SLM Cultura Article – Issue 42 – by Tlecu Omitl

“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 is considered the greatest Mexican painter of the twentieth century, the father of Mexican mural art and the father of modern political art in Mexico. Diego was an important personality in the art world of the 20th century and his thoughts were well respected in the art community. He was an innovator in expressing his ideals unifying art and politics. Among his many contributions, Rivera is credited with the reintroduction of fresco painting into modern art and architecture.


Diego María de la Rivera y Barrientos and his twin brother Carlos were born on December 13, 1886 in Leon, Guanajuato. Carlos died in 1888, which left Diego as an only child. After the death of Diego’s brother, María Barrientos developed a terrible neurosis. In order to take her out of it she decided to study a career and successfully graduated in Obstetrics. Diego’s other mother was Antonia, his Indian nanny. He had very poor health when he was young and his parents sent him to the mountains to live with Antonia. Diego had a very precious memory of her. Antonia was an inspiration for many of his paintings and his love for the indigenous culture.
Diego’s parents gave him colored chalk as a homecoming present. Diego loved to draw so much that he drew pictures all over. So his parents gave him a studio with blackboards for walls. Diego covered the blackboards with pictures so that the whole room had murals all around. Diego daydreamed a lot in school and imagined the colors and sights of the mountains and the jungles. He loved to go to church to see the colorful paintings.


Finally, his parents sent him to art school. However, even though it was an honor to go to art school at such a young age, Diego did not like the projects there. He did not want to paint from models or sculptures of people; he wanted to paint from real life! So he did paint from life on his own. He painted people celebrating the Day of The Dead, and people at fiestas such as at Cinco de Mayo. He also painted things he saw that were very sad. For example, he painted soldiers shooting workers on strike. He painted other scenes of the people’s struggle for equality in Mexico.
In 1896, while he was still in high school, he entered the Academy of San Carlos. He was so obviously talented that in 1906, after his first show, he was granted a four-year scholarship from the governor of Veracruz, Teodoro Dahesa, to continue his studies in Europe. In 1907 he goes to Spain, where he promptly becomes part of the intellectual circles. After studying there for two years he moves to Paris and starts living with Angelina Beloff.


Diego and Angelina had a son but due to a flu epidemic the child died in the fall of 1918. Diego had many lovers; among them was Marvena, another Russian woman. Diego and Marvena had a child named Marika right after the death of Angelina’s baby. Diego precisely describes his relationship with Angelina when he says, “She gave me everything a woman can give to a man. In return, she received from me all the heartache and misery that a man can inflict upon a woman.”


While studying in Spain, Rivera was fascinated by the works of Cézanne, who introduced him to cubism. He was also very interested in Mondrian and created many paintings reproducing his style. His greatest influence, however, was Pablo Picasso’s. Diego was interested in cubism because it questioned the pre-established conceptions of painting. With his cubist work, such as “Zapatista Landscape,” ” Woman at the Well” and “Sailor at Lunch,” Rivera earned recognition among the artistic circles in Paris. This technique, however, did not fulfill him completely because he felt a lack of originality in his work. He was following Picasso’s trend and felt that he would never be like him.


This is why he decides to find his own style by going back to a more realistic way of painting. The art community abandoned Diego, which left him in absolute poverty because no one would buy his paintings. This decision proved costly to his reputation as a modernist, but not to the evolution of his aesthetics. The situation, however, forced Diego to go back to Mexico.


Diego arrived in Mexico on July of 1921 and met José Vasconcelos right away. Vasconcelos was a philosopher in charge of the Ministry of Education, and part of the new regime after the revolution. He had very innovative ideas on how to change the educational system in Mexico. One of these ideas was the creation of murals on public buildings so that art could be shared with the masses. The themes of the murals would try to portray Mexican identity. Vasconcelos sent a couple of important artists, Diego Rivera among them, to travel around the country to collect sketches of the daily life of peasants and indigenous people. At his arrival, in 1922, Diego was assigned his first mural at the National Preparatory School. This first mural was called “Creation.” Diego Rivera’s style was the product of the influence of many different art styles, such as cubism, impressionism, classical European style and Aztec art. His murals had a busyness that reminds us the Baroque, covering Churches with images and details. Some critics referred to Diego’s particular style as “agoraphobic” because he seemed to be afraid of having open space in his paintings. In his murals he uses many symbols that come from Aztec codices. For example, he uses the colors and figures of idols, as well as the way in which the Indians used images to narrate myths and historical events. In some of his work we can see a use of space that comes from cubism (in Creation, for example) and a use of perspective that comes from his early classical studies. In the sketches of the murals we can see how he used architectural skills as well as a lot of geometry. Rivera was a very skilled painter, and as José Vasconcelos says, “everything could be forgiven to Diego because he knew how to paint with exact drawing and perfect coloring when he wanted”. Diego did not like “Creation” because, on his view, it did not portray well the Mexican character. It was based too much on classic European style. The symbolism of the mural represents the emergence of man (at the center) who has his arms open to represent sacrifice and offering; the standing figures represent the theological virtues: Charity, Hope and Faith; the rest of the figures are knowledge, erotic poetry, tradition, tragedy, justice and strength; the mestizo couple represents the fusion of racial strains. The mural was inaugurated on March 9th of 1923.


Diego’s second wife was Guadalupe Marín of Guadalajara. Concha Michel, the famous singer, introduced Diego and Lupe. About the way in which they met, Diego recalls that Concha wanted to be his lover but she could not be because she was married. In order to take away the temptation of an affair with him she decided to find for him a woman who would be “handsomer, freer and braver” than her. Diego loved and admired Lupe. He also loved her body, which he painted in many of his work (in the Chapingo murals for example). In his biography he refers to her as a “beautiful, spirited animal”, with hair that “looked more like that of a chestnut,” with hands “that had the beauty of tree roots or eagle talons.” The problem with Lupe for Diego was her jealousy and possessiveness, which, added to the fact that Diego was not a faithful husband created all kinds of uncomfortable fights. Their relationship ended before Diego left to go to Russia in 1927 to participate in the celebration of tenth anniversary of the October revolution.

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