The Life and Times of Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera is one of, if not the most, famous artist to ever come out of South America. His influence can be seen not only to his own country, but also all over the world. Rivera was born on December 13, 1886, the date of one of many Mexican religious festivals, in Guanajuato. He was the first in a set of twins. His twin brother’s name was José Carlos and he died at the age of one and a half. As a matter of fact, his whole name was actually Diego Mariade la Concepcion Juan Nepolmuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodriguez. Fortunately, in later years Rivera did not have to use all of his names when he signed his artwork. On his early pieces he used the name Diego Mariade Rivera to distinguish himself from his father, though shortened it to simply Diego Rivera later on.
From a very early age, Rivera showed signs of tremendous artistic talent. In 1889, well before his third birthday, he drew a surprisingly accurate picture of a train, complete with a steam engine and a trainman's car. This piece of art hangs in a Mexican museum to this day. As a child, he would decorate everything from the walls to the furniture in his house with his art. As to not disturb his son’s incredible talent, but also save his home, Rivera’s father set up a special room in the house in which all of the walls were covered with blackboards. This way his son could draw all he wanted and then erase it when he pleased.
In addition to his artistic abilities, Rivera gained a talent in making people angry. From childhood until the end of his life he seemed to take great pleasure in the anger of others. Despite this, Rivera was an excellent student. In 1896, he achieved the highest score on the year-end exams. Later, in 1898, he graduated with honors from elementary school, just four years after entering. The only part of the curriculum that Rivera lacked in was his training in Christian religious matters. He constantly challenged his priest’s teachings, which suggested that he continue his religious learning at home. Even before finishing elementary school, Rivera began attending night classes at the San Carlos School of Fine Arts. He was the youngest student at the academy, yet had no trouble competing with everyone else. His hard work earned him a scholarship that enabled him to take the school’s regular day courses.
At the age of sixteen, Rivera’s student days were over. By that time he was already over six feet tall and weighed just under three hundred pounds. In 1907, at the age of twenty, Rivera traveled to Spain. To quench his desire for knowledge, Rivera spent a lot of his time reading. Among those he read was Karl Marx, whose books, written in the 1800’s, helped to spur Rivera’s sympathy for the Communist movement. With these thoughts of social reform beginning to formulate inside his head, Rivera decided to visit Paris in 1909. At the time he probably thought he was only visiting Paris. Though it immediately became his base of operations. Except for a few brief trips back to Mexico and visits to several European cities, Rivera worked and lived in Paris for the next ten year of his life.
In 1911, Rivera began to experiment with a new kind of art that was sweeping Paris. By 1913, he was one of the leaders of the new artistic movements called cubism. Most of the previous forms of artwork before cubism expressed the world in a rather realistic way. The subjects of the piece of artwork, whether it was a person, an animal, or a bowl of fruit, were generally quite easy to recognize. Led by artists Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Diego Rivera and a number of other painters who worked in Paris in the early years of the twentieth century challenged all of that. Cubist painting often depicted common objects in exaggerated geometric form. For example, a human face might take the form of a triangle or a cone. This head might also be separated from the body, placed away from the shoulders. In addition, the head possibly could be shown, as it appeared from the side while the rest of the body faced frontward. From the years 1913 to 1917, Rivera completed about two hundred paintings in the cubist form.
In November of 1921 came the break that started Rivera’s career as a muralist. Now, back in Mexico, Rivera received an opportunity to talk at length with the Mexican government’s minister of education, Jose Vasconcelos. They both shared in the dream of decorating some of Mexico City’s drab walls with artwork. Rivera was given the opportunity to paint his first mural on the inside front wall of the National Preparatory School auditorium, which was part of the University of Mexico in Mexico City. During the earliest stages of his work, he met a young woman named Guadalupe Marín. In 1922, while still working on the mural, he and Guadalupe got married.
The first mural differed greatly from all of his later works. Instead of painting in fresco, he used a system in which colors were combined with beeswax. The sticky mixture was applied to the wall and then sealed with heat. The wall attracted considerable attention. Young artists, intrigued by a form of art they had never seen before, gathered to watch Rivera’s work.
In 1927, Rivera, along with a group of other Communist leaders in Mexico, was invited to attend the Moscow celebrations in Russia. Upon his return to Mexico, he received many offers to paint murals in the United States. Due to his Communist background, Rivera had great difficulty getting permission to enter the country. Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford, propositioned Rivera’s first big mural job in the United States to him. Ford wanted Rivera to create a mural depicting American industry. Ford agreed to contribute ten thousand dollars to pay for a series of frescoes Rivera would paint in the central courtroom of the Detroit Institute of Art. However, Rivera insisted on painting more than planned. Ford generously increased his contribution to twenty-five thousand dollars. Rivera worked on the frescoes throughout the second half of 1932 and the early months of 1933. His murals in the Detroit Institute of Art were masterpieces of design and accuracy and soon became one of the many prides of the city (next to the Red Wings of course). Rivera compressed the vast ideas of automotive plants, chemical manufacturing facilities, and other industrial operations into the relatively small space on the museum’s four walls.
Before Rivera worked on the frescoes throughout the second half of 1932 and the early months of 1933 he married Frida Kahlo on August 29, 1929. His wife Frida Kahlo is considered to have been a leading 20th-century Mexican painter. Rivera was influenced by Frida Kahlo’s work in the United States, including the mural for the Detroit Institute of Arts.
After his successes in Detroit, Rivera was propositioned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. to paint a mural in the lobby of his new RCA Building in New York. From the start of the mural Rivera must have been looking for trouble. In his painting he expressed Communism in a good light and even went as far as to paint a picture of Lenin on the wall. His mural outraged people, especially science it was at a time were America’s troubles with Communism were only beginning. Rockefeller ordered the painting to be destroyed.
Rivera returned to Mexico in 1934 and continued to express his artwork in friendlier surroundings. On November 25, 1957, Diego Rivera died of heart failure at the age of seventy in his San Angel studio. He was buried in the Rotanda de los Hombres Illustres at the pantheon of Dolores, Mexico City. Rivera will always be remembered as a great Mexican artist. Whether it is his symbolic representations of Mexican heritage or his vivid depictions of American industrialism, Rivera’s artwork will always represent the essence of the life that he loved so much.
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