social change through revolution but rather through the use of technology to benefit the working class. Only one mural sequence (New Workers School, New York) was overtly Communist in subject matter, and it was painted in the heat of the controversy over the Rockefeller commission. Rivera's most accomplished mural in the United States is at the Detroit Institute of Arts (completed in 1933) and depicts the industrial environment of Detroit and Michigan, primarily by focusing on activities at the Ford Motor Company's Rouge Plant. In 27 panels in the central court of the museum Rivera painted a mural cycle that represents the evolution of technology and alludes to the universal forces that created the raw materials used in industry and to the four races that transform the raw materials and benefit from that transformation. The murals present a microcosm of the industrial age, and they both celebrate the productive uses of technology and condemn its destructive effects. After the Rockefeller controversy in 1934, Rivera returned to Mexico. He continued to paint major mural commissions there as well as one last mural in the United States. Two of the most successful of this group of murals are the reproduction of the Rockefeller mural, Man, Controller of the Universe, 1934 (Mexico City), and the Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda, 1947-48 (Pinacoteca, Mexico City).

After his Cubist period Rivera's easel paintings follow no continuous development, except that he reserved his "muralist" style for traditional Mexican subjects. Some of the most fascinating easel paintings of the late 1930's and early 1940's show his interest in Mexico's arte fantastico and its counterpart-European surrealism inspired by Mexican folk art and the surrealist writer Andre Breton, who lived with the Riveras during his visit to Mexico.

Rivera's life was filled with contradictions: a pioneer of Cubism who promoted art for art's sake, he became one of the leaders of the Mexican Mural Renaissance; a Marxist Communist, he received mural commissions from the United States corporate establishment; a champion of the worker, he had a deep fascination with the form and function of machines; a greater revolutionary artist, he also painted society portraits. In reality Rivera's philosophy corresponded to no specific dogma. He had an extraordinarily well-developed intuitive sense that shaped his understanding of the world and his humanistic understanding of the role of the artist and the role of art in society. His ability to represent universal images and ideas in his art continues to captivate the viewer today.