- Historic Sites
Who Was This Man-and Why Did He Paint Such Terrible Things About Us?
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
The man was Diego Rivera, seen from the rear on his scaffold in an uncharacteristically modest self-portrait at left, and what he was doing in America was expressing his gargantuan contempt for capitalism and its precepts. He was Mexico’s most celebrated muralist, and if his disdain for our system seemed larger than life, so did everything else about him: his girth (he weighed more than three hundred pounds); his energy (by the time of his death in 1957 he had painted the equivalent of a yard-high fresco that would have stretched more than two and a half miles); and his ego (he truly believed his crowded, angry “art for the masses” would change the world).
But perhaps greater than all of these was his gall. Pledged to help overthrow capitalism, he nonetheless came to the United States in 1931 and for two turbulent years accepted commissions from some of that system’s most illustrious captains-Fords, Rockefellers, the directors of General Motors.
Ideological consistency was never Rivera’s strong point; he was always his own man. He was born at Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1886, the son of a school inspector. He walked, talked, and drew early. At five, he renounced religion; at ten, he entered art school; at twenty-one, he was one of the most fashionable young artists in Mexico. During a decade spent in Paris he became a prolific cubist and an ardent bohemian. (His private life was always exuberantly unconventional: he was married four times, tempestuously, and enjoyed countless mistresses.)
In Paris, too, he found in Marxism an answer to the plight of Mexico’s peasant poor-and the ideological basis for a new way of painting. Art was a “weapon,” he came to believe. Easel painting and all forms of modernism were frivolous and “unnatural.” Only the mural-big, brightly colored, accessible to all the people-was worthwhile. Returning to Mexico in 1921, Rivera found the reformist government of President Alvaro Obreg’f6n eager to cooperate with an artist whose work could help win peasant support. The walls of public buildings were made available to him-and to such colleagues as José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Rivera’s finest murals swarm with allegorical figures and political preachment, but they are saved from the dull predictability of most “official” art by bold color and brilliant drawing—based partly on the art of the Aztecs. For generations, Mexicans were taught to be ashamed of their Indian ancestry; Rivera taught them to glory in it.
Rivera was a founder of Mexico’s Communist party, but he was too rebellious to toe the party line. During a 1927 visit to Russia, he criticized the dreary socialist realism then in favor. Two years later he was drummed from the party; eventually he offered his home to Soviet exile Leon Trotsky. Conservative critics already hated Rivera. Now, leftists, too, attacked him.
By 1931, word of the new Mexican muralists and their most flamboyant representative had spread northward, and in that year Rivera accepted his first commissions in the United States: murals for the California School of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Stock Exchange Club. There could have been no mistaking his revolutionary viewpoint. Back in Mexico, his compositions were filled with political tableaux: bloated priests fondling whores; peasants cowering under the overseer’s lash; Yankee businessmen sipping cocktails while workers toiled. The U.S. government certainly understood what Rivera was up to: it took influential friends a year to persuade the State Department to grant him a residency permit.
Thus there remains a certain mystery about his sudden popularity with the U.S. art establishment. Perhaps old-fashioned American pragmatism provides the answer: “We want the best,” his patrons may have reasoned, “and if Rivera is the best muralist going, then let’s have him and worry about his politics later.” Maybe he could be persuaded to leave out his radical beliefs just this once.
Rivera promised nothing of the kind, of course, but he did admit later that “in order to get here I had to do as a man does in war. Sometimes in times of war a man disguises himself as a tree. My paintings in this country [became] increasingly and gradually clearer.”
Not everyone welcomed him. Said Maynard Dixon, a disgruntled painter of western landscapes: “The Stock Exchange could look the world over without finding a man more inappropriate for the part than Rivera. ” But San Francisco society instantly took to the exotic revolutionary and his charming wife Frida Kahlo; he provided colorful copy for the local press, and his San Francisco murals were remarkably free of politics. The School of Fine Arts fresco (from which the detail on pages 14-15 was taken) was a witty trompe-l’oeil called The Making of a Fresco . The mural for the Stock Exchange Club (left) was a tribute to the glories of the Golden State, dominated by clothed and unclothed images of tennis star Helen Wills, whom Rivera had met at a party and decided to immortalize.