By dwelling on Rivera’s ancestry and background, one can get a “feel” as well as an understanding of his art form. Diego says that he probably has traits of the three races—white, red, and black. At the same time, he has Portuguese, Jewish, Spanish, Italian, and Russian roots.
Diego Mar’a Rivera and his twin Carlos Mar’a Rivera were born on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the city and state of Guanajuato. Their mother gave birth to them after three unsuccessful attempts which were still births. Here the teacher can ask the students why two baby boys would have the middle name of Mar’a. It would be most appropriate to give an explanation of this holiday too.
His complete name was Diego Mar’a de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodriguez. Acosta y Rodriguez was in token of the fact that his family claimed nobility from a Spanish nobleman. This title was later signed over to another family member by Diego. The student should be required to research the importance of nobility here. There should also be a discussion on the nature of Diego Rivera here.
As a youngster Diego was thin and sickly since he was afflicted with rickets, a deficiency disease resulting from a lack of vitamin D and from insufficient exposure to sunlight. Diego was sent to the country to be raised and cured by an Indian nurse named Antonia whom he loved more than his own mother. His twin died at two years old.
Here a study of rickets would be most appropriate. Students should research the causes as well as the symptoms and the cures.
Diego was bothered by adult duplicity. When his mother was about to give birth to his sister, Mar’a, he was sent to the railroad station to await her arrival in a box. This was done to get him out of the way because in those days, most births occurred at home. He waited and waited for hours. He was bored out of his mind! When he finally inquired, he was told the news that his baby sister was home already. He became more upset since he had been told that the baby was going to be a little brother.
When Diego arrived home, he asked to be shown the box. When the frantic relatives were only able to produce an old shoe box, he stomped out of the room calling them all liars. A discussion on whether we should or should not tell children the truth should ensue. What is the purpose of fairy tales?
A few days later his pious mother had a nervous breakdown when she found him opening the stomach of a pregnant mouse with a knife in order to see where her offsprings came from. His mother became convinced that she had brought a monster into the world. “His youthful investigations into the anatomy of a mouse were the forerunners of a lifelong interest in observation, dissection, and analysis for the sake of the great syntheses which he was to produce in paint.”
Diego was considered a very precocious child since he began speaking in paragraphs and he shocked his devout mother and aunt with his blasphemies against the church. He was considered a “wonder” child also because he was drawing at a very early age. In fact his parents kept all the bills, letters, and account books that were disfigured by him. “As with most children, the world of his dreams was as real to him as the material world around him or even more so. This is a childhood trait that must persist into adulthood if one is to be a creative artist. In every artist, no matter how mature and how sophisticated, there remains something always of the unaging child who is still eager as children are to communicate each new discovery,”
The students should be given an opportunity to analyze each other’s dreams at this point. A good way of doing this is to have paper and pen ready upon waking in the morning in order to record the dreams.
Rivera had three ambitions at age six. They were to be an engineer and a lover of Virginia Mena, and to gain acceptance by a group of local prostitutes whom he adored. His friends called him the “little engineer” because of his passion for tearing apart and trying to put together again mechanical toys, his love for drawing trains and locomotives and imaginary mechanical inventions. At age four he was also inducted in the Jacobism Society of Free Thinkers due to his public rebuke of the Virgin Mother to his aunt.
Students should be encouraged to research the Jacobism Society as well as the society of the Free Masons. Why were they secret societies?
His father also noted a marked interest in him towards militarism. He was taken to speak to General Pedro Hinojoso, an old family friend who was now the minister of war. The overjoyed General was so impressed that he decided to have Diego enter military school at age ten instead of at age eighteen. A military career in Mexico was the high road to greatness. But, Diego’s ardour cooled upon entering and he lasted only one week when he found every aspect of life at the academy intolerable.
Students should research the role of the military in Mexican politics. A comparison should be made with American Militarism.
Diego’s family moved to Mexico City when they realized that their silver mines were becoming less and less profitable and that the familial patriarch was becoming increasingly unpopular in their home town of Guanajuato. The new city seemed quite stuffy and unfriendly to Diego. Their new home was considerably smaller and it had no—place of his “studio.” His disposition suffered and he became illtempered, quarrelsome and disagreeable. In fact for a year or so, he almost stopped drawing altogether. He was taken seriously ill and a special closeness developed between his Aunt Vicenta(Aunt Totota) and her nephew. With her he developed an interest in reading and writing as well as an aesthetic appreciation of the popular art and jewelry objects. Research should be done on the measures taken by the Mexican Government to develop its popular art program. A list of the popular folk art can made.
Another aunt, Aunt Cesar’a, believed him to be possessed. “The devil is in him and no good can ever come of him,”
she said. In fact she always refused any aid or hospitality on his part.
Diego began school at the age of eight in 1894. His grades at the Catholic school where perfect in effort and proficiency. But he had a problem with punctuality and cleanliness. “The habits of coming late, bathing not too frequently or zealously, and dressing carelessly were to remain with him all his life.”
Personal hygiene and grooming should be discussed here.
“When Diego fled the military school, he realized that his interest in mechanics, in surgery, in war, had all been but different phases of an interest in the forms and motions and appearance of life. He knew too that whatever he might experience in the future—be it even love or sorrow or social struggle—as an artist, he would approach it and as an artist, he would serve it and make it serve him,”
Thus Diego attended elementary school during the day and art school during the evenings.
Rivera had a morbid calmness towards death. When he was eight and Mar’a three, a sickly baby brother was born. The baby died after a few weeks. The family had the wake at home. The children began to play where the child was on display while the adults were in the other room of the house. They played house unnoticed with the “beautifully dressed waxlike” corpse in lieu of a doll. The game suddenly came to a halt when the adults found the children fighting and tugging at the body of the dead child. Another time, when Diego was fortytwo, a deputy was shot dead right in front of him in a café. Diego was quite calm about the whole affair, while his protruding eyes drank in and memorized each detail of the scene. Two days later, he was found completely absorbed in finishing a vivid painting of the shooting.
A discussion of death should ensue here. A comparison of Mexican and American rites would be quite useful and interesting. Some of the Mexican customs that could be mentioned include’ the wearing of black, leaving food at the cemetery, etc.
Porfirio D’az, an army general, who had rebelled against the government made himself President in 1876. He governed until 1911. Thus Diego Rivera was born during this tyrant’s regime. Diego felt an adverse sentiment towards D’az’ patronage to the arts. “D’az was organizing his dictatorship in a granite mould—a French boulevard or two, an Italian opera-house in the worst nineteenth century style, an Italian post office in the best Renaissance taste; palaces furnished in faded Versaillese grandeur overstuffed with bibelots as ugly as those that adorned the Czar’s Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg—such were the artistic symbols of the D’az regime.”
It seems that he was trying to reproduce the greatness of these countries without even trying to create a Mexican identity based on its land, its people, and its many other resources. Has the United States gone through this same phase? Why do American people think that foreign imports are better than domestic products?
It would be suitable to study Porfirio D’az who is famous for the quotes “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” Research can also be done on what D’az did to develop agriculture, mining, communications, transportation, business, public works, and banking. It would also be interesting to note how the Indians were treated.
Diego’s master instructor was José Guadalupe Posada, a popular engraver of illustration who had a little shop outside of Diego’s art school. “Each afternoon the boy stood for hours on end with his nose flattened against the dingy pane, gazing at the naive, moving, dynamic engravings hanging in the window.”
This intense sensation was felt on two other occasions; one in front of a window in Paris where he saw his first Cézanne; and another time before a crumbling wall in Italy where he resolved to become a muralist, painting for his people.
A most fascinating story about Rivera occurs in Paris where an art dealer accustomed to displaying the works of Cézanne was surprised and annoyed to see upon opening his shop “an ungainly young giant” who was obviously foreign standing outside his window and literally mesmerized by the master’s work. When at noon, the young man had not budged, he decided to substitute the painting with another of Cézanne’s masterpieces to see his reaction.
This performance continued throughout the day until closing. And it was thus that the enraptured youth discovered Cézanne and that he came to the realization that he wanted to paint Mexican and not European. Rivera knew that he wanted to give his people and country—their own personal identity.
The students should be asked what the identity of the Mexican people is. Does it coincide with what Rivera painted? They should also be made aware of the fact that before this time, primitive art was considered almost worthless. John L. Stephens bought the ruins of an entire Mayan city in 1839 for only fifty dollars.
Rivera went to Europe on a pension or scholarship from Teodoro A. Dehesa, Governor of Veracruz in 1892. With this pension Diego was able to fulfill his dream of studying in Europe. The turmoil of Spain and Portugal served to enrich Diego’s art experience. During this time he read
When fighting erupted in Spain, he fled to tour France, Belgium, Holland, and England seeking a solution to his restlessness and dissatisfaction. He found England to be sterile in his artistic sensibility. In Brussels he was impressed by the works of Peter Breughel. He was looking for the secret that made Breughel and Goya paint the way they did.
In Paris, his chief mentors were Cézanne, Picasso and Rousseau. But before settling down to work under these masters, he decided to make a trip home. In 1910 Mexico was at the turning point of its history. Diego partook in the thirty years of unbroken rule anniversary celebration for D’az. His exhibition honored D’az and through this display, Rivera was proclaimed a huge success.
“The very week that Diego’s exhibition opened in Mexico City, Francisco Madero proclaimed that D’az had stolen the recent presidential elections and from his exile in the United States, he launched a call for revolt.”
Peasant bands under Pascual Orozco, Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata rose up to take land and to restore themselves to their ancient heritage. Madero became the undisputed leader of the nation in less than five months.
A study can be made on Don Francisco I. Madero who was a rich land owner believing in political liberty for the Mexican people. These twenty years of rule brought on many bloody rebellions, assassinations and couter-rebellions. But, however, his government did start programs to redistribute land, to improve public health, and to fight against illiteracy. It also adopted a more liberal constitution that established a minimum salary, an eight hour work day and much more.
Thus in 1911, he returned to Paris because he said, “What I saw among the poor peasants who wanted land in order to work it collectively and among the industrial workers who threw themselves in organized fashion into the armed struggle, clarified and illuminated the driving forces of my life and provided me with the necessary material to begin my work. The sight of the movement of the masses converted into a living reality taught me unequivocally what the great art must be, art for all those who struggle for the best organization of life.”
Rivera should at this point be dipicted. He was a huge figure since he was more than six feet tall and he weighed close to three hundred pounds. He had protruding eyes that they nicknamed him the “frog-man.” He was not a very good looking man. In fact his “ugliness” made him appealing.
Of his love life, we can say that Diego became sexually active at age nine with an American teacher at the Protestant School. In Paris he lived with Angelina Beloff, a product of prewar Russian intelligentsia, for about ten years. She was several years older and much calmer.
World War I came and “man began to live with a fatal speed as if they felt that they had to crowd a life time into each single hour. In Diego it took the form of a feverish desire to paint that drove him into injuring his health by working all day and all night, and the further form of increasing preoccupation with the idea that through his art he might aid in reconstructing and humanizing somewhat the antihuman world.”
Obscurely it motivated, too, the decision of Angelina to have a child. Diego and Angelina’s son died due to the severe cold weather and to the food shortage. With this, Diego’s ties to France were broken and he returned to Mexico.
Upon his return, he joined the Communist party and its leader. He and his colleagues also formed a union which became known as the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters, Sculptors, and Allied Trades. In this way, Rivera was able to fulfill his dream of painting murals. Rivera painted what the revolution should have been and what it had to have become if it were to realize its destiny. At the same time, Rivera’s works emphasize the germs of hope, that it can be done.
In Mexico Rivera falls in love and marries one of his models, Guadalupe Mar’n. Her graceful, long, limbed body with her black, wild, unkempt, curly hair and dark—olive skin with light sea green eyes made her irresistible. They stayed together for seven years and she bore him two daughters.
Diego and Lupe were infamous for their nasty quarrels. “Their quarrels were mostly over three matters: his frequent donations from his meager wages for communist activities and to hardup people and vagrants, his painting which occupied so much time that he had little left for her, and his susceptibility to attractive women.”
In teh latter, he was the pursued instead of the pursuer.
His fascination with Tina Modotti is said to have caused the separation between husband and wife. It was not the affair that he had had with Lupe’s sister.
When Plutarco Elias Calles became President, a movement sprung up to remove “el fe’sismo” or ugly monkeys. The foreign critics came to the rescue by stating that Rivera was one of the attractions of Mexico.
Frieda Kahlo was Diego’s great love of his life. He married her when she was nineteen and he forty-three. She shocked her friends at age thirteen when she told them that her greatest ambition was to have Diego Rivera’s child. But, unfortunately, her dream was never fulfilled. She had had such a terrible accident as a child that a pregnancy would have been a great risk to her life.
Diego was commissioned the walls of the National Palace. With this commission, Diego began to paint the epic tale of his people. “He painted the entire history of his country from the Conquest to the present day: the color, and pageantry, the heroism and cruelty, the sublimity and folly that were woven into the pattern of the land.”
He painted the ruthlessness and power of the Conquest on which the HispanoIndian culture rested, the struggle for independence, the wars of the Reforma between Conservatives and Liberals, between church and state, the second battle of Independence against the French invaders, the heroic last fight against the Yankee invader from the north, the Revolution of 1910, the bloodstained years of Madero, Huerta, Carranza, Obregón, and Calles, the Mexico of today and tomorrow.
“All he knew of his land, its story, its institution, all he could learn by thought and study, he put into this work; not only all he knew, but all he loved and despised, all he gloried in, and all he thought worthy only of contempt or shame.”
It took him six years to complete this grueling labor of love. It is a marvelous organization of achievement. It is the first revolutionary painting to be inspired and to express the ideology of Marxism.
The U.S. possessed a peculiar ambivalence of attraction and antipathy. “It was the land that had robbed Mexico of more than half of its territory, that had bribed and bullied, fomented disorder, outraged the sensibilities of a people whose weakness in the face of their giant northern neighbor made them still more sensitive.”
But yet as an artist the land attracted him powerfully. When he went to Russia, he had to pass through the United States. He found the skyscrapers to be testimonials to man’s greed and to his audacious powers of construction.
Rivera first “invaded” the U.S. when William Gerstle hired him to do a small wall in the California School of Fine Arts. Thus, Rivera gained much work and popularity in the U.S. The Rockefellers offered him a wall in the R.C.A. Building at Radio City in New York.
In 1933 Diego started his work on the mural in Rockefeller Center. It was titled:
Portrait of America
. When the Rockefellers saw that a portion of the painting included a portrait of Lenin, he asked Rivera to substitute it with a portrait of an unknown. Rivera refused to yield and the whole affair became a “cause celebre.” Therefore, the painting was removed by smashing it to powder. His patrons in the U.S. boycotted him and he was blacklisted. And so his dream to cover America with murals was shattered.
Frieda died when Rivera was seventy. He felt completely lost without her. He also had cancer of the penis so that he ruled out remarriage. But when Emma Hurtado offered to marry him a year later, he accepted and Emma took care of him for two years until his death.
Yale has an incredible wealth of resources available for the teachers and students of the New Haven School System. At the AudioVisual Center on High Street, there are slides and mounted photographs of Diego Rivera and his works. This collection can only be taken out for one day.
The YaleNew Haven Teachers’ Institute on Wall Street will have a slide collection on file to be used with the unit. Many of the people and works mentioned herein will be included.
In appendix one, I have included a list in chronological order beginning with the Dictator Porfirio D’az to President Adolfo Cortines who have all lived during Diego Rivera’s life time. It would be interesting to research their impact on life and on the arts. A discussion of the length of the term of each should ensue.