Diego Rivera


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They met in 1928, Frida Kahlo was then 21 years old and Diego Rivera was twice her age. He was already an international reference, she only aspired to become one.
An intense artistic creation, along with pain and suffering, was generated by this tormented union, in particular for Frida. Constantly in the shadow of her husband, bearing his unfaithfulness and her jealousy, Frida exorcised the pain on canvas, and won progressively the public’s interest. On both continents, America and Europe, these commited artists proclaimed their freedom and left behind them the traces of their exceptional talent.
In this book, Gerry Souter brings together both biographies and underlines with passion the link which existed between the two greatest Mexican artists of the twentieth century.



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Published 15 September 2015
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Author: Gerry Souter

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© José Clemente Orozco, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, USA/ SOMAAP, México
© Estate of Pablo Picasso/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, USA
© Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo n°2, Col.
Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F.
© David Alfaro Siqueiros, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, USA/ SOMAAP, México

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ISBN: 978-1-78310-775-9Gerry Souter

Diego Rivera
His Art and His Passions

1. Diego Rivera, The Making of a Fresco,
Showing the Building of a City, 1931.
Fresco, 568 x 991 cm. San Francisco
Art Institute, San Francisco.C o n t e n t s

From Training to Mastership
His First Steps
Discovering Europe
¡ Vuelva a México ! Homecoming
His New Exil to Europe or His Artistic Quest
The Eight Year Search – 1911-1919
The Revelation of Italian Frescos – 1920-1921
Between Painting and Politics
Mexican Muralists
Fame, Diego and Frida
A Communist Cheered by Americans
The Last Years or the Return to the Country
Back Home in Mexico
Adiós Frida, Vaya con Dios Adiós Diego, Vida larga al artista de la gente
Notes2. Diego Rivera, Self-Portrait, 1916.
Oil on canvas, 82 x 61 cm.
Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico City.


I was aware of Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, long before I encountered the many other “Diego
Riveras” that roamed the world between the beginning of the twentieth century and the late 1950s. As
a photojournalist and graduate of the Chicago Art Institute, I took advantage of travel assignments to
visit great works of art whenever possible. In Paris there are the treasures of the Louvre and the
Centre Pompidou. In Mexico, there is Diego Rivera – everywhere. At home, I have the advantage of
being only five hours by car from the Detroit Institute of Arts and the incredible murals Rivera
created for this American industrial centre.
While his easel paintings and drawings constitute a large body of both his early and late work, his
unique murals explode off walls in virtuoso performances of mind-staggering organisation. On those
walls the man, his legend and myths, his technical talent, his intense story-telling focus and
selfindulgent ideological convictions all come together.
As I researched my book Frida Kahlo – Beneath the Mirror, I found many photographs of Diego,
first the smiling successful artist with his petite bride, and then as a tired old man following Frida’s
coffin to the crematorium. Though their union was compelling, there was no way I could make my
mind accept its consummation, both physical and intellectual, nor could I understand what drew
beautiful women and powerful men to what appeared to be a shambling caricature. Revisiting his
work and standing in front of it as the phantasmagoria of his imagination glowed from the walls, his
appeal as a larger-than-life character and creator quickly replaced one’s first impression of a placid
Large, damp, soft-boiled lunarian eyes set in a moon face above a mouth designed for
selfgratification peer expectantly from beneath heavy lids to create a frog-like portrait that sits upon a
flesh-padded, tear-drop shaped body. But this large man who filled doorways and caused chairs to
groan ominously had small, childlike hands. He appeared soft and lazy, but his endurance often
stretched to eighteen hours a day on a scaffold with brush in hand in front of his mural walls. His
personal life was a chaos of politics, seductions, parties, travel, marriages and creating his own myth,
but his work at the wall was, of necessity, precisely choreographed to co-ordinate his creative
execution with the time-driven demands of plaster fresco.3. Frida Kahlo, Xochítl, Flower of Life, 1938.
Oil on metal, 18 x 9.5 cm. Private collection.

In his memoir Rivera, the struggling young artist, praised Picasso to the skies for liberating
painters from the grip of stagnation. To his friends he accused Picasso of stealing elements of Cubist
technique from him and seethed as Picasso advanced while he remained bogged down in Paris still
without a style of his own. He was a life-long believer in the ideal of Communism and mostly in
denial concerning its ruthless reality. Who could possibly embrace the strict ideology of Communism
and still work for rich capitalists? Today, we need only look at China and the entrepreneurial Eastern
European states following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During the volatile twenties, thirties
and forties Rivera’s political insights operated on the level at which most contemporaries viewed him
– those of a great big child. He gathered friends wherever he went – Mexico, Spain, France, Italy,
Germany, Russia and the United States – yet jealousy of his successes and the divisive political
insinuations he brushed into his art created bitter enemies and left a shambles in his wake. For years
he habitually carried a large-calibre Colt revolver ostensibly to fight off attempts on his life.
Diego Rivera played many roles, some better than others, but deep inside – and more than a third
of his life had passed before he realised this truth was Mexico, the language of his thoughts, the blood
in his veins, the azure sky above his resting place. Finally, when all the Sturm und Drang of a life
lived at the gallop settled and he had achieved his master’s gift of technique and fully embraced his
creative goals, there was Mexico, her history and her stories. Those stories and the life of Diego
Rivera mingle as a swift-flowing river gathers the earth into its stream.
Gerry Souter
Arlington Heights, Illinois4. Frida Kahlo, S e l f - P o r t r a i t , c. 1938.
Oil on metal, 12 x 7 cm. Private collection, Paris.5. Diego Rivera, Landscape, 1896-1897.
Oil on canvas, 70 x 55 cm.
Guadalupe Rivera de Irtube Collection.

From Training to Mastership

His First Steps

Diego Rivera fictionalised his life so much, that even his birth date is a myth. His mother María, his
aunt Cesárea and the town hall records list his arrival at 7:30 on the evening of December 8th, 1886.
That is the very auspicious day of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. However, in the
Guanauato ecclesiastical registry, baptism documentation states that little Diego María Concepción
Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez actually showed up on
December 13th.
Rivera’s own description of his natal day many decades later recreates a grand melodrama. His
mother had already laboured through three pregnancies that ended in stillbirths. Expecting twins, she
pushed out Diego and began to haemorrhage. Diego was scrawny and lethargic and not expected to
live, so Doctor Arizmendi, a family friend, tossed him into a nearby dung bucket and went for the
second child. Diego’s twin brother arrived and seemed to be the last straw for petite and frail María,
who lapsed into a coma.
In despair, Don Diego Rivera sobbed over his lifeless wife. Preparations had to be made to deal
with her corpse. Ancient Matha, who had been attending Doña María, watched her being laid out and
bent to kiss her cold forehead. The crone suddenly stepped back. María’s “corpse” was breathing! The
doctor immediately lit a match and held it under María’s heel. Taking it away, he saw a blister had
formed. Doña María was alive. Some squawks came from the dung bucket showing little Diego too
had a few kicks in him, and he was retrieved.
Doña María eventually recovered and went on to study obstetrics, becoming a professionalmidwife. Diego’s twin brother, Carlos, died a year and a half later while the puny Diego, suffering
from rickets and a weak constitution, became the ward of his Tarascan Indian nurse, Antonia, who
lived in the Sierra Mountains. There, according to Diego, she gave him herbal medicine and practised
sacred rites while he drank goat’s milk fresh from the udders and lived wild in the woods with all
manner of creatures.[1]
Whatever the truth concerning his birth and early childhood, Diego inherited a crisp analytical
intellect through a convoluted blending of bloodlines, having Mexican, Spanish, Indian, African,
Italian, Jewish, Russian and Portuguese descent. His father, Don Diego, taught him to read “…
according to the Froebel method”.[2]
Friedrich Froebel is considered to be the “father of the modern kindergarten”. This German
educator coined the word Kindergarten (“children’s garden”) in 1839. He opposed the concept of
treating children as miniature adults and insisted on their right to enjoy childhood, to have free play,
arts, crafts, music and writing. Pointing out the moral in a story did not allow children to draw their
own conclusions from what they had read. It is interesting that later non-objective, free-thinking
European artists such as Braque, Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian were likely as not also educated in
Froebel-based kindergartens.[3]
Diego Rivera was born into a Mexico that consisted of a class-tiered society dependent on blood
lines and political affiliations. The period was called the Porfiriato after the administration of
autocratic President Don Porfirio Díaz. The elder Rivera was a educated man, a school teacher and a
political liberal who was known as a trouble-maker to the political party in office. He was also a
crillolo, a Mexican citizen of privileged “pure” European descent. His military service with the
Mexican Army that had disposed of French rule under Maximilian also accorded him a somewhat
bullet-proof position among Díaz’ “loyal” opposition.
The revered President Benito Juárez had freed Mexico from French rule with Díaz fighting at his
side. When Juárez died, Díaz seized rule from the ineffective chosen leader Sebastián Lerdo in 1876.
The peasant land reforms of Juárez were shelved over time, and Díaz shifted loyalties to rich foreign
investors and conservative wealthy Mexican families. He modernised Mexico with electric light,
railways and trade agreements, and balanced the Mexican budget to great international acclaim. At the
top tier of Mexican social life, the wealthy embraced French customs, food, entertainment and
language. The Mexican peons, the farmers on the lowest tier, were left to starve and scrape a living.
To improve his lot financially, young Diego’s father invested in recovering ore from the
playedout silver mines that surrounded Guanajuato. Once a booming industry, the silver veins had vanished
and no amount of resuscitation could bring them back. The Rivera family went into debt. Diego’s
mother, María, sold the family furniture so they could move to a squalid apartment in Mexico City
and start again. María was a mestiza, small and frail, but shared her European blood with Indian
forebears. She also had a home-taught education, which allowed her to pursue her medical studies
and became a professional midwife.
Through all this strife, young Diego was the pampered son. He could read by the age of four and
had begun drawing on the walls. Moving to Mexico City opened up a world of wonders to him. The
city rose on a high plateau atop an ancient lake-bed at the foot of twin snow-capped volcanoes,
Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. After the dusty rural roads and flat-roofed houses of Guanauato, the
paved thoroughfares of the capital with its elegant French architecture and the Paseo de Reforma
rivalling the best of Europe’s boulevards, Diego was overwhelmed.6. Diego Rivera, Beguine Convent
in Bruges or Twilight in Bruges, 1909.
Charcoal on paper, 27.8 x 46 cm. INBA Collection,
Museo Casa Diego Rivera, Guanajuato.7. Camille Pissarro, Landscape with Pastures, Pontoise, 1868.
Oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm. Private collection, New York.8. Diego Rivera, Landscape with a Lake, c. 1900.
Oil on canvas, 53 x 73 cm.
Daniel Yankelewitz B. Collection, San Jose.9. G u s t a v e - C o u r b e t, The Weir at the Mill, 1866.
Oil on canvas, 54 x 64.5 cm. Alte Nationalgalerie,
Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Berlin.

By now he had a younger sister, María del Pilar, but a brother, Alfonso, born in Mexico City, died
within a week. Life was hard in the poorer sections of the city and half of the infants died within a
week of their birth. Typhus, smallpox and diphtheria resulted from poor sanitation, lack of running
water and overcrowding. Diego suffered bouts of typhoid, scarlet fever and diphtheria, but his sturdy
constitution and María’s medical training kept him going.
Diego’s father bit back his moral outrage at government corruption and mismanagement in order
to provide for his family. He found work as a clerk in the Department of Public Health. He had
discovered an undeniable truth in any revolutionary movement aimed at the lower classes of society:
publishing articles aimed at helping the poor was foiled by rampant illiteracy – they couldn’t read.
María began to find work as a midwife and they moved from their poor neighbourhood into better
housing. Eventually they ended up in an apartment that occupied the third floor of a building on the
Calle de la Merced (Market Street). This neighbourhood was created around two huge markets and
their attendant scavengers, both human and rodent. But their colours, the variety of goods for sale, the
bustle and mix of Indians, peons and customers from every class produced a rich texture that
remained with Diego until his old age. For the young boy this upward change of status meant full
time schooling. At eight he was enrolled in the Colegio del Padre Antonio. “This clerical school was
the choice of my mother, who had fallen under the influence of her pious sister and aunt.”[4] He
remained for three months, tried the Colegio Católico Carpentier – where he was downgraded for not
bathing frequently enough, an unfortunate lifetime hygiene problem – and departed to the Liceo
Católico Hispano-Mexicano. “Here I was given good food as well as free instruction, books, various
working tools and other things. I was put in the third grade, but having been well-prepared by my
father, I was skipped to the sixth grade.”[5]10. Diego Rivera, Landscape with a Mill,
Damme Landscape, 1909. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60.5 cm.
Ing. Juan Pablo Gómez Rivera Collection, Mexico City.

The Lyceum system of schooling had come directly from French models as required by President
Díaz. Having driven the French out of Mexico in 1867, Díaz spent the next years of his
administration wiping out the democracy of Benito Juárez and re-establishing French and
international cultures as examples of progress and civilisation for the Mexican people. The downside
of this cultural importation was the denigration of native society, arts, language and political
representation. The poor were left to die, while the rich and the middle class were courted because
they had money and appreciated being able to keep it. The will of the ruling class was imposed on the
poor using self-serving “scientific” principles developed by a panel of pseudo social scientists called
los Científicos. This was government by Darwinian fiat.
In the same year that Díaz and Juárez were chasing the French out of Mexico, a book was
published, Capital – A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 that represented a lifetime study of
the political economy of the working class in a scientific manner. This work avoided the usual
rabblerousing demands of repressed workers substituting well thought out deductions that established the
basic socialist premises of its author, Karl Marx. If there was ever an autocratic government ripe for a
strong undercurrent of revolution supported by intellectual pillars of socialist ideology, it was
Mexico. The Díaz government’s cultural and economic philosophy devolved strictly around the
concept of creating wealth before addressing the issues of the poor, who were, unfortunately for the
Mexican Científicos who set the policy, not dying off fast enough to offset their birth rate.11. J.M.W. Turner, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, 1796.
Watercolour on white paper, 31.8 x 41.9 cm.
Wolverhampton Arts and Museums Services, Wolverhampton.

Into this conspiracy of the Mexican government, aided by the indifference of the Catholic Church
to marginalise the peones and Campesinos (farmer land-owners) in favour of international
investment that lined the pockets of the rich for trade franchises and slave labour, stepped young
Diego Rivera – after scraping his shoes clean, of course. His father made use of his deep educational
background at the expense of his personal politics and improved his government position to become a
health inspector. The city’s population growth had allowed María del Pilar to grow her midwifery
practice to the point of opening a gynaecological clinic. For the first time since the silver mine
investment debacle in Guanajuato, the Riveras had actual options.
By the age of ten he had experienced the results of Mexico’s autocracy, but would confront the
causes later. Making the most of his gift of drawing and endlessly sketching concerned his parents
now. They sought practical applications of his frivolous hobbies. Diego liked to draw soldiers, so his
father considered a military career, but the boy also spent much of his spare time at the railway station
to draw the trains – so what about a job as a train driver? Subject matter aside, Diego’s mother defied
her husband’s wishes that the boy enter the Colegio Militar and sent him instead to the San Carlos
Academy of Fine Arts for evening school classes.12. Diego Rivera, Notre-Dame, Paris, 1909.
Oil on canvas, 144 x 113 cm.
Private collection, Mexico City.13. Diego Rivera, Midi Landscape, 1918.
Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 63.2 cm.
Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico City.14. Paul Cézanne, Aqueduct, 1885-1887.
Oil on canvas, 91 x 72 cm. The Pushkin
State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Only a block away from the Zócalo, Mexico City’s large central square, Diego often crossed its
beaten dirt surface, stepped over criss-crossing mule trolley tracks, dodged rumbling horse-drawn
wagons full of freight and market goods on his way to class. One other distraction had to be the clank
of a printing press on a street just off the square. The print shop at No. 5 Santa Inéz belonged to José
Guadalupe Posada, a lithographer and engraver whose story-telling prints were the editorial cartoons
and “photographs” of their time
Using black and white line drawings and ambitious colour, Posada told the stories of daily events,
extraordinary happenings, the bizarre, the satirical and the tragic, which appeared in the broadsheets –
called hojas volantes (flying leaves) by their readers – of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, whose shop was
next door to the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts. Every day and often into the night, the press
clanked and rumbled again and again as pages were inked and the folklore and daily life of Mexico
City was committed in such a vivid style to which Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros and the other Mexican
muralists all acknowledged their debt.
Diego struggled with this day and night school education for a year until at the age of eleven in
1898 he received a scholarship to move his studies full time to the San Carlos Academy. While the
school was considered the best in Mexico, its curriculum was bound by dusty European artistic
dogma compounded by the societal engineering of the government científicos that mandated strength
over weakness in all life experiences. The art school also required classes in physics, mathematics,
natural history and chemistry as well as perspective and figure drawing.
The professors were Spanish, practising the skills of the French academicians far from the
avantgarde of the Impressionist and post-Impressionist movements. Of these professors, Diego, the
youngest student in the class, remembered best Don Félix Parra, who had a rare appreciation of
preSpanish Conquest Indian art, but whose own art was very conventional, and José M. Velasco, the
renowned landscape painter who taught lessons in perspective. Santiago Rebull was the school’s
principal and Diego’s instructor in the balance of proportion and composition. In his student days
Rebull had studied in Paris with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, considered one of the greatest
figure artists of all time. Ingres’ drawings were held up to Rebull’s students as models of perfection.
The curriculum built around this perfection was a grind, consisting of two years spent copying
reproductions of Ingres studies followed by two years of drawing from plaster casts before graduating
to a live model.15. Diego Rivera, View of Arcueil. Oil on canvas, 64 x 80 cm.
Collection of the Government of the State of Veracruz, Veracruz.