Realist Mexican artist Diego Rivera continues to loom larger than life, even now, more than half a century after his death. A physically imposing man, immensely tall and fat, he lived life to the fullest, drinking, eating, womanizing, and telling shamelessly self-promoting tall tales. His art has become indelibly intertwined with Mexican identity with its stylized and vibrantly coloured images of pre-Columbian and modern Mexican life. His monumental murals depict the sweep of Mexican and world history, from a romanticized pre-Hispanic past through to modern revolutionary times. Love him or hate him - and there's plenty of good company on each side of that divide - it is difficult to talk of Mexican art without mentioning Diego Rivera.
Rivera was born Diego María Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez in Guanajuato, Mexico in 1886; his twin brother died at only one and a half, and Rivera was for a time in poor health. On the advice of a doctor, the boy was sent to the mountains with his nanny; he would later boast that she was the first of his many conquests. He established himself early on as an talented artist; he began to draw at age three, and his father, wishing to spare the rest of the house, set aside a room with paper-covered walls for the lad to paint on. Rivera would later say these were his first murals. The family moved to Mexico City in 1892 and in 1899, at his father's insistence, he entered a military academy, but the boy hated the idea of military training and begged, and was allowed, to enroll in art school fulltime.
Rivera would later claim that while a student, he and some of his fellows decided to try cannibalism, having heard that it would make them healthy and strong. (It was said to have done so for cats in Paris.) The youths apparently bought cadavers and consumed them, becoming hale and hearty. Rivera related that during this time he developed a special taste for the breasts, legs, and brains of women. He also said that he had affairs with women many years his senior, beginning from his single digits; when their husbands were at work, he would meet them for dalliances.
Though apocryphal, these stories are part of the legend Rivera built around himself. And it's certainly true that, though a rather unattractive man with a frog-like face, he had considerable success with women throughout his life.
By 20 Rivera was taking part in art exhibits, and in 1907, armed with a modest four-year scholarship from the governor of Veracruz, Rivera went to Spain, where he was taken as a student by Spanish realist painter Eduardo Chicharro. Over the next fifteen years Rivera lived in various European countries, befriending the leading avant garde artists of the day. He was strongly influenced by the post-impressionism and cubism of acquaintances such as Paul Cezanne, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso, and he became a cubist himself for a time.
A large man of hearty appetites, he ate and drank copiously, and indulged his penchant for womanizing. In Spain he began living with Russian painter Angelina Beloff; the two had a son who died of influenza as a child. When Rivera returned to Mexico he told Beloff he would send for her, but he never did. In Paris he met another Russian, Marevna Vorobieva, with whom he had a daughter. He was also known for his volatile temperament: when cubism came under attack Rivera engaged in brawls with those who denounced his work; eventually, unable to sell his works, he returned to Mexico, penniless, in 1921.
Mexico had just undergone a revolution, and Rivera arrived just in time to ride the crest of the wave of change (though he would later claim that he had fought in the revolutionary army). He was immediately befriended by the new Minister of Education, José Vasconcelos, who believed that the government could help to teach revolutionary consciousness to the people through the use of political murals. Rivera had studied the great fresco art of Italy during his stay in Europe and was eager to try his hand at creating something similar of his own.
Rivera and fellow muralists were charged with travelling around the country, sketching the "real life" of the Mexican people. Rivera was much influenced by indigenous images and styles of art he saw during his travels. His first major piece was a mural on the wall of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. Though he thought the painting too European in style, it remains a powerful and vibrant allegorical piece about religion and a resurgence of Mexican culture. With fellow muralists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros Rivera formed an artist's union; he was a leading member of the communist party of the time.
Love and Politics
In 1922 Rivera took another wife, Guadalupe (Lupe) Marín; they had two children, and Rivera depicted Lupe in many of his paintings. Over the next few years Rivera worked at a number of commissions, including a series of murals in the courtyard of the Ministry of Education, depicting Mexico's indigenous past, its conquest, and its arts and culture. Conservative groups protested against and defaced the art of Rivera, Orozco, and Siquieros, and work sometimes stopped for a time. Meanwhile, Rivera's relationship with Lupe was stormy, for he was anything but a faithful husband, and she was (understandably) jealous and possessive. In 1927 he travelled to the Soviet Union to participate in the ten-year anniversary of the Russian revolution, and the marriage was effectively ended.
In 1929 Rivera married his famous third wife, Frida Kahlo. That same year he became director of his former art school, the Academy of San Carlos, but his ambitious reform plan was too much for his detractors to stomach and he was forced out the following year. Around this time too he was expelled from the communist party for refusing to toe the official Stalinist line. His claim to revolutionary zeal wasn't helped by the fact he had accepted a commission from the American ambassador, Dwight Morrow, to paint a mural at the Palace of Cortes.
Rivera was becoming well-known abroad and received a few commissions in the US. He painted murals at the Detroit Art Institute celebrating the Industrial Revolution and Fordism. He also received a commission to paint a modernist mural at the Rockefeller Center in New York City, but the job was a disaster: Rivera refused to remove a likeness of Vladimir Lenin from the mural, and the whole thing was destroyed. You can see it reproduced in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, though, along with many other fine examples of Rivera's and other muralists' art.
In 1936 Rivera interceded with Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas, asking that Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia be given asylum in Mexico; the president agreed and the Trotskys arrived in Mexico in January of 1937. Though Rivera and Kahlo were close to the exiles for a time, Rivera and Trotsky had a falling out, perhaps precipitated by Kahlo's and Trotsky's affair. Twice assassins came after Trotsky in the next year; he escaped the first attempt, led by Siqueiros, unharmed, but was not so lucky the second time round.
Rivera continued to accept commissions from whoever would pay him, earning him disapprobation from his revolutionary former associates. He did a series of simple paintings of flower sellers and other peasants which, though much scorned by critics, sold well. Eventually he reconciled with the communist party, renouncing his former views, and one of his later murals shows a shining Stalin and Mao reaching out to the Korean proletariat.
Meanwhile, his volatile relationship with Kahlo ground on. Rivera refused to give up his womanizing ways, and Kahlo retaliated with many affairs of her own, taking both men and women as lovers. They divorced in 1940, but remarried the same year; in spite of all their troubles, they seem to have been very close as lovers, comrades, artists, and friends. Kahlo died in 1954; the next year Rivera married for the last time, to his longtime agent Emma Hurtado. He was diagnosed with cancer that same year, but a trip to Russia for surgery and cobalt treatments cured him. Always overweight, Rivera died of a heart attack in 1957.
To Learn More
See the film Frida; Albert Molina gives a brilliant portrayal of Rivera from the time he met Frida Kahlo.
Read the coffee table book Diego Rivera by Pete Hamill, or Diego Rivera: A Retrospective, edited by Cynthia Helms, or get the legend straight from the horse's mouth by picking up My Art, My Life: An Autobiography by the big man himself.