Diego Rivera’s life was remarkable. Some would say that it was stranger than fiction. It is difficult to draw the line between history and myth regarding Diego.The historical facts about his life appear unbelievable. The anecdotes told by those who knew him best are believable given the passion and eccentric lifestyle of the genius, Diego Rivera.
A traveling companion retold an incident that some claim to be an exaggeration. One day, Diego, returning from Moscow, Russia, stopped in Berlin, Germany. A loud, offensive man with a silly little mustache was ranting and raving to a large group of people standing nearby. Diego stopped to listen. He asked his companion to translate the message. Diego then angrily responded, “I will put an end to this here and now. The world will be better off.” Diego was known to carry a weapon for protection because his art murals were so controversial. It was common for Diego to have very heated arguments in public places. At first his companion was silenced and unsure how to respond because Diego was hot tempered. Unfortunately, his companion stopped him from shooting Adolf Hitler.
In world history there is “good” and “evil.” This story is about a great individual who created art murals to safeguard Mexico’s culture and history. Diego is of one of the greatest Mexicans of all time. He was an artist, a revolutionary with a paintbrush, a cultural ambassador, and a world leader. He was a man with big dreams and bigger commitments. He left many treasures for the Mexican people: his art and private collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts.
Diego Rivera was born December 8, 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico. His birth name was Diego Maria de la Concepcion Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodriguez. Diego had a twin brother Carlos, who died at the age of one and a half. Diego’s mother was heartbroken because four of her young children had died. Diego was cared for by his ninera Antonia. Antonia was a curandera who practiced native spiritual and natural holistic medicine. She nursed Diego back to health when he became gravely ill.
Diego loved to draw as early as three years old. His father set up a room in the house where Diego could paint freely, including the walls! The extremely intelligent Diego completed elementary school in just four years. He attended San Carlos School of Fine Arts between 1896-1902. His greatest teacher was an artist named Jose Guadalupe Posada, who in his own right was the father of Revolutionary Mexican Art.
Diego was an internationally acclaimed Mexican muralist who painted the hopes and struggles of the Mexican people. He helped establish a cultural renaissance of national identity. These murals and other works of art served two purposes: their value as artistic works and preservation of Mexico’s indigenous and revolutionary history.
Diego and other Mexican contemporary artists formed a union called the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. Their group was critical of the elite artists. The Syndicate of Artists included Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siquieros. They were known as “Los Tres Grandes.” They chose to share their art with all classes and racial mixtures of people.
Many of Diego’s murals included depictions of the working class struggles. Political and religious figures represented power and corruption. Historical images of Mexico’s heroes and soldiers included both men and women.
These now famous artists were paid very little, but chose to create public murals for all to see. It was a mission of love for the Mexican culture. Today, their individual and combined works of art on public murals painted on walls of schools and government buildings are considered to be national treasures.
One of Diego’s famous murals was entitled “Creation.” At the center of the mural is a man representing the creation. His features are indigenous. Nearby are women and others with mestizo features and a group of scientists.
Diego was hired to decorate the walls around the courtyard for the Ministry of Public Education. It is hard to believe that Diego was only paid the equivalent of two American dollars a day to paint the 124 frescos for the Ministry of Public Education.The walls were three stories high, two city blocks long and one block wide. It was years before the final frescos were completed. The total area painted was more than 17,000 square feet!
The labor of the nation was memorialized on murals depicting people weaving cloth, miners, schoolteachers, farmers and military police. In one courtyard, las fiestas–celebrations, weddings, and patriotic fiestas–capture the joy and happiness of the Mexican mestizos. Diego said the true heroes were neither kings nor queens. True heroes were the people of Mexico, the everyday factory worker, the field laborers, the miners, and the vendors in the mercados.
In the 1920s, Diego joined Mexico’s Communist Party. He later published a newspaper called El Machete with other painters and sculptors. Many critics attacked Diego’s work. They protested that it should be removed from walls on public buildings because of Diego’s association with the Communist Party. Some fair-skinned Mexicanos were offended by the numerous dark-skinned nativos included in the murals. However, tourists and international art critics from abroad convinced some wealthy Mexican officials that Diego’s work were masterpieces and should be preserved.
Diego was a controversial figure. It appears that people either loved or despised him. There are some who would describe him as a big man, fat and ugly. Yet those who knew him well remarked that he easily attracted women without much effort. It was not his money that attracted the women because Diego struggled financially for many years of his life.
In fact, it was due to his poverty, that his only son, Diego Rivera, Jr., died in 1918 at the age of two. In his autobiography, My Art, My Life, Diego recalls sadly, “Angeline and I were down and out. Our flat was bitterly cold. When our little son, born just before my affair with Marievna, became sick, there was no money for doctors or medicine or, for that matter, for food, and the baby died.”
Diego loved many women in his lifetime. He loved his mother and his ninera Antonia. Diego later wrote, “My father gave me to Antonia, my Indian nurse. Antonia, whom I have since loved more than my own mother, took me to live with her in the mountains of Sierra.” He loved Angeline, his first wife, Marievna his lover and Frida Kahlo, his second wife.
He honored the Virgen de Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas although he had little respect for the Catholic Church. For most of his life he lived as an atheist. He saw beauty in the brown faces of native women of the campos such as his ninera Antonia. He captured the courage and valiant contributions of the Villista women who fought during the Mexican Revolution. Diego painted images of young mestizo mothers nursing their infants. He painted bare-breasted Azteca women in exotic, Pre-Columbian attire.
Diego painted beautiful, elaborate scenes of the ancient pyramids and life during that ancient civilization prior to the Spanish Conquest. He painted some of Mexico’s most beautiful female models. He painted women of every shape and children of different ages. Diego loved humanity and saw a beauty in individuals that was more than skin deep. Perhaps that is why they loved him in return.
Whenever Diego had money to spare he purchased ancient stone and clay figures created before the Spanish Conquest. Approximately 60,000 of these Pre-Columbian figures from his personal collection were willed to the people of Mexico. He also donated a museum; a modern building that he had constructed called Anahaucalli. This precious indigenous artwork, the world’s largest collection of Mexican Pre-Columbian figurines, is housed in Anahaucalli. This collection is tribute to two special mentors: his indigena ninera Antonia and his favorite Mexican art teacher, Jose Guadalupe Posada. Diego once said, “Posada taught me the connection between life and art, that you cannot paint what you do not feel.”
Diego was a passionate man. He accomplished many goals through his words, his actions and his art. His convictions were deep and true. He could not be easily dissuaded nor censored. Diego lived an unconventional lifestyle but he painted the typical lives of his Mexican heritage. His pride in native roots, revolutionary spirit and Mexican history continues to inspire others. His love of life and art lives on in the art treasures he bequeathed Mexico.
There are presently plans to produce a major motion picture about Diego’s wife, Frida Kahlo. Both Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez are interested in the role of Frida. Although Frida Kahlo was an accomplished artist and an interesting personality, her contribution to art and history are shallow and insignificant when compared to those of her husband. Like “el sol y la luna,” the moon has no light of its own. The moon depends upon the sun to provide an illusion of light. Frida’s art was highlighted because of her marriage to Diego. She benefited from the contacts that he had in the international art world.
What are Hollywood’s producers thinking when they choose Frida above Diego? Is this just another slap in the face of Mexicans? Is the Frida story being produced to capitalize on the Latina frenzy and the popularity of Jennifer Lopez? Hollywood has a way of making movies about Mexicans when they really aren’t Mexican at all. Jennifer Lopez is Puerto Rican. Frida Kahlo was a Latina of German-Jewish descent. The Diego Rivera Story would make a better movie, a movie about a real Mexican hero. Que viva Diego Rivera y la historia de Mexico!