By- Angela Padrón
Diego Rivera (1886–1957), one of the most renowned artists of the 20th century, was a Mexican muralist who is also famous for being the husband of famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
Rivera displayed his artistic talent early on in his life. At just ten years old, he studied at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City. He went on to study in Europe at the age of nineteen, where he met many artists, including Pablo Picasso, the famous Spanish painter. He was also influenced by other well-known European masters, including Paul Gaugin and Henri Matisse.
Meanwhile, during the early 1900s, back in Rivera’s home country of Mexico, a massive civil war known as the Revolution was raging. It involved several leaders—including Francisco Madero, Venustiano Carranza, Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata—who had very specific political and social agendas. When the Revolution ended, the Mexican government had to find a way to unite all of its citizens. As part of this effort, the government wanted to create an official history of Mexico that would reflect and appeal to all of its citizens. Because many in the population were poor and illiterate, murals were a good way to display the country’s history in a medium that was accessible to all to view, study, and admire. Muralism was also a way to encourage social and political engagement, while also having people appreciate public works of art. Thus began the Mexican Mural Movement, or Mexican Muralism.
Rivera returned to Mexico with a desire to paint murals, sparked by learning about European Renaissance artists and studying their frescoes. In his murals, Rivera wanted to depict the lives of the hard-working Mexican people and their indigenous cultures and mestizaje, or mixed-race heritage. He also wanted to reflect the pain and suffering the Mexican people experienced during the Mexican Revolution.
In 1921, Rivera received government funding to paint murals on public buildings. His first mural was completed in 1922 at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in Mexico City.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Rivera was commissioned to paint murals in the United States as well. Many of his murals were controversial, especially the one he completed for the Rockefeller family on the RCA Building in New York City. The mural was titled Man at the Crossroads and included a portrait of Vladmir Lenin, the Russian Communist leader. The Rockefellers and many people in the public were offended, but Rivera defended his work, saying that he included the communist leader to depict the political climate and fear of the Communist party at the time. The Rockefellers asked Rivera to remove the mural, but he refused. As a result, the Rockefeller family had it demolished in 1934, leading to even more controversy with the public.
In 1940, Rivera painted a mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. From 1945 to 1951, Rivera worked on several murals in Mexico City, including “From the Pre-Hispanic Civilization to the Conquest,” and his final one, called “Popular History of Mexico.”
Other artists, including José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, joined Diego Rivera in the Mexican Muralism movement; together, they became known as “the Big Three.” Another artist, Rufino Tamayo, who was younger and not as ideological, was also a muralist painter, but developed his own modern style. Rivera’s controversial yet stunning murals are a reminder not only of Mexican heritage and culture, but also of just how incredible of an artist Diego Rivera was.