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DIEGO RIVERA—ART PRODIGY, MURALIST, AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST

MEXICAN MURALIST DIEGO RIVERA briefly appeared earlier at SimanaitisSays as the mentor of aviatrix/muralist Aline Rhone. Her Roosevelt Field 1938 mural celebrated aviation from 1909 to 1927, with more than 700 aviation personalities and perhaps 268 aircraft. Diego Rivera’s 1933 Detroit Industry Murals celebrated this city and industry, especially Ford Motor Company.

And, as noted by Julia Bryan-Wilson in London Review of Books, August 12, 2021, his mural The Marriage of Artistic Expressions of the North and of the South on This Continent was painted in front of an audience at the Golden Gate International Exposition, on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, during the summer of 1940…. It measures 22 feet high and 74 feet wide and weighs almost three tonnes. On the left-hand side Rivera depicted pre-contact Indigenous technologies such as carving and weaving; on the right are the mechanical inventions that had shaped life north of the border – telegrams, tractors, railways.”

The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent, by Diego Rivera, 1940.

Here are tidbits about Bryan-Wilson’s LRB article “On Diego Rivera,” together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Prodigy. Born in 1910 to Mexicans of well-to-do background, his full name was Diego Maria de la Concepción Juan Neponuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodriguez. (Rivera y Barrientos is his paternal surname; Acosta y Rodrigues, his maternal family name. ( I’m reminded of “The Name’s the Thing.”)

Diego Rivera, 1886–1957, Mexican art prodigy, muralist, teacher, political activist.

Rivera began drawing at the age of three. Wikipedia writes, “When he was caught drawing on the walls of the house, his parents installed chalkboards and canvas on the walls to encourage him.” 

“From the age of ten,” Wikipedia continues, “Rivera studied art at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City.”

European Studies. The governor of the State of Veracruz sponsored his continued study in Europe. Rivera arrived in Europe in 1907 at age of 21. He first studied in Madrid, then Paris.

A portrait of Diego Rivera by his friend artist Amedeo Modigliani, 1914.

Rivera was influenced by the cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, then the simple forms and bright colors of Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne. Returning to Mexico in 1921, Riviera became involved with a government-sponsored mural program.

Political Activism. Rivera was an on-again/off-again member of the Mexican Communist Party (tossed out because of suspected Trotskyite sympathies). During the Red Scare Madness—The Fifties,” a large sign in the courtyard of Rivera’s 1933 Detroit mural defended the work’s artistic merit while attacking his politics as “detestable.” 

His 1940 work The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent, Bryan-Wilson writes, “was Rivera’s last mural in the U.S. and remains one of his most complicated achievements—both a celebration of cultural exchange and a condemnation of what Frida Kahlo [Rivera’s third (and twice-married) wife] called ‘Gringolandia’.… The welter of detail includes distinctive local landscapes and historical figures, including Simon Bolivar and John Brown, making cameos alongside Hitler and Charlie Chapin.” 

The Mural’s Move. Bryan-Wilson writes, “The fresco was recently moved with great care several miles across town to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It will undergo conservation over the next two years while its usual home, the City College of San Francisco (represented by the diver), is renovated.”

Center panel of The Marriage of the Artistic Expression, by Diego Rivera, 1940. His wife artist Freda Kahlo appears at the lower left.

“Commanding the lower gallery,” Bryan-Wilson observes, “it can be seen from the street and by anyone who walks into the museum. At its centre is Cōātlīcue, the Aztec goddess who gave birth to the moon and the stars. Her figure has been grafted with metal machinery. Is she a harbinger of progress or a melancholy acknowledgement of erased Native spiritualities?”

Art at its best provokes such musing. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

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