First, I must admit that I do not much care for Diego Rivera, though he is the subject of this essay. Off the bat, I don’t support his excessively pro-communist views. As for his personal affairs, no pun intended, his lifelong conduct towards women was hardly honorable, to say the least. What’s more, in my personal opinion (extra stress on personal), his murals, of which he was so proud, are somewhat grotesque. In short, in my pessimistic moments, I consider him to be in his entirety an adulterous, lying pig, whose artistic style isn’t my cup of tea.
However, that whole rant aside, I consider his autobiography, My Art, My Life, to be one of the most enthralling books I have ever read, and Diego Rivera to be one of the most fascinating (albeit morbidly so) people I have ever studied. He is undoubtedly a dynamic, influential, downright intriguing man. Author Alberto Híjar Serrano succinctly describes Rivera’s aura thusly: “Diego Rivera is an oversized man in overalls who carries an Apizaco cane, wears large shoes and a Sandnista hat (or does Sandino wear a Rieverian hat?).” (Serrano 638) I must admit I had to look up who Sandino was (he was a Mexican revolutionary who resisted the U.S., and “died for the faith.”) Rivera lived in an age and a place and with a people that I admittedly don’t often think of. His opinions, however controversial, are as colorful as the art which he describes in personal detail. And when not discussing the grand moments of his life, the little anecdotes he relates make for amusing reads. Mind you, many of his accounts can’t be trusted to be entirely truthful, and thus don’t exactly flatter his character.
But whenever I become frustrated with Rivera’s tendency for questionable, though undoubtedly flamboyant facts, I remind myself that the greater part of the story told in My Art, My Life is actually a piece history. This is why I believe that Diego Rivera was, in a limited sense, a “great man.” But why do I make this claim, for someone I do occasionally despise?
The simple fact is that Rivera seems to me to be the a very famous (and therefore influential) person. I recognize that at first, “being famous” may seem a rather shallow criteria by which to measure achievement. But I believe that it is what he did with his celebrity that truly merits the term “achievement.” However, as far as simple fame does go, if you were to inquire of people whether they had heard of Diego Rivera, a larger percentage of people would probably nod their heads in acquiescence. Or if they couldn’t place the actual name “Diego Rivera,” if you were to show them one of his popular piece of art, they would probably have seen it before.
The simple fact is that art is a different, and in some ways more versatile, medium than writing. Works by both authors and artists can be equally obscure, but I consider promoting one’s writing to be more difficult than drawing attention to one’s art. This may seem like a very obvious statement, but in order to be familiar with someone’s writing, a person must read it. Especially when it comes to books, a person must first find the title appealing, and then has to go out of their way to open the book and peruse the chapters. However, seeing is an automatic functional; we can’t really help what our eyes encounter. Since Rivera is such a popular artist, confronting his art at sometime or another is almost unavoidable. And of course, art does not need to be translated. For the most part, sight is universal; language is not.
To be sure, Rivera was not always so well-known as he is now. In the early years of his career, he was considered a talented artist, and had gained some degree of prominence among select artistic circles. However, by the early 1920’s, he was beginning to gain a more widespread audience through his new artistic medium: murals. These same murals, which I have so maligned, are nevertheless the very reason I consider Rivera’s carrier to be a great achievement.
In the first place, credit is due to Rivera for recognizing plain walls as a valuable canvases. As he states in My Art, My Life, murals “would not be a museum or gallery art but an art the people would have access to in places they frequented in their daily life—post offices, schools, theaters, railroad stations, public buildings.” (Rivera 66) Rivera is determined to be seen. And just what does he want his viewers to see? Rivera had long been involved the changing scene of Mexican politics, and according to Serrano, this “culminat[ed] in his murals at the Ministry of Public Education (1923-28) in which a new subject is included: el pueblo, the people.”
This is truly what makes Rivera, if not a great man, certainly a great artist. He used his highly visible art not just to bring aesthetic pleasure, but to bring hope and change for a demoralized people. Time after time, his murals include the people, the same people that were constantly being downtrodden, subject to one regime, one revolution after another. This subject matter wasn’t always popular; we hear much of Rivera being pressured to paint out communist or atheist elements in his murals, but in the same Ministry of Public Education mural, a poem by Carlos Guitérrez Crux exalting the lowly miner was required to be deleted. Nevertheless, Rivera continued to fight for what he believed in. Throughout his career, Rivera sought to bring dignity and voice to a downtrodden nation. And that, I must admit, is a noble thing, although I can still wish less of his philosophy was so pro-Stalin.
Indeed, however you lean on the political sphere, there is something to be said for artistic integrity, even with his more radical paintings, such as the Rockefeller Center mural, Man at the Crossroads. In a poem by E.B. White entitled, “I Paint What I See: A Ballad of Artistic Integrity,” the author of such children’s books as Charlotte’s Web humorously depicts and excellent portrayal of Rivera: “I paint what I paint, I paint what I see,/I paint what I think,” said Rivera,/“And the thing that is dearest in life to me/In a bourgeois hall is Integrity.” Additionally, Rivera can also be stubborn. In the same poem, “John D.’s grandson, Nelson,” points out “And though your art I dislike to hamper/…after all/It’s my wall.”
To which the poetical Rivera replies, “We’ll see if it is.”
Rivera, Diego. My art, My life: An Autobiography. New York: Dover Publications Inc.,
Serrano, Alberto Híjar. “The Latin American Left And The Contribution Of Diego Rivera
To National Liberation.” Third Text 19.6 (2005): 637-646. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.