Diego Rivera is a controversial artist known for his communist views and depictions of Mexican life. He is sometimes called El Elefante (The Elephant) because he towered over his wife, La Paloma (The Pigeon) Frida Kahlo.
These two artists of their century had a deeply long and complex marriage which influenced many of Frida’s works. Kahlo portrayed inner turmoil and emotions, while Rivera’s work focused more outwardly on political turmoil and observations.
Rivera was born on December 8th, 1886, in Guanajuato, Mexico. He enjoyed drawing since he was a child, and would eventually go on to attend the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City.
In 1907, he won a government sponsorship to study art in Europe. There, he befriended Picasso, and got to view the work of other major artists like Matisse. This influenced him to have a cubist, abstract phase of his work.
Rivera began to lean into his most recognizable works when he returned to Mexico. He became a part of the Mexican Communist Party in 1922, and joined the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors.
He began to paint murals because he thought it made art more accessible to common people. These murals depicted scenes of everyday life in Mexico and struggles from the Mexican Civil War of the 1910s.
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His style morphed into one characterized by very large figures with simple line art and bold colors. It combined influences from European art and Pre-Columbian Mexican identity. Eventually, Rivera made a name for himself as one of the key leaders of the 1920s Mexican mural movement, alongside José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
In 1929, the Mexican government commissioned Rivera to create murals in the staircases and hallways of the National Palace, the nation’s government center.
According to art historian Shrifa Goldman, Mexican muralists wanted to show their nation as a resilient fighter against oppression and war, rather than as a victim of colonization. You can see Rivera represent native Mexican identity in his mural on the North Wall of the National Palace.
There, you’d see the Tianguis of Tlatelolco (Market of Tlatelolco), Rivera’s mural of an ancient marketplace in the Aztec Empire. It doesn’t shy away from showing the empire’s influence as you can see the city sprawling way past the people in the forefront. It portrays the Aztec center as an important trading post rich with jewels and seasonings.
Aside from his murals, he created The Flower Carrier (1935) with oil on masonite. It portrays a working man with a large vat of flowers on his back. He’s weighed down to the ground, unable to enjoy the fruits of his labor. This is an often-cited example of Rivera’s sympathy for people who suffer under capitalism.
The Flower Vendor (Girl with Lilies) (1941) is another ode to the Mexican people that’s hidden in its symbolism. The calla lilies in the picture represent funerals and death. As a native girl bends into them, many people view this piece as a dedication to the suffering of native Mexicans.
Key Controversy: The Battle of Rockefeller Center
Rivera’s views did not go without collision in his lifetime. The Battle of Rockefeller Center would exemplify this as a conflict between the communist Rivera, and the capitalist John D. Rockefeller.
In 1932, Rivera and Kahlo traveled to the United States to work on commissions. By this point, Rivera had earned a worldwide reputation. He came to the U.S. during the Great Depression, but it was also a time of prosperity for the Rockefellers.
The Rockefellers wanted to build another business center of New York, similar to Wall Street.
The Rockefeller management team wanted to have a mural in the entrance of the R.C.A (Radio Corporation of America) building. Abby Rockefeller, an art collector and the developer of the MoMA, persuaded them to choose Diego Rivera. Although J.D. Rockefeller was reluctant, he ultimately didn’t think it would be a bad decision.
Complications began from the drawing board. Rivera had to negotiate to use fresco instead of canvas, and to apply color to the mural.
After this step was complete, Rivera sent reviewers a sketch of the piece he planned, Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future. This drawing painted workers in a positive light, but this didn’t bother the Rockefeller team. They approved it.
Real controversy began when Rivera put an image of Russian socialist leader, Vladimir Lenin, in the mural. He wasn’t in the original sketches, so Rockefeller sent a letter to Rivera requesting its removal to avoid offending people.
In fact, New York telegram reporter Joseph Lilly had already published an article called Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity and John D. Rockefeller Foots Bill.
Rivera refused to remove Lenin but instead offered to balance the picture out with an American leader, such as Lincoln. The Rockefeller management team ended up paying off a portion of what he was owed, sending him off, and destroying the mural in 1934. But it left its legacy.
Rivera recreated the mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and renamed it Man, Controller of the Universe (1934). This time, Rivera followed his vision fully. On the left, one can see wealthy people playing cards and smoking. On the right, Lenin holds hands with working men and women.
Historical Connections and Artistic Legacy
Rivera’s allegiance to the communist ideology continued into his later life. From 1937-1939, Rivera and Kahlo housed Russian Marxist exile Leon Trotsky. Both El Elefante and La Paloma were promiscuous, so it’s believed that Kahlo either planned to or did have a brief affair with the revolutionary.
This caused tension between Kahlo and Rivera, and Trotsky’s wife was especially troubled by the affair. So, the exiles left, and Trotsky was assassinated shortly after by a Soviet secret agent.
Regardless of these scandals, Rivera made an impact on art. He became an icon to his home nation of Mexico and influenced American art.
His style helped inspire Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project, which sought to fund artists that would depict American life on buildings – Similar in concept to Rivera’s murals. He has inspired artists like Thomas Hart Benton, and abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.
Pollock was such a fan of Rivera’s murals that he tracked him down to see how he created them in person. His work continues to fascinate and reach people across the globe.