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Diego Rivera: Painting a Revolution

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Introduction

Politics have always been a recurring theme in art from the Medieval period to the Modern period. People across history have used the canvas and other mediums as a communication tool among the masses, to express approval or disapproval of those in power and the world around them. Art by the people, for the people. The subject of the artwork often critiqued institutions and social relationships within society. Artists like Picasso in Guernica (1931), Warhol in Mao (1972), and Banksy in Rage, the Flower Thrower (2005), all synthesize how successful a visual portrayal can be affective in a society for catalyzing change. The aforementioned artists stood as symbols as a way to successfully communicate the topics everyone else was thinking and unify them under one common goal or in this case image. Latin American muralism artist Diego Rivera is a perfect example of the transcendence of politics in art. Rivera was born in 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico. Much of his art studies were completed abroad and were influenced by painters like Cezanne, Picasso, and earlier works of classical representations. Rivera began to experiment with the media of fresco and large-scale mural painting after returning to Mexico. The Mexican Muralist Movement from 1920-1950 helped shape the political relations between the government and people. The murals stood as an account amongst the Mexican state and its citizens. Diego Rivera is regarded as one of los tres grandes or the ‘three great ones’ consisting of himself and two other Mexican muralists, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Through Diego Rivera’s art, Mexican murals have become political tools to serve the people of all hierarchal levels, bring forth change by continuing revolutionary theory, and foster growth of a national identity.

Diego Rivera

Rivera was born into an average family in Mexico to a father who was criollo and a mother that was mestiza. They both had careers as teachers and became aware early on of Rivera’s passion for the arts. He began school in Mexico learning the European model of painting. He attended the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, the country’s most regarded and national art school. He was briefly kicked out from the school in 1903 for taking part in political protest against President Díaz. Eventually after graduation he would gain the opportunity to study in Europe in countries like Spain, France, and Italy. In Italy he discovered his interest in classical artwork and the medium of fresco. He particularly liked the openness of the mural art, its potential, and how it was public for all. Rivera returned to Mexico in 1923 and began working under patronage of the Obregón government. Diego Rivera’s mature phase as an artist of muralist paintings featured works like Creation (1922) and The History of Mexico (1929-1935), both of with summarized the Mexican struggle since colonial rule.

Throughout his career his conflicting politics and interests always found their way into his paintings. He married fellow painter and Communist party member Frida Kahlo in 1929, their relationship would prove to be very passionate yet troubled with affairs and a divorce/remarriage situation. Her art also spoke to the indigenous Mexican population and the appreciation for her own mixed mestizo blood like in the work The Two Fridas (1939) that features two images of herself, one dressed in indigenous clothing and the other dressed in traditional colonial clothing but connected by a shared vein. At the height of his career, Diego Rivera found a way to incorporate the painful struggles and strengths of the Mexican people during and after the Mexican Revolution into social realist murals throughout Mexican cities for all to see.

The Mexican Revolution

To understand the ultimate reach and impact of Diego Rivera and other Mexican muralists, it is important to understand the history of the Mexican Revolution. Without the preceding history, the true meaning and purpose of Rivera’s work would be lost. When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, Mexico was divided in two hierarchal sections. The first being the government of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) and the ruling upper-class elites. The second was the abused lower class that experienced injustices and inequality under the Porfirian regime (Orozco 2014). The lower working-class citizens were stuck in the old colonial ways of a feudal-type system or la encomienda. The people wanted the product of their labor to come back to them and actually benefit from the wealth extracted by their hard work. The Porfirio dictatorship was successful in expanding Mexico’s industry and economy but it failed to acknowledge the growing divide between the rich and the poor and negated to care for the marginalized people. Two leaders stood out and took control for the troubled masses, in the northern portion of Mexico there was Francisco “Pancho” Villa and in the southern portion was Emiliano Zapata. The Zapatistas fought for land reforms and greater representation. Liberals began challenging the Porfirio regime that had existed for 34 years thus in part was a violation of the Mexican Constitution of 1877. Many uprisings by rebel troops and peasants successfully removed Díaz from the presidency. The years to follow would prove to be difficult for Mexicans as a power vacuum existed and stability in politics, the economy, and even society wavered.

Post-Revolution and the Beginnings of the Mexican Muralist Art Movement

After the Revolution ended, a new revered constitution was introduced. The Constitution of 1917 established agrarian reform and addressed important labor rights for the working classes. Under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, or the Porifiriato, these central rights were abused. Following the revolution, Venustiano Carranza took office but was later assassinated and Mexico was left with years of instability. Álvaro Obregón became the first democratically elected president of the new era. He was then followed by an even tougher politician, Plutarco Elías Calles. Calles formed the National Revolutionary Party in 1929 which later became the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which remained dominant in Mexican politics for over 70 years.

Post-revolution the new government needed to deliver what it had promised the people. The Minster of Education, José Vasconcelos appointed by President Obregón, helped accelerate forward the patronage of artists in Mexico in the early 1920’s to help the communal building programs and renovation of the education system. The government sponsorship of the arts allowed greater education opportunities for the masses and a chance to reconstruct post-revolution Mexico. Around the same time Rivera begins painting public murals, he helps found the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors and joins the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The themes of Rivera’s personal interests in the union and committee appear in his artwork whether on the walls of universities, libraries, hospitals or other public infrastructure and buildings.

In order to understand how the muralist movement emerged, we must consider two schools of thought that existed in Mexico in the post-war reconstruction period. These were the promotion of indigenismo (indigenous identity and culture) and the other arguing the superiority of the mestizaje (the mixing of colonial and indigenous races and their resulting culture). The revolution allowed for a boom in cultural appreciation as seen in the growing publication of literature and political essays, muralist artwork, and developing music style like corrido. The first school of thought was explained in Manuel Gamino’s Forging the Fatherland (1916). The piece was a treatise about cultural assimilation of the Mexican indigenous into other parts of society in the country. His writing challenged liberal thought at the time. Gamino felt that integration would not change the social, political, and economic lives of the indigenous peoples. In contrast, the second school of thought was derived from the essay of, previously mentioned, José Vasconcelos. His essay The Cosmic Race (1925) argued that the mixing of races and growing mestizaje class would actually benefit the country of Mexico and its cultural and social development.

The projects in cultural and artistic development funded by the government under Obregón allowed unification of a country left broken by the Mexican Revolution and the injustices that preceded. The Mexican Muralist Movement thus became a beacon of change for the country. With the first muralists like Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, and many others signing what was known as the ‘Manifesto of the Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors’ in 1923, the ideals of the group were founded and set forward in their artwork. It stated:

“We pro-claim that the creators of beauty must make an effort so that their labour presents a clear aspect of ideological propaganda for the good of the people, making art for art’s sake, but also to use it as a social model . . . the art of the Mexican people is the world’s most important and healthiest spiritual expression and its indigenous expression is the best of all . . .”.

The group wanted to make art with the purpose of changing the Mexican people to appreciate their heritage, denounce the oppressors, and see the beauty in their country and mural art was the most successful and profound way to do this. With a social realist focus on education and creating a national identity through symbols of political and ideological ideals, the Muralist set out to foster change. They challenged the ideas of the capitalists, propelled a new cultural appreciation for the working classes, and provided direct access for all people.

The walls of mural paintings were able to reach an audience of many; those that could not read and those that could not afford formal access to education. This was Diego Rivera’s intentions when choosing to pursue mural fresco art in Mexico. He had the ability to create paintings that included the realities of the Mexican worker, the peasant, and the landscape all while maintain the aesthetic nature of the mural. He ultimately wanted to include the social ideas from the Mexican Revolution and communicate those to his audience. It is quite ironic however, to have an anti-state artist funded by the state.

Relationships between the muralist painters and the government were quite controversial. The spaces for which the murals would be painted were provided by the government, however the ideas they chose to depict came from the directly artists themselves. Sometimes these ideas were tolerated and other times they were not. Rivera was in an especially difficult spot working for both the government and the Communist Party of Mexico, he wanted to keep both his constituents happy. Conflicts arose out of the differences in ideological beliefs and diverging interests. The muralists used the space as an opportunity to protest and provide for the masses. It raised the awareness of the people to fight against authoritarian powers, abuses of power, fascism, imperialism, and exploitation of lower class citizens. The muralists goals were to engage the people, for them to become more socially and politically active in the hopes of changing systems of the governmental and social hierarchies of Mexico. The Muralist Movement artists were critical on the government and what was being done for the people. Many other artists would follow under the ideas and goals of the leading muralist set by Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco.

The Subjects of Rivera’s Murals

Rivera’s ideology and artistic aesthetic were shaped greatly by the government of Porfirio Diaz and the Mexican Revolution that followed. He wanted to portray the heroes of the revolution, the people and the condemnation of the regime. His subjects featured the socialist revolution, the condemnation of conquistadores and colonialists, rebellions against capitalism and imperialism, praise for the indigenous and the Mexican culture of the people and pointed out injustices and repression. His works were indictments for the pain and abuses by and under the regime of Porfirio Díaz. Rivera would paint scenes of Karl Marx, conflicts rooted in exploitation, and workers being repressed. All of the subjects allowed Mexican citizens to find relation, whether with commonality in race, gender, or role in the Revolution. He criticized the concentration of authority and power in Mexican government under the regime rule (Orozco 2014). However, his idealistic views on society also bled into his art. He painted scenes of integration, everyday life and celebrated the multiethnic and indigenous roots of the Mexican people. He often depicts the people as larger than life and powerful. He expresses sympathy for the poor and the oppressed worker in a time period where that function of life was so common. But instead of making us feel bad for them, his use of bright, natural colors, curved shapes and beautiful flow, makes us instead find a deeper appreciation and dignity in each face depicted. Rivera is able to demonstrate that art can both meet an elevated function politically and still remain in an artwork sense, aesthetically beautiful. He represented the unique Mexican landscape and how its beauty paralleled that of the people’s struggle and was able to develop a way to make an art form a national language.

His works were intended for everyone, he believed the people had the right to view them. Rivera constructed his own personal Positivism by showing the contradictions between science and art (Serrano 2005). His paintings were for a diverse audience, those that could understand the subtleties of private lifestyles like movie stars and others that could see the tricolor of the Mexican flag and be reminded of the pain endured during the Mexican Revolution. As a Communist he attacked the elite, capitalist society, and even the Catholic church in his artwork. All of which were large institutions placed on the Mexican country during its colonial period. These three frameworks would remain to have a significant role in shaping the future of Mexico through the modern period.

His murals became history lessons and a sort of visual textbook of the past and the realities of Mexican life. Rivera believed that technology and its possibilities could be a cornerstone of change in equality, as long as it was not in the hands of the capitalist state. He was a visionary and revolutionary in the way he wanted the world of art to become integral in factories, movies, and technology. His murals done in the United States like in the California School of Fine Arts and the Detroit Institute of the Arts, are examples of the portrayal of harmony between man and technology.

Rivera’s Political Beliefs

The events of the twentieth century greatly influenced the views of the revolutionary artists in many ways. Mexico’s Communist Party was born in 1919 and filled in for the weaknesses left by the preceding authoritarian government. Revolutionary changes continued when other Communist revolutions occurred around the world. This was perfect timing for the communist thoughts and ideas to spread through Mexico, right out of a revolution and with other worker led movements existing in other places. An enervated central state made up of workers and intellectuals that demanded change in Mexican society, made for a fertile setting for with growing radical ideas and revolutionary movements could impact (Smith 2017). The Communist Party began to flourish in Mexican post-revolutionary politics. The Mexican Muralist artists needed this development to continue so their proletariat ideas could actually reach and influence the people. Mexican muralism became one of the greatest examples of Leftist theory in modern art with the purpose to influence the masses. They were committed to the popular struggles, unmet social justices, and radical political changes happening in Mexico in this time period. Many of the artists even lived through the pain endured by the Porfirio regime and the revolution that followed. Many Mexican artists joined the Party with the desire to uphold the revolutionary principles left with the legacy of the Mexican Revolution.

After the Mexican Revolution and political and social turmoil it caused, Diego Rivera joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) in 1922. He and the party would experience conflicts as he found it difficult to paint and work for the Party. He was kicked out a few times for working alongside the government but eventually allowed to rejoin. Rivera was a good friend of Leon Trotsky and the Soviet Union and even hosted Trotsky in his home for some time. Rivera stood as a great example of unity between the arts and communist theory.

The Political Impact of the Muralist Movement

The Muralist movement served as part of a mechanism to create a unified Mexican state. It was a large educational tool for political promotion. It gave opportunity for those that previously could not experience historical culture on the scale that a mural could provide. Nationalist identity was secured through the adaptation of politics and culture in Rivera’s depictions. They were revolutionary not only in the way they depicted a political statement but also in the way they were not privatized. The murals were not bound to a gallery or a museum space, they could not be bought or traded, but instead opened and intended for all eyes to view. Rural populations and larger portions of the working class were illiterate leaving it up to intellectuals and artists to bring forward national liberation (Serrano 2005). This illiterate class and the remaining elitist class were both meant to enjoy the works of Rivera and leave inspired.

The point of many of Rivera’s works was to explain the hard and difficult conditions faced by the people under capitalism. He argued that they weren’t even seen as people but rather as number in an impersonal and industrial regime (Daniels 2012). Rivera initially helped found the journal El Machete, which was first an outlet for the Painters’ and Sculptors’ Union. The journal would later become the outlet for the Mexican Communist Party. His writing and paintings included the people, their nation and the social society. He was able to produce new symbols that criticized the bourgeois and exploitation, the colonization of Mexico, and advances of socialism. His pieces are emotional in the sense that they for the first time synthesizes and portrays the exploited peoples of Latin American and specifically Mexican cultural development. He is able to produce such a raw and emotional truth in his frescos.

Mexican Muralists were able to create an entirely new national identity and celebrate the values of the Mexican Revolution through a revolutionary media. In a way muralism became a proletarian art form. It appealed to the masses of working class people. The Mexican Muralist revolution served as a populist movement working outside the abilities of the government. Although sponsored by the government, the murals help to define a national identity for those who had previously been unincluded and marginalized. This was a very strategic method of integration made by the government when their intentions were to reconstruct Mexico through culture.

Rivera’s Influence in America

His artist choices as a Communist sympathizer were not met entirely with positivity. After becoming increasingly controversial, especially after visit a to the Soviet Union in 1927, some of his murals were censored or even taken down. The mural Man at the Crossroads was painted for the capitalist Rockefeller family in the United States and was meant to embody culture and science through the representation of the relationship of capitalism and communism. It was rather, unsurprisingly, anti-capitalist and featured a portrait of Lenin that Rivera refused to remove. At Rockefeller’s order it was destroyed.

The Mexican art movement found its way over to the United States fairly quickly. Under the New Deal Works Projects Administration of the 1930s, government-sponsored art was implemented. The goal if the WPA program was to provide work for the unemployed in improving infrastructure while also being educative and developmental for the arts (Orozco 2014). The reach of the Mexican muralism movement spread to other countries like Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Germany, Spain, and Japan.

Conclusion

In the end it was Rivera and his paint brush versus the oppressors. Many of the Mexican Muralists were able to create a strong sense cultural identity and a national society. In each work was the demand for justice and for civil rights of Mexicans. The murals further defeated the regime of Porfirio Díaz and instead placed greater appreciation on the people themselves in the form of the peasant, the worker, and the indigenous citizen. All were depicted with great strength and beauty. This visual dialogue allowed Mexicans to appreciate their unique culture after a time period that this was somewhat lost. The three-great muralist, among many others, provided narrative tools to teach and liberate the people. Diego Rivera’s mural paintings serve as political tools in an unjust era to motivate and create a national society of Mexicans. Many topics in art throughout history are ever changing and dependent on a specific setting yet one topic remains consistent, politics. Art will continue to serve as a platform for political debates and a mode of expression. Artists are continually communicating their approval or disapproval through political statement art pieces to this day. Their artwork is meant to motivate, inspire, and indict much like Mexican muralist communicated their cultural history, achievement, and struggles after the regime of Porfirio Díaz and post-Mexican Revolution.

Bibliography

  • Aguilar, Louis. 1999. “Diego Rivera’s Revolution.” Hispanic 12 (7/8): 36. http://search.ebscohost.com.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=2157258&site=ehost-live.
  • Banwell, Julia. ‘Margolles, Mexican Art and Mexicanness.’ In Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death, 166-88. University of Wales Press, 2015. http://www.jstor.org.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/stable/j.ctt17w8h95.10.
  • Carter, Warren. 2014. “Painting the Revolution: State, Politics and Ideology in Mexican Muralism.” Third Text 28 (3): 282–91.
  • Coffey, Mary K. 2010. How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State. Durham, NC. Duke University Press,.
  • Coffey, Mary Ke. 2002. “Muralism and the People: Culture, Popular Citizenship, and Government in Post-Revolutionary Mexico.” Communication Review 5 (1): 7. 
  • Daniels, Anthony. 2012. “The Murals of Diego Rivera.” New Criterion 30 (8): 50–55. http://search.ebscohost.com.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=74651205&site=ehost-live.
  • Orozco López, Leticia. 2014. “The Revolution, Vanguard Artists and Mural Painting.” Third Text 28 (3): 256–68.
  • Serrano, Alberto Híjar. 2005. “The Latin American Left and the Contribution of Diego Rivera to National Liberation.” Third Text 19 (6): 637–46.
  • Smith, Stephanie J. The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico. CHAPEL HILL: University of North Carolina Press, 2017/ http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469635699_smith.
  • Wolfe, Bertram D. 1947 “Diego Rivera-People’s Artist” The Antioch Review, 7 (1): 99-108 https://www.jstor.org/stable/4609195
  • Vázquez, Adolfo Sánchez. 2014. “Diego Rivera: Painting and Partisanship.” Third Text 28 (3): 269–70.

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