Author: Andrea Kettenmann
Type: Non-fiction, single subject
I read it: July 2014
There is perhaps no other Mexican of recent history with greater renown than Diego Rivera. His partner in art/life/politics, Frida Kahlo, may come close. But this book makes a strong case that it was Rivera who made the most lasting impression on Mexican cultural identity.
It wasn’t always the case that Rivera was so attached to his home country. He was already past age twenty when he traveled extensively around Spain, France, Belgium and other European locales. Here he learned a wide range of painting styles, and the first chapters of the book offer an intriguing array of his experimentations in Cubism, Renaissance art, and others.
Another decade or so passed before Rivera returned to Mexico and became revitalized with a brand of nationalism, strongly informed by his Communist/Socialist political ideals. It was around this time when he claimed,
My style was born like a child, in a moment, with the difference that this birth took place at the end of a painful, 35-year gestation.
That style would be the Diego Rivera mural. The artist’s murals usually told stories of Mexico past and present, featuring an array of Indian/Aztec themes, sometimes idealized, which transition into narratives about the Spanish conquerors, and on into the industrial age. He often portrayed these times by symbolizing the struggle of common workers, often pissing someone off by making his works too political. He was at one time shunned by the Communist party for being too commercial, like when he started to do commission work in the United States, and then later rejected by certain American parties when he stood strong in the Communist ideals in his paintings.
Rivera was a complicated man, always intertwining art with politics, and his love life with his creative life. He had many wives and a few children, and seemed to live turbulently. He grounded himself in his love for Mexico and his version of its past. The pages of the book show off the elaborate natural scenes he created which illustrate his passion for how humans come from the earth and ultimately live off the land. A favorite of mine is the huge “Man, Controller of the Universe” (or “Man in the Time Machine”), painted for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. As with so many of his large works, it shows the collision of the natural past with technology, war, resistance, and time.
For a solid overview of Diego Rivera’s life and works, this volume does the job. I snagged it when I was assigned to represent an artist for Camp Quest Minnesota, and I think Rivera has a lot worth digging into.