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The Life and Work of Diego Rivera

Considered the greatest Mexican painter of the twentieth century, Diego Rivera is credited with the reintroduction of fresco painting into modern art and architecture In addition to his profound effect on the international art world, the artist was known for his radical political views and tempestuous romance with the painter Frida Kahlo.

Diego Rivera was born on December 8, 1885 in the colonial town of Guanajuato, Mexico. He was a twin, but his brother died at the age of two. Rivera spent his early life among the miners and peasants of his hometown. These experiences, as well as exposure to advanced ideas of his father—who edited a newspaper of liberal tendencies—profoundly influenced the young boy.

The family moved to Mexico City in 1892 and Diego, who was already demonstrating great artistic talent, entered the San Carlos Academy at the age of 10. In 1907, his first exposition earned him a scholarship to study in Spain. There he met some of the most famous European artists, including Pablo Picasso. He later moved to Paris where he lived from 1908-1909. Rivera returned to Mexico in 1909 for a short time and witnessed the beginning of the Mexican revolution before returning to Europe.

By 1913, he was painting in the Cubist style, but he ultimately found Cubism too limiting and began integrating elements of other French artists into his work. At about this same time, Rivera declared his common law marriage to the Russian artist Angelina Bellof. The couple had a son who died shortly before his second birthday.

Rivera opened discussions with David Alvaro Siquieros about the necessity of transforming Mexican art and creating a national and popular movement. In 1921, he returned to Mexico and created the Painters’ Syndicate with Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. Rivera’s first public murals incorporated scenes of Mexican life, culture and festivals. One of his first commissions was at the National Preparatory School. It was here (at least according to one of the stories) that he first met Frida Kahlo, who was a student there.

Rivera had recently married Lupe Marin in a church, though never in the civil ceremony required by the Mexican government. Together they had two children.

The next few years were highly productive for the muralist. From 1923 to 1929, he executed frescos at the buildings of the Department of Public Education and in 1926 and 1927, created murals at the National School of Architecture in Chapingo and traveled to the Soviet Union. In 1929, Rivera decorated the Department of Health building with large nudes symbolizing health and life. He also created murals at the Palace of Cortes in Cuernavaca, where he expressed his earliest concepts on the History of Mexico and began the monumental decoration of the staircase at the National Palace.

On August 21, 1929, Diego married Frida Kahlo. She was 22 years old to his 43. It was his first legal marriage.

In 1933, the couple traveled to New York because Rivera had been commissioned to paint a mural at the Rockefeller Center. Amid much controversy due to its explicit communist message, Rivera was eventually paid for what he had done and fired. The mural was covered over, and in 1934, destroyed.

Rivera then returned to Mexico, where he painted the controversial mural again, with a few modifications, in the Palace of Fine Arts. In 1935, he completed the enormous composition on Mexican history that he began on the staircase of the National Palace in 1929. Rivera continued this relentless pace for more than a decade with many more murals and canvasses.

Although their relationship was tumultuous (they divorced and re-married), Frida and Diego moved into adjoining studio houses in San Angel, which were built by the architect Juan O’Gorman. Frida, who had been in poor health for years due to an accident, died in 1954. Rivera appeared to age overnight with the news that his beloved “Friducha” was gone forever. Three years later, in 1957, Diego Rivera died of cancer and was buried in the Rotunda of Famous Men in Mexico City.


Discussion Questions:
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)

Do artworks tell us about the people who made them? About the world in which they are made?

• Do artworks have to be self-portraits in order to tell us about the artist?

• Do artworks have to show the world the way it really looks in order to tell us something about the world?

• What kinds of clues might artworks contain in order to tell us about the artist or the world?

• If you believe that some artworks tell us about the artist or the world, do you also believe that this is true for all artworks?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.