Regardless of language, culture, or religion, one of the few universal methods of communication comes in the form of art. While art itself can be expressed in many forms, mural paintings have a specific impact on their local communities. Perhaps no muralist from Latin America is more famous than Diego Rivera. Rivera grew up and survived the Mexican Revolution and spent his life painting his interpretations of Mexican society in the form of murals. Rivera’s depictions of Mexican society during and after the Mexican Revolution have helped shape the country’s historiography through both domestic and international lenses.
During the summer of 2017, I had the experience of visiting an art exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This particular exhibit focused on works of art such as murals during the Mexican Revolution. I was in awe of the plethora of art that was created during this time period, extending from artistically created newspaper covers to epic depictions of battle. All over the world, murals serve as physically artistic history for the world to see. During my travels in Belfast, Northern Ireland, I had the luxury of touring the city’s famous murals. These murals served a very similar purpose to those in Mexico because they both depict struggle and emerging culture. While the murals in Mexico depict the Mexican Revolution, the murals in Northern Ireland portrayed the struggles between Protestants and Catholics. In addition to the differences in subject material, the structure of the murals was very different. In Northern Ireland, the murals were more clear and to the point than Rivera’s. There was less focus on visual aesthetics and more concentration on the message. In contrast, Rivera’s murals were almost theatrical in nature. His murals tell a story and are often more pleasing to view. The inviting nature of Rivera’s murals in contrast to more informational murals is one aspect that made him such a beloved artist during this time.
Diego Rivera was born in 1886 in Mexico to two parents who encouraged his artistic tendencies from a very young age. Rivera was considered a prodigy as he was admitted to the Academy of San Carlos at the age of ten. Rivera had a tough life growing up as his twin brother died at a very young age. During his first marriage, his first son also died young. After divorcing both his first and second wives, Rivera ended up marrying another famous artist named Frida Kahlo. Both Rivera and Kahlo learned artistic skills from each other during their marriage. However, their brief marriage ended due to Rivera’s infidelity and violent tendencies.
In a deeply religious country, Rivera’s faith was tested and ultimately removed throughout his life. Rivera grew up with Converso ancestry, meaning his family was forcibly converted from Judaism to Catholicism. While Rivera is a self-proclaimed atheist, he has also stated that Judaism has been the more influential of the two religions in his life. His atheist beliefs along with the shifting tide in Mexican culture during the revolution led to very secular forms of art. The focus of many artists before the Mexican Revolution was on depicting religious acts and figures. These religious aspects are noticeably absent from just about all of Rivera’s art. Instead, these religious undertones that were so prevalent in Mexican art up until this time were replaced with depictions of working class societies and political symbology.
Not only was Diego Rivera a highly talented and influential painter in his own right, he rose to prominence at a very important time in Mexican history. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 was a political and societal turning point for the country. During years of oppression under the dictatorship of Poforio Diaz, the Mexican people became frustrated and angered by their government and living conditions. Leonard Folgarait, author for the Oxford Art Journal, described the Mexican Revolution as “the event that projected its participants into the twentieth century” (Folgarait 1991). The conclusion of the extremely bloody revolution brought about political and societal changes to Mexico that were largely popular among the Mexican people. To say that Diego Rivera brought about these changes through his art would be an exaggeration. Rather, it is more accurate to say that Rivera helped the Mexican people understand and appreciate the changes that they had fought so hard for. People were able to feel pride in their accomplishments of the Mexican Revolution through Rivera’s charming, positive, and inclusive depictions of politics and society.
Following the Mexican Revolution, the new Mexican government contracted artists such as Diego Rivera to paint public murals all over Mexico. Among other artists such as Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rivera was one of the first artists recognized and actually supported by the Mexican government. In their book titled Revolution on Paper: Mexican Prints 1910-1960, authors Dawn Ades and Alison McClean describe the newly implemented government’s view on art as “an important vehicle for education and the promotion of revolutionary values” (Ades and McClean 2013). Murals were an exceptionally effective and important method of sharing art because they were easily accessible by the people who were intended to view it. Because Rivera’s art often depicted the people of Mexico, painting murals directly onto walls allowed for longevity, preservation, and accessibility. Rivera chose to paint his murals in fresco, meaning he painted directly onto the surface on which the mural was meant to be viewed. Perhaps out of foresight of his own popularity and influence, Rivera painted his murals directly on the walls so that they could not be removed or stolen. Because the Mexican government had contracted him to paint as many murals as possible throughout the country, his murals are found on the walls of barns, restaurants, and even government buildings. This is an excellent example of positive social change following the Mexican Revolution that Rivera helped to bring about.
This highly influential and important piece above is titled “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park” by Diego Rivera. This mural encapsulates the celebration of Mexican society and culture. Alameda Central Park is an important location in Mexico as it was once an Aztec marketplace. This is perhaps one of Rivera’s most important murals because it depicts inclusivity, diversity, and the celebration of Mexican culture and history. What is particularly interesting about this painting is that it does not shy away from negative subject matter. Depicted in this painting are Hernan Cortes and Porforio Diaz. Cortes was a Spanish conqueror who forced the downfall of Aztec society through war and enslavement. Diaz was of course the extremely oppressive dictator whose rule brought about the Mexican Revolution. Rivera depicts these harmful figures from history alongside people who have had a very positive impact on Mexican society. Standing next to Cortes and Diaz is a nun and influential writer named Sor Juana.
The inclusion of these figures alongside priests, businessmen, children, and soldiers shows that Mexican history is not something to be forgotten but rather celebrated. If people do not remember or come to terms with the negative aspects of Mexican history, they will never be able to fully appreciate the positive aspects. This piece of art is important in a society that has been damaged by war and oppression because it gives the people of Mexico something to be proud about. It instills pride in the people who fought for a better life by remembering the obstacles that were necessary to overcome in order for positive change to begin.
While some of Rivera’s paintings highlight social issues and changes, his other work depicts more serious political messages. This particular painting by Diego Rivera highlights a number of key political issues from the Mexican Revolution. As a member of the Communist Party, Rivera exhibited a fondness for working class societies as well as the violent overthrow of oppressive governments. The most noteworthy icon in this painting is the hammer and sickle logo of the Communist Party. Below this deliberately placed logo is a group of working class men and women. Both men and women are depicted operating machinery and carrying materials. Rivera believed the working class was the backbone of society and controlled the means of production. In the foreground, we can see a man holding a rifle in his hands, an iconography that was very important during the revolution. Exhibiting strength and firepower was important during the Mexican Revolution because the people of Mexico were a force to be reckoned with in their fight against Diaz’s oppressive government. While the first painting showed unity through social and historical acceptance, this painting depicts unity through strength and firepower against a common enemy.
While Rivera is most famously recognized for his work in Mexico during and after the Mexican Revolution, he also created very influential art in the United States. Due to the universality of art and ideology, there was no misinterpretation of Rivera’s art in the United States as there would have been in spoken or written rhetoric. Rivera’s fascination with working-class subject matter as well as his unique art style were understood by viewers in the United States. While Rivera travelled all over the United States in cities such as San Francisco and New York, his most influential work was created during his time in Detroit, which is evident in the painting below.
In this section of a larger mural piece, Rivera’s love for the working class is evident. Rivera’s communist ideology that was developed as a result of conditions prior to and during the Mexican Revolution was carried with him everywhere he went. He believed in the universal application of communism rather than just in his home country of Mexico. This painting in Detroit shows an almost mundane subject matter that has been turned into a very visually interesting piece of art. The uniformity of a diverse group of workers is a subtle reference to his communist ideology, one that was not very well accepted in the United States at this time. Instead of creating outright and blatant depictions of communism, he painted elements of the ideology that would be more easily accepted by American viewers. This fits into the larger conversation of historiography because while communist ideology had become mainstream in Latin American society at this point, it was a concept that the United States still feared. Rivera brilliantly worked around this by painting his concept of a communist society without making it outright political. He worked around this cultural and political barrier to create art that could be accepted and appreciated by all people.
In order to understand just why Diego Rivera’s art was so influential in comparison to other prominent artists at the time, we must look at the art of people such as Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alforo Siqueiros. The painting on the top by Orozco depicts a malnourished and oppressed group of people violently rising up in revolution against their wealthy oppressors while flames rise in the background. The painting on the bottom by Siqueiros depicts a similar sentiment with a sea of people dressed in very plain and cheap clothes revolting against a well-armed riot squad. Both of these artists created exceptional works of art that were intended to motivate the people of Mexico to take arms against Diaz’s oppressive regime. These were incredibly important works of art because they depict the struggle of Mexican society during the Mexican Revolution. Today, they are remembered as important works of art that were highly influential during the Mexican Revolution.
However, the reason these artists struggled to attain the popularity of Rivera was due to the longevity of his art as well as his ties to the Communist Party. Because Rivera’s murals depicted both struggle and the emerging unity that came from that struggle, they were appreciated for a much longer time. While people could view Orozco and Siqueiros’s murals and remember the struggle of the Mexican Revolution, they could also view Rivera’s murals such as “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park” and feel happiness and pride in the current state of Mexican society. Indeed, Rivera found success where others couldn’t in his positive and prideful depictions of Mexico. Additionally, Leah Dickerman argues in her book titled Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern art that Rivera “defined muralism as a movement based on collective activity, the mural as a model of painting for a mass audience, and artists as workers” (Dickerman 2011). Dickerman argues that Rivera’s subtle (and sometimes blatant) depictions of communist ideology are what helped to elevate him as the most important muralist in Mexican society.
Diego Rivera’s sociopolitical
impacts have had a profound impact not only on Mexican history itself, but on
the way that history is remembered. Due to the post-revolution Mexican
government contracting Rivera along with other prominent artists, murals with a
long-lasting impact were painted all across the country. These murals were painted
for the purpose of remembering Mexican history while also celebrating Mexican
culture. When discussing Rivera’s impact alongside artists such as Orozco and
Siqueiros, it is important to remember that the celebration of Mexican culture
would not have been possible without the struggle of the Mexican Revolution.
Ades, Dawn and McClean, Alison. 2009. Revolution on Paper: Mexican Prints 1910-1960. British Museum Press.
Dickerman, Leah, et al. Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art. Museum of Modern Art, 2011.
Folgarait, Leonard. 1998. Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940: Art of the New Order, Cambridge University Press.
Folgarait, Leonard. 1991. “Revolution as Ritual: Diego Rivera’s National Palace Mural.” Oxford Art Journal, 14(1), pp. 18–33.