Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Against the Wall

Few artists aroused such passions during his life as Diego Rivera. Born December 8, 1886, Rivera stirred political passions with his art during his life as well as the amorous passions of many women, including fellow artist Frida Kahlo. Perhaps the highlight (or lowlight, depending on how you look at it) of Rivera’s career was the infamous 1933 episode in which Rivera painted Vladimir Lenin into the mural Nelson Rockefeller commissioned for Rockefeller Center, titled Man at the Crossroads. Rockefeller ordered the fresco destroyed after Rivera, an avid Communist at the time, refused to remove the portrait. A year later, Rivera recreated the mural (above) at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Arte in Mexico City, renaming it Man, Controller of the Universe. As chaotic as his personal life became, Rivera was always the master of his artistic universe.

Rivera's role in the Mexican Mural Renaissance beside fellow muralists Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros justly takes pride of place in memories of Diego. However, Rivera shouldn’t be labeled as just a muralist or just a Mexican artist. In his travels to Europe before 1920, Rivera saw and embraced Cubism, painting works such as Two Women (above, from 1914), showing that even then he had ladies on his mind. Cezanne’s bright colors and reduction of images to simple shapes inspired Rivera in his later murals. Travels through Italy and first-hand exposure to the great frescoes of the masters certainly provided material for Rivera to digest and transform into his native idiom.

Rivera’s pride in his native Mexico shines through much of his work. Kahlo absorbed much of that pride into her own work and even her personal dress, selecting native Mexican dress to please her Diego. Sadly, Rivera’s philandering brought much pain to Kahlo’s already painful life. Around the same time that Rivera painted Detroit Industry (above, detail of south wall, from 1932 to 1933), Kahlo suffered another miscarriage, which inspired her painting Henry Ford Hospital. After Kahlo’s death, Rivera told others that only then he realized that she had been the love of his life. Judging on appearances alone, Rivera makes for one of the unlikeliest of lotharios, but the passion and charisma of his life and art drew others to him magnetically and continues to inspire Latin American artists today.

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