Diego Rivera is one of Mexico’s most famous painters. He rebelled against the traditional school of painting and created a way of working that combined historical, social and political ideas – allowing him to reflect the cultural changes at that time in Mexico and the rest of the world. Many of his murals can be found throughout Mexico City and make a wonderful art trail for a day out in the city.
But to understand Diego Rivera’s work, first you need to understand a little about the man himself. Rivera was born to a well-to-do family in Guanajuato, arriving into the world with a twin brother who died two years later. His way of dealing with this at such an early age was to draw, and by three years old his father had created a studio for him – a room with canvases covering the walls to draw on (so he didn’t ruin the house and the furniture!).
A few years later, the family moved to moved to Mexico City, and by 11 years Rivera was studying at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts. Here he learned about European and Mexican art and was particularly influenced by a local artist who depicted scenes of everyday Mexican life engraved upon metal. At 16, Rivera was expelled from the school because of leading a political demonstration against the President at the time, and subsequently began to travel through Mexico painting and drawing.
His dream of studying in Europe became a reality when the Governor of Veracruz heard of his talents and agreed to sponsor him. Over a number of years he studied in Madrid, Paris, and later Italy, where he learned to create Frescos (applying paint to wet plaster) and murals.
Rivera believed all people (not just people who could afford to buy art or go to museums) should be able to view the art he was creating. And so returning to Mexico at the age of 35 began to paint large murals in public buildings, generally depicting scenes of human biological and social development.
He painted his first significant mural Creation in the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City whilst guarding himself with a pistol against right-wing students. Depicting religious and mythological motifs (and unlike his later work no political agenda) this became the first important mural of the twentieth century.
Throughout his life Rivera had many love affairs – with both art and women. He took a trip with his third wife, Frida Khalo, to The United States where he created many works of art including the mural for the Rockefeller Centre: the piece included a picture of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the communist party. Rivera was forced to stop the work as it represented his political beliefs as a member of the Mexican Communist Party, and with which many Americans disagreed with. The piece was destroyed, however Rivera took photos of the piece and later recreated it back in Mexico City. Found in the Palacio de Bellas Artes and entitled Man Controller of the Universe, it depicts a man caught in the centre at a crossroads – between capitalism and communism.
Another great work to discover is The History of Mexico at the Palacio Nacional. This particular mural focuses on the native people of Mexico including the Aztecs. Rivera created the piece to restore patriotism and nationalism to native Mexicans and depict their struggles through conquests.
At the Museo Mural Diego Rivera you will find Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park. This stunning piece showcases a multitude of famous figures including Rivera and Khalo standing next to La Calavera Catrina, but ironically was made to mock the upper classes.
Over the course of his lifetime Diego Rivera created a huge amount of work, both murals and painting, which can be found throughout the world. But it’s his epic murals in the heart of Mexico City that really allow you to take a journey though a wonderful and interesting time in Mexico in the 20th century. Surprisingly these murals reflect many ideas that exist in society today, proving Rivera’s work really does stand up to the test of time.