Sunday, 3 July 2011


“The painter can and must abstract from many details in creating his painting. Every good composition is above all a work of abstraction. All good painters know this. But the painter cannot dispense with subjects altogether without his work suffering impoverishment.” - Diego Rivera

For Art Sunday today, a Mexican artist who profoundly influenced American painting in the first half of the twentieth century. Diego Rivera was born in Guanajuato, Mexico in 1886. He began to study painting at an early age and in 1907 moved to Europe. He spent nearly fourteen years in Paris, and he encountered the works of such great masters as Cézanne, Gauguin, Renoir, and Matisse. As any great artist, Rivera needed to establish for himself a new form of painting that would express his own artistic sensitivities as well as one that could express the complexities of his era and be able reach a wide audience. When he began to study the frescoes of Renaissance Italy he knew that he had found his medium. Thus establishing his strong belief in public art and his view of the fresco as a means of expressing himself, Rivera returned to Mexico.

Fresco means “fresh” in Italian and it describes a work which done on a wall (mural) on freshly-laid plaster. The paint is applied directly on this surface and seeps into the wet plaster, giving a brilliant and durable work as the plaster dries. Using the large-scale fresco form in universities, museums, train stations and other public buildings, Rivera was able to introduce his work into the everyday lives of people. As an artist, Rivera focussed on human development and the effects of mankind’s technological progress. He wanted to tackle the grandiose themes of the history and the future of humanity. As a Marxist, Rivera saw in public frescoes a viable alternative to the elite walls of galleries and museums (or even the walls of the homes of the rich). His fame grew in the 1920s, and he completed a number of large murals depicting Mexican history. His work appealed to the people and its colourful, easily accessible pictorial elements provided a decorative and political motifs which they could contemplate. His work made a commentary on the progress of the working class and criticised capitalism and its exploitation of the worker.

In 1930, Rivera visited the USA for the first time. In November 1930, Rivera began work on his first two major American commissions: The first for the American Stock Exchange Luncheon Club and the second for the California School of Fine Arts. These two pieces subtly incorporated Rivera’s radical political views, while maintaining a sense of simple historical depictions as requested by the organisations that commissioned his work. As an artist, Rivera had a gift to condense a complex historical subject (such as the history of California’s natural resources) to its essential parts. For Rivera, the foundation of history could be summarised in the historical view of the struggles of the working class.

In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Rivera visited Detroit. Henry Ford commissioned him to decorate the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts with a depiction of the history of the American Worker. Completed in 1933, this fresco depicted industrial life in the United States, concentrating (aptly, both in terms of location as well as the personal interests of his patron) on the car plant workers of Detroit. It is interesting that Rivera’s radical politics and independent nature did not draw as much negative criticism as one would have expected. Though the fresco generated controversy, Edsel Ford (Henry’s son) defended the work and it remains today Rivera’s most significant painting in America. Rivera, however, did not fare nearly so well in his association with the Rockefellers in New York City.

In 1933 the Rockefellers commissioned Rivera to paint a mural for the lobby of the RCA building in Rockefeller Center, called “Man at the Crossroads”. This work was to depict the social, political, industrial, and scientific possibilities of the twentieth century. In the painting, Rivera included a scene of a giant May Day demonstration of workers marching with red banners. The clear portrait of Lenin leading the demonstration was what inflamed the patrons, rather than the subject matter. When Rivera refused to remove the portrait, he was ordered to stop and the painting was destroyed. That same year, Rivera used the money from the Rockefellers to create a mural for the Independent Labor Institute that had Lenin as its central figure.

Throughout his life, Rivera remained a pivotal figure in the development of a national art in Mexico. His tempestuous association with fellow-artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a notable highlight of his life. While a young painter, Kahlo communicated with Rivera, whose work she admired. She asked him for advice about pursuing art as a career. He recognised her talent and encouraged her artistic development. This led to an intimate relationship, which resulted in their marriage in 1929, despite the disapproval of Frida’s mother.  Their marriage was often troubled. Kahlo and Rivera both had strong temperaments and numerous extramarital affairs. The bisexual Kahlo had affairs with both men and women, including Josephine Baker. Rivera knew of and tolerated her relationships with women, but her relationships with men made him jealous. For her part, Kahlo was furious when she learned that Rivera had an affair with her younger sister, Cristina. The couple divorced in November 1939, but remarried in December 1940. Their second marriage was as troubled as the first. Their living quarters were often separate, although sometimes adjacent.

In 1957, at the age of seventy, Rivera died in Mexico City. He is considered one of the greatest Mexican painters of the twentieth century. His influence on the international art world was considerable. Among his many contributions, Rivera is credited with the reintroduction of fresco painting into modern art and architecture. His radical political views and his dramatic personal life have kept biographers busy since his death. In a series of visits to America, from 1930 to 1940, Rivera brought his unique vision to public spaces and galleries, enlightening and inspiring artists and laymen alike. His impact on America’s conception of public art was seminal. In depicting scenes of American life on public buildings, Rivera provided the first inspiration for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA program. Of the hundreds of American artists who would find work through the WPA, many continued on to address political concerns that had first been publicly presented by Rivera. Both his original painting style and the force of his ideas remain major influences on American painting.

The fresco above is from the series in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, completed in 1934 and is entitled: “El Hombre in Cruce de Caminos” (Man at the Crossroads). Lenin figures prominently here and above him the May Day parade. This is Rivera reconstructing his destroyed Rockefeller Center work on more sympathetic walls… The folly and potential wisdom of mankind are contrasted and man as the master of the universe and his own fate is shown in the centre of the work. Man at the crossroads must choose between prosperity and progress or destruction and annihilation.


  1. There is something monumental in Rivera's work and to see these huge frescos for real is an amazing experience. I really like his style and his pictures of women with call lillies are my faves.

  2. I am sure there was a Rivera mural at the old Spencer Street Station - where did it go?

    my poetic friend Peter Bakowski may read his Diego Rivera poem at the ABC studios on July 9th - see his Facebook for the time.