arts

Remember Me? Diego Rivera.

rivera portraitYou would think that even in death Frida Kahlo had a better publicist than Diego Rivera. He was a star in the 20s and 30s, painting epic murals all over Mexico, and in Detroit and New York, but his third wife definitely has gotten the better shake from the media. It doesn’t  help your rep to have Salma Hayek make a movie that burnishes Kahlo’s rep at Diego’s expense. Some call it Fridamaniaand it does border on cultish. rivera mural 1On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Rivera’s death, Mexico has paid tribute to theRivera legacy, and not just the frescoes, but also his paintings and watercolors.

Rivera was born in Guanajuato but lived in Paris from 1907 to 1921, which gave him anopportunity to experience the cubist movement. Returning to Mexico after years of unrest and bloodshed, he started to paint his frescoes in public buildings. Exploring universal themes and merging elements of European masters with pre-Hispanic forms, Rivera developed a distinctive style that was the basis for one of the first modern art movements in the Americas. Politics, and the fact that Rivera was a Communist until he quit the party in disillusionment, made his reputation somewhat murky. But the sheer volume of work over a 50 year career is rivera mural 2astonishing when you stand back and appreciate its breadth.

Ideology infused everything he painted, which played relatively well in Mexico, but got a poor reception in America. Most famously, Rivera was contracted to rivera mural 3paint a mural in the RCA building at Rockefeller Center in New York, by none other than Nelson Rockefeller. Rivera felt obliged to include a likeness of Lenin in the mural and whenRockefeller protested, Rivera insisted that Lenin would stay but he would be happy to add Abraham Lincoln. Rockefeller had the almost completed mural covered, and months later destroyed. Most likely because he knew the outcome beforehand, Rivera had secretly photographed the mural. Returning to Mexico, he reproduced the famous Man at the Crossroads mural on a wall in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, where it is still on display for all to see. Rivera renamed it Man Controller of the Universe, perhaps as reference to Rockefeller’s censorious behavior.

In many ways Diego Rivera’s work is the ultimate political propaganda, railing against the mistreatment of indigenous Indians and the futility of the bloody revolutions that marked the history of Mexico in the early 20th century. Rivera remained a very political man until his death in 1957.

Jay Harrison is a graphic designer and writer whose work can be seen at DesignConcept. He's written a mystery novel, which therefore makes him a pre-published author.

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