ART INDEX: Diego Rivera
Today Diego Rivera (Guanajuato, 1886 – Mexico City, 1957) is not only remembered as one of the greatest representatives of the Mexican muralist movement, but also as one of the first to have integrated the arts with political themes and values. These two terms, arts and politics, were at the core of Diego Rivera’s practice throughout his whole life. His works retrace the years of the Mexican class struggle of the 20th century.
Diego Rivera was born in Guanajuato in 1886 and he soon revealed his artistic nature as a young kid. He attended the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City where he perfected his education and style, which was deeply influenced by his travels throughout Europe, especially Italy and France. In Paris, he met the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, and he was admitted to the Salon des Indipéndants in 1910. Back from his travels, he created his first mural painting in the Bolivar della Escuela Nacional Preparatoria amphitheater of Mexico City. In 1922, he joined the ranks of the Mexican Communist Party. This event had a big impact in his life, but also in his artistic production. From then on, he focused on realizing big mural paintings in public places, available to all. Diego Rivera turned art into a tool of both protest in the hands of the working class and education for the masses.
Diego’s life was scattered with torment for different reasons. His love life found a moment of tranquility only in his third marriage with Frida Kahlo, the most famous Mexican artist of the time, while his adherence to the Communist Party only brought on more tension, which convinced him to leave Mexico for a while. So, he moved to the US.
In 1931, his solo exhibition at the newly founded MOMA opened to the public. Two years later, he realized one of his most iconic mural painting, Mexico Man at the Crossroads, at the Rockefeller Center in New York, one of the emblems of capitalism. The portrait of Lenin in the painting brought on many disapproving comments and the mural was removed. Diego Rivera would not take defeat so easily. In 1934, once he back in Mexico, he recreated the same painting, only slightly smaller and with a new, yet similar, title, Man Controller of the Universe on the second floor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
Another one of his most known works is the Detroit Industry mural series, made for the façade of the Ford Motor Company in New York in 1932. Composed of 27 murals, today kept in the Detroit Institute of Arts, the work showcases workers inside the factory, reflecting upon the man-work and the man-machine themes (fig. 1).
Fig. 1 - Diego M. Rivera, Detroit Industry Murals, 1932-1933, mural painting (© Detroit Institute of Arts)
One more masterpiece is The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931), today kept in the Art Institute of San Francisco (fig. 2). Here too, Diego Rivera depicted a group of workers that are in the middle of constructing a city in each compartment of the scene. The painting can be seen as a sort of metaphor, the building of an ideal city in which every worker can be part of a society with no hierarchies and no injustices.
Fig. 2 - Diego Rivera, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, 1931 (©SFAI)
His massive paintings often represented themes and values close to the Communist Party, depicting people of the working class and of the marginalized members of society. He was a pioneer of the public art. With him, the Mexican art left the easel behind and moved out of the museums, reaching the streets and the public buildings. His pure and simple realism, comprehensible to all, would continue to influence the arts even in the United States.
In 1957, Diego Rivera died in Mexico City, leaving behind a productive artistic career. He is remembered as one of the leading Mexican artists of the 20th century and one of the, if not the most influential, artistic delegates of the working class.
Diego Rivera’s works have gone up for sale at public auction 1,814 times and his latest sale happened in 2023. He is ranked 107th out of the top 500 works rankings of best-selling artists at auction and his works are mainly sold in the United States. Fig. 3 shows his turnover in the last two decades.
Fig. 3 – Diego Rivera’s turnover from 2000 to 2023 (©Artprice.com)