The red banners and clenched fist that rise above the crowd in The Uprising offer internationally comprehensible signs of workers’ resistance. Rivera traveled to Moscow in 1927 as a delegate of the Partido Comunista de México (Communist Party of Mexico) and stayed there for roughly six months. Upon his return, he increasingly employed urban industrial imagery to envision class revolution on an international scale. Swaths of red, hammers and sickles, red stars, and images of urban factories abound in the murals Rivera created at the Secretaría de Educación Pública in Mexico City after his trip.
Precedents for the powerful female combatant at the center of The Uprising are found in both Soviet and Mexican images of women as active participants in insurrection. In the years before Rivera’s 1927–28 trip to Moscow, pictures of idealized female proletarians proliferated in Soviet propaganda. His figure also recalls the militancy of revolutionary soldaderas, female fighters in the Mexican Revolution who were made iconic through popular photographs of the era.
Rivera’s composition, with a dynamic female protagonist at the center of a larger conflict, brings to mind Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). Working after the French Revolution, David used classical mythology to create a passionate plea for reconciliation in the wake of the war; the woman in the foreground puts herself in harm’s way in hopes of stopping the fight. By contrast, Rivera’s modern woman is a partisan participant, willing to fight for herself and her family at all costs.
Rivera dressed the couple in the foreground of The Uprising in distinctly modern styles. The man wears the overalls and cap of an urban worker, and she sports fashions of the 1920s and 1930s: bobbed hair, earrings, a knee-length dress, and high heels. Their appearance indicates that this is a contemporary conflict. For left-leaning artists in New York, the frescoes Rivera made for The Museum of Modern Art provided a powerful model of modern, socially engaged art with content rooted in Marxism. Later in the 1930s comparable images of strikes by U.S. artists, specifically referencing the hunger and unemployment issues that plagued the country at the time, became increasingly commonplace.
At the time of Rivera’s show, commentary in the U.S. press characterized The Uprising as a “familiar” scene from the Mexican Revolution. In truth, labor strikes like the one pictured here were uncommon during the war. More likely, the panel alludes to more recent social upheaval in Mexico. From 1928 through 1934, a period known as the Maximato, General Plutarco Elías Calles controlled Mexico during the terms of several puppet presidents. Under his authoritarian rule, agrarian reforms initiated during the Revolution ceased and the Partido Comunista de México (Communist Party of Mexico) was outlawed.