“An artist is above all a human being, profoundly human to the core. If the artist can’t feel everything that humanity feels, if the artist isn’t capable of loving until he forgets himself and sacrifices himself if necessary, if he won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist.” — Diego Rivera
For many years Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) has been a painter whose work I admire. During some years of living in New York I saw his work from time to time in different museums, but for some reason it didn’t strike a chord with me. Too young probably. It wasn’t until my university years in Los Angeles that the painter began to catch my eye during visits to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Obviously it had something to do with the cultural closeness of Mexico and California and better understanding on my part of central American art and culture. Diego Rivera led what could only be called a tumultuous life but probably no less than what you would expect in a genius, for artistic genius is certainly what Mr Rivera was. It all started at an early age…
Young master Rivera had by age ten already displayed a precocious gift for drawing and painting and so began his formal study at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City. By the age of sixteen he had already acquired a taste for revolution and was expelled from the academy for participation in a student strike. Perhaps because of his great talent the school later relented and the young artist-to-be was reinstated. He refused to return and for the next five years worked on his own. At twenty-one he was awarded a scholarship to study abroad and chose Spain as his base. He also spent long periods in France, Belgium, Holland and England. He made a trip home in 1910 and held a successful exhibition where many of his paintings sold quickly. But he soon returned to Paris. Rivera spent the years from 1913-1917 painting in the Cubist style, but in 1919 made a break with that style and with a painter friend moved on to Italy. He was back once more in his native Mexico in 1921, immediately and strongly impressed by what he called ‘…the inexpressible beauty of that rich and severe, wretched and exuberant land.’ Under the influence of his native textures and colors he abandoned European allegory in favor of a style influenced by the Aztecs, mingled with traces of Cubism and the strongest of his European influences, Henri Rousseau. Around the same time Rivera joined the Communist Party, but was expelled in 1929 for difficult behavior while painting a mural in Russia.
Rivera enjoyed a productive period of years painting large murals in Mexico City, Cuernavaca and in US cities as well. In 1931 he visited New York for a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art which broke all attendance records, making Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo into celebrities. He returned to New York in 1933 to paint a mural for the RCA Building, part of Rockefeller Center, but problems arose when Rivera included a portrait of Lenin in his composition. Work was halted, the artist paid in full and completed portions of the mural covered.
Diego Rivera’s life was one filled with the chaos of politics, womanizing, voluptuous appetites and scandal. He fought with governments, with the church and with his women. But by the time of his death in 1957 he had somehow managed to reconcile most of those conflicts.