Frida Kahlo, iconic painter, called him The Frog and married him twice. They count her as his third and fourth wife. We know Diego Rivera as a communist, socialist, painter, bad boy of 1930’s Mexico who snubbed Nelson Rockefeller by refusing to eliminate Lenin’s portrait from the infamous Rockefeller Center mural. Fired and his mural destroyed, Rivera retreated from New York to Mexico City to reproduce his vision of humanity, Man at the Crossroads, on the walls of the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Look for Rockefeller in this mural.
All the photos in this blog post are of murals at the Secretaria de Educacion Publica (SEP) in Mexico City.
As I write this, I am traveling on a six-and-a-half hour ADO GL bus south toward Oaxaca. There is the promise of torrential hurricane force rains along the way. A good time to reflect on the four days I spent in Mexico City to look for Diego Rivera.
I love his paintings but not his personal behavior: his violent temper and many infidelities. I can understand it but don’t admire it. Is behavior a reflection of character and how can you separate one from the other? Must one accept the totality of the artist to love his or her work?
In 2012, a distant friend told me that she, too, loved Diego Rivera. I questioned her because she had just declared her intention to vote for Mitt Romney — the antithesis of Rivera and his political passion. I replied: To love Diego Rivera is to respect, support, and admire his political stand. You can’t separate the man from his work. She disagreed. What do you think?
Rivera’s paintings are iconic and symbolic. They express his political and social empathy for Mexico’s indigenous, her revolutionaries, intellectuals, reformers, and anti-capitalists, and his disdain for the church and oppressors of any ilk. Rivera’s murals are a riveting, visceral history of human rights violations beginning with the invasion of Cortes, the Inquisition in New Spain, the Porfiriato and exploding power of Fascism.
In sweeping fashion, Rivera captures all that accompanies political power seekers: corruption, greed, debauchery, dictatorship, and assassination. His imagery depicts the rise of industrialization and its dehumanizing forces, the tensions of machinery vs. man, the movement from rural life to the crush of cities where personal identity is lost or stolen. He speaks to us of the soul of humanity and our purest impulses for compassion and forgiveness.
There is a strong message in the beauty he created. Support of the proletarian revolution is the guiding theme among them all.
The paintings speak to Mexican life and specific people Rivera singled out populate them, like Emiliano Zapata and Otillio Montaño. He manages to insert himself with self-portraits throughout his works, too.
In a 1928 fresco at the Secretaria de Educacion Publica (SEP) a red-ribbon banner painted above In the Arsenal holds these words (interpreted and paraphrased):
Here will be the proletarian revolution.
Voices will open to loudly proclaim throughout the land
The sad, sordid but pure story
That many suffered
Were maligned and oppressed.
Do you see Rivera’s self-portrait here?
Rivera is a storyteller. The three floors of paintings at SEP are remarkable expressions of his early period, 1923-1928. This is also where he met Frida Kahlo, the seventeen-year-old student who came to him while he was on a scaffold to ask his opinion of her work.
At SEP, I was fortunate enough to be able to trail a group of teachers on a guided tour through areas usually restricted to the public. Afterward, I lingered and revisited favorites. In 1928, Rivera painted Death of Capitalism, The Orgy, and Wall Street Banquet, a cynical prediction of the 1929 stock market crash. His pre-Hispanic images of rural indigenous life are compelling: Dia de los Muertos, Fiesta of the Dance of the Deer, El Tianguis (the market), The Weavers, The Dyers, and Paradise.
I spent three hours at SEP and want to go back. It could be my favorite place to look for Diego Rivera. I know the man and his art are one, and for that reason I have gained a new admiration and respect for him from this visit.
Looking for Diego Rivera in Mexico City
- Secretaria de Educacion Publica, Ave. Republica de Argentina #28, weekdays only. Walk from Zocalo. Three floors of exquisite murals, 1923-1928.
- Museo Mural Diego Rivera, corner of Avenidas Balderas & Colon, facing Av. Juarez at the end of the Alameda Central. Mural restored after 1989 (check date) earthquake and relocated. An amazing journey through Mexico’s political, social history from 1521 to mid-20th century (check date)
- Palacio Nacional on the Zocalo
- Palacio de Bellas Artes, on Av. Juarez
- Municipal Water Pumping Station, Rivera sculpture of rain god Tlaloc
Now, perhaps on to Detroit and San Francisco to continue the search.
Footnotes: SEP was created in 1921 and the building where it is housed is a former convent, a magnificent colonial structure, appropriated by the state when the church was banned from holding land. I met Miriam, educated in art restoration at the Instituto Bottcelli in Cuernavaca, who is one of an eight-person team who work year-round to restore and preserve the murals.