Although Diego Rivera was a Mexican painter, influenced much by his historical roots in Mexico, his contributions to American society throughout the first half of the twentieth century were great. Rivera wanted his art to influence the world enough to change it (Howlett 20). During an era of revolutions in both politics and technology, Rivera was one of the many inspired to create work that was socially radical at the time (Stevens 72). His views of support for Communism, his outlook on Capitalism, and his portrayals of the industrial revolution around the world caught the attention and eyes of entire nations. “Rivera’s work seemed like it was leading directly to today’s cultural wars” (Aguilar 36). Throughout the early 1900’s, Rivera had become an icon for cultural transactions between North and Central America (Hughes 78). His controversial art helped open the minds of Americans to be more culturally diverse and help see the different opinions and aspects to the world. When portraying himself, Rivera always painting himself realistically with harsh honesty in all of his self-portraits (Howlett 2). He sought to capture the aura of a subject, concentrating on the unique physical features of an individual (Howlett 2). Over his time as a muralist, Rivera’s style had changed. From Mexico’s realistic, pre-Colombian work (Mujica 30) to abstract modernism learned over in Europe (Howlett 1), Rivera’s signature style was his mastered displays of form and composition, as well as a large concern for texture and his usage of vibrant, contrasting colors (Mujica 29). However, no matter his style, Rivera always managed to incorporate either his political views and stand points or his Mexican background into his work, even if his political views were controversial to the point of igniting riots and harsh criticism around the world. Rivera’s importance was great, and not just to America, but to many other world countries as well. In America, he was a strong, forceful voice in the fight supporting both Communism and Capitalism (Goldstein 50). Through his life, his works have become known worldwide. Diego Rivera’s painting, Man at the Crossroads, reflects his strong stance in standing up for ones beliefs in a style of Latin American Modernism at the high times of Mexican Muralism and the Mexican Renaissance.
Diego Maria Rivera was born in Guanajuanto, Mexico on December 8, 1886 (Cockcroft 25). After moving to Mexico City in 1892, Rivera took up evening art classes at the San Carlos Academy when he turned ten years old in 1896. “In 1898, he enrolled there as a full time student, and in 1906, at the annual show, he exhibited for the first time with 26 works. Thus at age twenty, Diego Rivera was established as a painter” (Neimark, 64). Rivera’s father worked as a municipal councellor in Guanajuanto, and was a liberal and anticlerical man while his two aunts were quite religious. “However, Rivera was more interested in the dealings of military issues, especially fascinated with the articulation of the Russian army and the conflicts it was involved in: the Tsar and the Orthodox Church versus Marxist Revolutionaries” (Neimark 64).
In 1907, Diego got a travel grant and traveled to Europe to study different styles of art and gain more experience in the field of mural painting, a well as to regain his artistic independence he was losing in Mexico (Lynch 33). It was here where he studied Renaissance Frescoes (Mujica 29) under the close eye of mentor and well-known painter Pablo Picasso and met Angelina Belhoff, who became his wife of the following twelve years (Howlett 1). Rivera’s first child was conceived with Beloff, but a child wasn’t in the cards as Beloff miscarried the following winter (Tardiff 741). “In 1913, Rivera embraced Cubism, a movement created by Picasso and Braque, two of his artistic role models. He jointed their movement not for what it idolized, but more for what it rejected – Cubism seemed to him ‘the most violent reaction to academic painting’” (Lynch 35). His art began to veer away from Mexican realism and more towards abstract modernism, a style that focused on geometric structures and powerful compositional lines (Mujica 29). They were far outstanding from the academic naturalism he studied in Mexico, a style that much embraced the ideals of Cubism (Mujica 29). His human forms became more geometrically and abstract, becoming dehumanizing in a sense (Mujica 28). Up until now, Rivera’s work was devoted to the glorification and beautification of the common, everyday man (Mujica 30). However, this was all changing now along with his artistic styles. When World War I broke out in Europe, it was here in time when Rivera began to morph into a revolutionary himself. Feeling needed by his country, Rivera returned to Mexico and his art changed a bit back towards a realistic style, more of how he originally painted (Goldstein 34). He decided to make an art for the people and of the people (Neimark 68).
In the very late 1910’s, Rivera became much more politically opinionated. In 1920, Rivera was arrested in a riot rebelling against Mexican President Porfirio Diaz (Tardiff 741). In 1922, Rivera joined the Mexican Communist Party, his vision now more politically focused and dynamically rebellious (Mujica 30). “Rivera’s communist views and beliefs, opposing Stalin’s totalitarianism, led him to be a somewhat spokesman for the persecuted, oppressed, and the outcasted” (Goldstein 50). In the late 1920’s, Rivera was expelled from the Mexican Communist Party because of his opposition to Stalin’s harsh discipline, knowing of his dealings with the Soviet Union and the limits pressed upon artists in Communist countries (Goldstein 50). Rivera’s art began to strongly express his Communism views. Charges of Communist content, sacrilegious subjects, and the unsuitability of the industrial subject for a museum environment were brought up against him (Helms 85). “Later down the road, as World War II was underway, Rivera hard learned about a ship that was helping out Nazi submarines that were going to be landing hometown Mexico. He immediately informed the countries’ proper authorities and the U.S. Military joined up with the Mexican military in sending out a crew to chase the ship away. It was successful and Rivera was given a citation of merit by U.S. President Roosevelt” (Tardiff 742).
Rivera’s style is best termed as New Realism because it is far removed from the academic, Old World naturalism (Neimark 68). “He adopted a symbolic-representational style and a large scale mural format. The densely packed murals are almost montages of fragmentary figures and symbolic elements located within fictive spaces” (Neimark 69). The figures may have been simplified, but there is nothing simple about his complex compositions that are overwhelming to the eye, both visually and in terms of their social impact on society at the time (Neimark 69). Rivera’s murals at the Detriot Institute of Arts were painted with the 15th century Italian style technique called fresco, which is a method of applying paint directly to a wet plaster surface so that the work is permanently scarred onto the wall (Howlett 6). The project, designed to show the progress of man throughout time, fit perfect into Rivera’s style of a montage-like mural form. The murals received more than 86,000 visitors in the first month of its debut alone (Helms 85). At the end of the decade, Rivera was awarded the Fine Arts Gold Medal by the American Institution of Architects for Rivera’s growing work in the United States (Helms 70). However, happiness of receiving this award was short lived – in 1930, the conservative administration of the National School of Architecture and others had started a campaign for Rivera’s removal as director of the Academy of San Carlos, the same school he started out at as a young painter (Cockcroft 81).
In 1929, Rivera met and married Mexican surrealist Frida Kahlo (Tardiff 741). The two had a very rocky relationship, their marriage enduring mutual infidelity, bad health, and extensive and tiring world travel (Tardiff 742). At the end of the 1930’s, the two separated and divorced briefly before getting back together and remarrying (Helms 99). In 1955, following the death of Kahlo, Rivera announced to the public that he was battling cancer (Neimark 103). In 1957, Rivera was disabled from painting when a blood clot developed in his right arm (Tardiff 742). On November 27, 1957, Diego Rivera died (Tardiff 742). Thousands from around the world attended Rivera’s cremation ceremony as the Mexican government decreed that his ashes be placed next to other Mexican heroes at the Rotunda de los Hombres Ilustres (Tardiff 742).
In 1933, Diego had started work on what is believed to be his most controversial piece entitled Man at the Crossroads. The Rockefeller family in New York had hired Diego Rivera to compose a mural in Radio City at the Rockefeller Center in New York City (Goldstein 50). Problems and conflict arose when a portrait of John Lenin, the first leader of the Communist-supporting Soviet Union, appeared in the mural (Goldstein 50). Riots and protests were high in tow as the Rockefeller family ordered Rivera to remove that piece from his mural (Goldstein 50). When Rivera refused, the mural was chipped off the wall and destroyed (Goldstein 50). However, Rivera was determined to complete the mural, but obviously in a different place. (Goldstein 50). After completing his murals at the New Workers School, which included the famous Workers of the World Unite panel, Rivera left the United States and returned once again to Mexico (Neimark 66). There, at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, he composed a new version of the Crossroads mural, now entitled Man, Controller of the Universe (Goldstein 50). Both works are labeled as having a Latin American Modernism context, the paintings both taking place in the movement of Mexican Muralism, the medium titled as fresco (Neimark 69).
Diego Rivera’s painting, Man at the Crossroads, reflects his strong stance in standing up for ones beliefs in a style of Latin American Modernism at the high times of Mexican Muralism and the Mexican Renaissance. Rivera never had a committed set style of art as his studies varied through the years, scaling between realist and abstract, modern and Picasso-signature style. His acute personal melodrama concerning his extra-marital status and his controversial beliefs dealing in politics made him one of the most fascinating painters of the twentieth century. Rivera’s work, brilliant in the eyes of many while insane in the eyes of others, has definitely left its mark on both American and Mexican society and culture, as well as the rest of the world nations across.
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