Diego Rivera: Art for the Masses

Diego Rivera (1886-1957) is one of the most prominent Mexican painters and a major 20th century artist worldwide. He is known for his strong political views, as an active communist, and for his beliefs that art should play a role in empowering the masses to comprehend their own place in history. He was deeply influenced by the Mexican Revolution and the Russian revolution of 1917 that took place almost in parallel. He thought that art should be accessible to the people, and especially to workers, who would not have the chance to see artworks that are isolated in galleries and museums. For that reason Rivera produced a number of mural painting wall art on the walls of public buildings and dedicated a few years to studying early Renaissance fresco in Italy. Back in Mexico, he was ready to find his own stylistic expression through public paintings that would directly address the Mexican working class. His large frescoes set the beginning of the Mexican Mural Renaissance. Between 1922 and 1953, Rivera created his famous murals in Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Chapingo, San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City, among others.

Rivera was born in Guanajuato, to a well-off family. He started studying art at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City at the age of ten and continued his studies in Spain, and later in France where he became part of an artistic circle that included Ilya Ehrenburg, Amedeo Modigliani, Max Jacob, and Chaim Soutine. He was initially inspired by Cubism and used this style in his artworks from 1913 to 1917 but eventually rejected it. His new fascination was Post-Impressionism, inspired by Paul Cézanne's paintings. Rivera started using simplified forms and large sections of vivid colors. He participated in several exhibitions but his true success was yet to come.

Rivera was able to implement his new ideas about art for the masses in 1921, when a new cultural program was established to this end. Rivera was commissioned by the government of Mexico, together with Jose Orozco and David Siquieros to paint a series of frescoe oil paintings for public buildings. This laid the foundations of the Mexican Mural Renaissance, a new iconographic style that combined complex social themes, religious motifs, and a pre-Hispanic worldview. Rivera moved to work in the United States after the beginning of the political repression in Mexico in the late 1920s. At that time, he was already married to Frida Kahlo and both artists were very well received. Rivera and Kahlo had a passionate relationship but their infidelities lead to a divorce in 1939. They remarried one year later. Rivera had five marriages and at least one illegitimate child.

During his lifetime, Rivera was a highly controversial artist due to his bold communist beliefs that he straightforwardly expressed. Due to his radical views, the attacks on the church, and his connections with left-wing assassins and supporters of Trotsky made him a controversial figure even in communist circles. As a result, he was expelled from the Mexican Communists Party. In 1927, he was invited to paint a mural for the Red Army Club in Moscow but he could not implement it as he was suspected of involvement in anti-Soviet politics. On another occasion, his mural Man at the Crossroads that he started painting in 1933 for the Rockefeller Center in New York was removed after the media discovered that it contained a portrait of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin it contained. In 1934, Rivera repainted Man at the Crossroads in Mexico. He called this version Man, Controller of the Universe and it can still be seen in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

In his notorious mural Dreams of a Sunday Rivera portrayed Ignacio Ramirez holding an inscription that read, “God does not exist”. It was an expression of his atheism and although the artwork caused a great uproar, he refused to remove the sign for nine years. He commented, “I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis.” Today, Diego Rivera is regarded as a significant contributor to the development of public art across the Americas. He produced hundreds of oil and watercolors and hundreds of murals and other public works.