Sunday, 25 November 2012


“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” - Edgar Degas

For Art Sunday today, the life and art of Diego María Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez (born December 8, 1886, Guanajuato, Mexico died November 25, 1957, Mexico City), more familiarly know simply as Diego Rivera. He was a Mexican painter whose bold, large-scale murals stimulated a revival of fresco painting in Latin America.

A government scholarship enabled the talented child Rivera to study art at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City from the age of 10 years. A grant from the governor of Veracruz enabled him to continue his studies in Europe in 1907. He studied in Spain and in 1909 settled in Paris, where he became a friend of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and other leading modern painters. At about 1917 he abandoned the Cubist style in his own work and moved closer to the Post-Impressionism of Paul Cézanne, adopting a visual language of simplified forms and bold areas of colour.

Rivera returned to Mexico in 1921 after meeting with fellow Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. Both sought to create a new national art on revolutionary themes that would decorate public buildings in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. On returning to Mexico, Rivera painted his first important mural, “Creation”, for the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City (see above). In 1923 he began painting the walls of the Ministry of Public Education building in Mexico City, working in fresco and completing the commission in 1930. These huge frescoes, depicting Mexican agriculture, industry, and culture, reflect a genuinely native subject matter and mark the emergence of Rivera’s mature style. Rivera defines his solid, somewhat stylised human figures by precise outlines rather than by internal modelling. The flattened, simplified figures are set in crowded, shallow spaces and are enlivened with bright, bold colours. The Indians, peasants, conquistadores, and factory workers depicted combine monumentality of form with a mood that is lyrical and at times elegiac.

Rivera’s next major work was a fresco cycle in a former chapel at what is now the National School of Agriculture at Chapingo (1926–27). His frescoes there contrast scenes of natural fertility and harmony among the pre-Columbian Indians with scenes of their enslavement and brutalisation by the Spanish conquerors. Rivera’s murals in the Cortés Palace in Cuernavaca (1930) and the National Palace in Mexico City (1930–35) depict various aspects of Mexican history in a more didactic narrative style.

Rivera was in the United States from 1930 to 1934, where he painted murals for the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco (1931), the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932), and Rockefeller Center in New York City (1933). His “Man at the Crossroads” fresco in Rockefeller Center offended the sponsors because the figure of Vladimir Lenin was in the picture; the work was destroyed by the centre but was later reproduced by Rivera at the Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City. After returning to Mexico, Rivera continued to paint murals of gradually declining quality. His most ambitious and gigantic mural, an epic on the history of Mexico for the National Palace, Mexico City, was unfinished when he died. Frida Kahlo, who married Rivera twice, was also an accomplished painter of iconic and highly individualistic works. Their stormy liaison and marriages punctuated and marked both their work and personal lives. Rivera’s autobiography, “My Art, My Life”, was published posthumously in 1960.

Rivera’s murals are overwhelming and arresting when one sees them, f nothing else for their boldness of execution and gigantic scale. On closer inspection, however, one is struck by the rich iconography, beautiful colours, sureness of design and composition and the accomplished drawing. The mastery of the technique of fresco is a difficult undertaking but Rivera manages to subdue this medium and handles it with ease and aplomb. Having seen some of his work with my own eyes I can fully appreciate Rivera’s inspired art and expert technique, and the vastness of its scale.

1 comment:

  1. Good on Rivera for painting the walls of Mexico City's Ministry of Public Education building (1923-30). Whether the viewer likes his fresco or not!

    It has to be said that any artist who can work towards a new national art, _especially_ based on revolutionary themes, is a very fine human being as well.