“If the artist...won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist.”
At the height of his career, Diego Rivera was an international art celebrity. Trained at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, he spent more than a decade in Europe, becoming a leading figure in Paris’s vibrant international community of avant-garde artists. There, he developed his own brand of cubism infused with symbols of his Mexican national identity. After his return to Mexico in 1922, he joined fellow creative thinkers and state officials in concerted efforts to revitalize and redefine Mexican culture in the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), a decade-long conflict that killed more than a million citizens.
Along with contemporaries like José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rivera stood out as one of the best-known proponents of Mexican Muralism, a state-sponsored movement aimed at extolling the nation’s history, culture, and post-Revolutionary ideals in large-scale murals for public spaces. Using a centuries-old fresco technique, Rivera created sweeping mural cycles that drew upon modernist painting styles to render heroic visions of Mexico’s past and present that captured the attention of critics and onlookers internationally. His monumental frescos in sites like the Secretaría de Educación Pública in Mexico City (1923–28), the Escuela Nacional de Chapingo (1927), the Palacio Nacional (1929–35), and the Palacio de Cortés in Cuernavaca (1930) captured the attention of critics and onlookers from Buenos Aires to Moscow.
Artists and audiences in the United States were particularly receptive of Rivera’s work and ideas. He began traveling north of Mexico’s borders with his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, in 1930, and over the next five years completed major mural cycles in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York, becoming a true international art celebrity. In 1931, he was invited to mount a retrospective exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, then just two years old. Rivera created eight “portable” murals as the centerpiece of the show, including Agrarian Leader Zapata.
A resounding popular success, the exhibition paved the way for Rivera’s most notorious mural commission in the U.S., a cycle completed in 1933 in the lobby of the recently finished Rockefeller Center. Rivera’s pointedly pro-leftist subject matter—including a laudatory portrait of Vladimir Lenin—and caricatured portraits of his Rockefeller patrons riled the site’s managers, and Rivera was fired before he could complete the fresco. In 1934, the unfinished fresco was chipped away from the building’s walls, sparking protests in cities around the globe. Despite the controversy, Rivera’s model for large-scale, politically engaged public artwork inspired a generation and provided a compelling model for the government-supported art programs developed as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Introduction by Jodi Roberts, Associate Curator for Special Projects, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, 2016
Note: Opening quote is from “Diego Rivera Biography,” American Masters, PBS, August 26, 2006, accessed August 16, 2022, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/diego-rivera-about-the-artist/64/.