Usually known as the father of muralism in Mexico, Diego Rivera is one of the most famous and most important artists in the country, with Mexico City covered by his impressive historical murals.
Today, when you say Mexican art, the first thing that comes to most people’s mind is, without a doubt, the work and image of Frida Kahlo. However, some decades ago, the artist who ruled in this field was Diego Rivera, Frida’s husband and one of the main representatives of muralism.
His personal life was always linked to his work and viceversa, to the point that you could really know his life just by looking at his murals. His tempestuous and extremely toxic relationship with Frida Kahlo was also part of his highly biographical and prolific work, but perhaps what really makes Diego Rivera’s work so iconic is the way he always represented Mexican culture and history with every single stroke.
Self-portrait with Broad-Brimmed Hat (1907). Museo Dolores Olmedo collection
Diego Rivera was born in Guanajuato in December 8, 1886 to a middle-class family of teachers. His twin brother died just two years after their birth, and it’s said that it was this tragedy at such a young age what sparked his emotional and creative soul. Just one year later, young Diego was already painting and creating with the support of his parents, who decided to turn the walls in their home into canvases for Diego. However, despite the fact that his parents’ encouraged his artistic inclinations, his father actually wanted him to pursue a military career. Still, it was clear from the beginning that art was what he was born to do.
Portrait of María Barrientos (1896). Museo Dolores Olmedo collection
At the age of ten, he was admitted to the Academia de San Carlos (pretty much the greatest art school in Mexico) and won the admiration of his teachers with a portrait of his mother, María del Pilar Barrientos de Rivera. Then, his sensibility and great technique earned him a grant to study art in Europe at the age of twenty. He lived in Madrid for a while and eventually moved to Paris, where he met emblematic avant-garde artists like Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Amedeo Modigliani, and Georges Braque. At the time, Rivera thought he had found his true artistic movement and devoted his art to Cubism.
Motherhood, Angelina and the Child Diego (1916)
But the craze for Cubism soon faded away, and Rivera shifted to Post-Impressionism after discovering the works of the great Paul Cézanne. Not surprisingly, Rivera’s stay in Europe was prolonged for many years. During this time, he met and married fellow artist Angelina Beloff, with whom he had a son. He was also involved with Russian painter Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, with whom he also had a daughter he never recognized but took care of financially. This period is usually known as Diego’s formative years in art, and although his characteristic style of portraying his personal life was already there, his links to his Mexicanness were still to be discovered and developed.
"Exploitation of Mexico by Spanish Conquistadors" (detail of The History Mexico in Palacio Nacional) (1929-45)
Rivera returned to Mexico in 1921 after the newly-appointed Minister of Education, José Vasconcelos, invited him to be part of a government-sponsored mural program. In 1922, he started painting his first mural in the auditorium of the National Preparatory School. And actually, it’s said that it was here that Frida Kahlo first saw him.
Over the following years, Frida and Diego met at different parties, but it was when he was painting the murals at the Secretaría de Educación Pública that Frida made the first move and approached him to show him her work. From that moment on, the couple embarked on a tempestuous relationship marked by love, passion, hatred, betrayal, a divorce, a second marriage, and above all, a profound admiration for each other’s work.
Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central (1946-47). Museo Mural Diego Rivera collection.
Diego became kind of a rockstar in Mexico’s art scene, and every day, his popularity grew along with his power. In the thirties, he was commissioned to paint several murals in the US, including the controversial one at Rockefeller Center. He was paid in advance to create a unique mural at the RCA building, but just when he was finishing it, his patrons got really angry because he had included Vladimir Lenin. The mural was destroyed, but he vowed he would replicate it everywhere he could until the money he was paid for was ran out. There’s one copy of Man Controller of the Universe on the third floor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
Detail of Man, Controller of the Universe showing Leon Trotsky (Bellas Artes version) (1934)
His political views were also widely known. In 1922, one year after his return, Diego joined the Mexican Communist Party, of which he was one of the most important and influential members. That was until he decided to support Leon Trotsky’s exile in Mexico. Diego Rivera was the one who reached out to president Lázaro Cardenas to plead for the legal exile of the Russian revolutionary, which was granted in 1936. Trotsky arrived in Mexico and stayed at Frida and Diego’s house for a few months. It’s rumored that Rivera’s relationship with Trotsky was broken when the artist found out Frida was having an affair with the latter. In 1954, the same year Frida died, he asked the Party for his readmission.
After Frida’s death, in 1955, Diego married Emma Hurtado, an old friend of his who accompanied him in his last days until his death in 1957 at the age of 70. Though he was a really prolific artist and many of his paintings can be found in museums, his legacy goes beyond canvases in museums and auctions. One of his main purposes was creating for his country, and the several murals are evidence of his wish to make art and culture accessible to the people an essential matter for the flourishing of society. Not only that, there’s also his magnificent Anahuacalli Museum, with a collection of more than 59,000 prehispanic pieces from all over the country. As he said, he was giving back to people the “artistic heritage of their ancestors I was able to rescue.” That’s his legacy: the constant exploration of Mexico’s history, its traditions, colors, folklore, and culture, all as a gift for the people.
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