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Diego Rivera. Agrarian Leader Zapata. 1931

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Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886–1957)

Agrarian Leader Zapata

Fresco on reinforced cement in galvanized-steel framework
7' 9 3/4" x 6' 2" (238.1 x 188 cm)
Credit Line:
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund
MoMA Number:
© 2015 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Audio Program excerpt

Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art

, November 13, 2011-May 14, 2012

Curator, Leah Dickerman: This panel pays homage to one of the greatest heroes of the recent Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata. Zapata was a revolutionary leader who led peasants fighting for agrarian reform in the factional battles of the Mexican Revolution. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910. It started as an effort to overthrow the dictatorial president Porfirio Diaz, but it soon developed into this complex, multi-factional battle that lasted more than a decade and killed over a million Mexican citizens.

Our eye is drawn to the noble white steed. And it's easy not to notice immediately that there's a dead body at the feet of Zapata. He's standing on the blade of a fallen enemy. And I think that that helps one remember how violent these images are. They're really about a visceral struggle for who controls, who owns all of these murals are about the assertion of power over other individuals as a kind of allegory for broader social power relationships.

Despite Rivera's many assertions that he had revolutionary credentials, he didnt participate in the fighting at all. In fact, he spent almost all of the period of the Revolution in Europe, primarily working in Montparnasse, the artistic community in Paris.

David Rockefeller, Jr.: To make his murals, Rivera used traditional Italian fresco-making techniques but applied them in innovative new ways.

Conservator, Anny Aviram: Fresco comes from the Latin word fresh. Fresco is a process of building up layers of plaster onto the walls. In the case of the Rivera panels for the exhibition in 1931, he had his assistants apply the plaster layers the trusillatio, which is the scratch coat. And then the arriccio coat, which is called a brown coat. This is applied to the trusillatio and left a little bit rough so the top layer adheres easier.

David Rockefeller, Jr.: These first two layers of the fresco were prepared weeks ahead of time by Rivera's assistants. Meanwhile, Rivera created large-scale drawings of the murals.

Anny Aviram: To transfer the drawing to the arriccio layer you make little holes in the outline of the drawing with a little wheel and put it on the wet plaster. Along the perforated lines, with a cotton cloth bag containing black pigment, you will leave a fine dotted line as a guide for the artist to be able to draw on it. That's called pouncing. You can clearly see it in the knot of the shirt of Zapata. Then his assistants will apply the intonaco, which is the smoothest layer of all, the one thats going to receive the paint. So then, Rivera comes and starts underlining over the dotted lines. Then he starts painting, with a speed.

David Rockefeller, Jr.: Because plaster dries quickly, Rivera worked on the mural in sections. Each one is called a giornata, an Italian word that refers to a day's work.

Anny Aviram: In the case of Agrarian Leader Zapata, we have identified three visible giornatas. One that runs across Zapatas shoulder and around the top of the horse, the second one runs down the center of the fresco, including Zapata's body, and the third one includes the life-size white horse.

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 173

In the 1920s, after the end of the Mexican Revolution, Rivera was among the painters who developed an art of public murals to celebrate Mexico's indigenous culture, and to teach the nation's people about both their own history and the new government's dreams for their future. Rivera had lived in Paris, and knew modernist painting well. He had also visited Italy to study Renaissance frescoes, since Mexican artists and politicians recognized the value of this mural form as a medium of education and inspiration. Returning to Mexico in 1921, Rivera began a remarkable series of frescoes—paintings made on moist plaster, so that the pigments fuse with the plaster as it dries.

Agrarian Leader Zapata, which Rivera created for his exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in 1931, replicates part of a fresco he had painted in 1930 in the Palace of Cortés, Cuernavaca. Emiliano Zapata had been a hero of the Mexican Revolution. (He was killed in 1919, a victim of the Revolution's internal struggles.) Rivera shows him wearing the local costume of the Cuernavaca region, and carrying a sugarcane-cutter's machete. His followers, too, bear the rough tools of peasant soldiers. Yet the rider sent to oppose this ragged army lies in the dirt, and Zapata has seized his horse—whose shape Rivera borrowed from a work by the fifteenth-century Florentine painter Paolo Uccello.

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