Diego Rivera (c.1886–1957), husband of Frida Kahlo, was the greatest of Los Tres Grandes, the “Big Three” Mexican artists – the other two being José Clemente Orozco and David Siqueiros – who interpreted the Revolution and Mexican history through the medium of enormous murals, and put the nation’s art onto an international footing in the first half of the twentieth century. His works remain among the country’s most striking sights.
Rivera studied from the age of 10 at the San Carlos Academy in the capital, immediately showing immense ability. He later moved to Paris, where he flirted with many of the new artistic trends, in particular Cubism. More importantly, though, he and Siqueiros planned, in exile, a popular, native art to express the new society in Mexico. In 1921 Rivera returned from Europe to the aftermath of the Revolution, and right away began work for the Ministry of Education at the behest of the socialist Education Minister, poet and presidential hopeful José Vasconcelos. Informed by his own Communist beliefs, and encouraged by the leftist sympathies of the times, Rivera embarked on the first of his massive, consciousness-raising murals, whose themes – Mexican history, the oppression of the natives, post-Revolutionary resurgence – were initially more important than their techniques. Many of his early murals are deceptively simple, naive even, but in fact Rivera’s style remained close to major trends and, following the lead of Siqueiros, he took a scientific approach to his work, looking to industrial advances for new techniques, better materials and fresh inspiration. The view of industrial growth as a panacea (particularly in the earlier works of both Rivera and Siqueiros) may have been simplistic, but the artists’ use of technology and experimentation with new methods and original approaches often had startling results.
Rivera and Trotsky
Communism continued to be a major source of motivation and inspiration for Rivera, who was a long-standing member of the Mexican Communist Party. When ideological differences caused a rift in Soviet politics, he came down on the side of Leon Trotsky’s “revolutionary internationalism”. In 1936, with Trotsky running out of countries that would accept him after seven years on the run from Stalin’s henchmen, Rivera used his influence over Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas to get permission for Trotsky and his wife Natalia to enter the country. They stayed with Diego and Frida rent-free at their Coyoacán house before Trotsky moved down the road to what is now the Museo Casa de León Trotsky. The passionate and often violent differences between orthodox Stalinists and Trotskyites spilled over into the art world, creating a great rift between Rivera and ardent Stalinist Siqueiros, who was later jailed for his involvement in an assassination attempt on Trotsky. Though Rivera later broke with Trotsky and was eventually readmitted to the Communist Party, Trotsky continued to admire Rivera’s murals, finding them “not simply a ‘painting’, an object of passive contemplation, but a living part of the class struggle”.
Following the Rivera trail
There is a huge amount of Rivera’s work accessible to the public, much of it in Mexico City, but also elsewhere around the country. The following is a rundown of the major Rivera sites, approximately ordered in accordance with their importance within each area.
Near the Zócalo, the Alameda and Chapultepec
Palacio National Major murals right in the heart of the capital.
SEP There are many of Rivera’s early murals around the courtyards of the Ministry of Education.
Palacio de Bellas Artes Rivera’s monumental El Hombre en Control del Universo (and others), as well as murals by his contemporaries.
Museo Mural Diego Rivera One of Rivera’s most famous murals, Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda, is on display here.
Museo de Arte Moderno Several quality canvases by Rivera and his contemporaries.
Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso (ENP) One relatively minor Rivera mural.
Museo Nacional de Arte A handful of minor canvases.
Cárcomo de Dolores Two murals on water-related subjects by a lake in the Bosque de Chapultepec.
Estadio Olímpico Mosaic relief depicting the relationship between sport and the family.
Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño A massive collection of Rivera works from almost every artistic period.
Museo Frida Kahlo Just a couple of Diego’s works displayed in the house where he and Frida spent some of their married life.
Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo Diego’s and Frida’s pair of houses designed by Juan O’Gorman.
Museo Anahuacalli Large Maya-style house built by Rivera and housing his collection of pre-Colombian sculpture.
Museo de Arte Carrillo-Gil A couple of paintings from Rivera’s Cubist period.
Teatro de los Insurgentes Mosaic depicting the history of Mexican theatre.
Outside the capital
Palacio de Cortés, Cuernavaca. Early murals on a grand scale.
Museo Robert Brady, Cuernavaca. A few paintings by both Frida and Diego.
Museo Casa Diego Rivera, Guanajuato. Relatively minor works and sketches in the house where Diego was born.