A Cézanne-Like Vision of Peaches

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Dreaming with His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham
    Bloomsbury, 368 pp, £12.99, November 1999, ISBN 0 7475 4450 6
  • Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals by Linda Bank Downs
    Norton, 202 pp, £35.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 393 04529 3

At last a full-length biography of the Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera: a famously fat, genial, enigmatic and ruthless man, with the politician’s mix of idealism and opportunism; an artist on the loose in the public world who made his mark on the first half of the 20th century. Following Bertram Wolfe’s political portrait of 1939, most of the reassessments have lain hidden in scholarly monographs, and Rivera is chiefly remembered these days as the husband of Frida Kahlo, Gender Studies’ emblematic victim – not least because it was Rivera who received all the attention during their lifetime. It’s a shame, then, that this book provides so little analysis of his impact on American culture, both north and south of the border.

Now that the nuances of the social and political struggles which the revolutionary painters threw themselves into seem remote, even quaint, the Tres Grandes of the Mexican School – Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros – are often treated as a single entity. Where distinctions are made, the didacticism of Rivera’s work tends, and I believe deserves, to be unfavourably compared to the expressionist passion of Orozco, and even to the ungainliness of Siqueiros, the gun-toting theorist who today commands a new degree of revisionist respect. Rivera’s murals aged once the cause they stood for had been lost; they are stunning schemes of design, organisation and colour that remain somehow cold and depthless (while the easel work manages to be both hieratic and sentimental). His two rivals were formal radicals as much as political activists, but Rivera considered himself a militant first and a painter second. His star began to rise in the 1920s, and his work was a defining statement about the direction of art in the Americas at a time when the world’s ideological future hung in the balance. That debate came to a climax during the late 1930s, in the studio encounters between Siqueiros and Pollock, and was brought to a close as far as the North was concerned by the success of Abstract Expressionism, signifying a decisive defection from engagé figuration. Patrick Marnham enjoys Rivera’s murals, and describes them well, but he ignores or trivialises the wider aesthetic and political issues. Incredibly, he never mentions the Mexican School of Painting, which owed so much to Rivera’s style. He is more comfortable with the personal background to the images, the frescos à clef – The Distribution of Arms (1928), for example, which advertised Tina Modotti’s latest affair, along with the Revolution. He gives us all the love-life, getting some of his best insights into Diego’s character from Frida’s pictures and diaries, but the politics, for him, is mere intrigue.

A more committed biographer might have taken seriously the painter’s attempts to challenge the Western avant-garde with a unique blend of indigenism and scientism – a contradictory project, which he carried into the infirm heart of Depression capitalism itself. But in this primarily entertaining portrait, Rivera is shown to jump from one idea to another and then back again, his betrayals motivated sometimes by self-interest, sometimes by a childish impulse to bite the hand that fed him. It’s true that his easygoing inconsistency earned him the contempt of both the hardline Communist Siqueiros, and the humanist, independent Orozco. He was also an excellent raconteur. None of his rather charming inventions remains standing by the end of a book that undermines its own title (a doubly curious one, since Diego’s froggy eyes usually appear half-closed). Most of the fantasies were refuted long ago, surviving only in the most fawning catalogues, but Marnham brings the facts together for the first time, unfortunately cutting Rivera down to a comforting banality in the process.

Rivera was born on 8 December 1886 in Guanajuato to a pair of schoolteachers; the father was a moderate liberal and a Freemason, and the mother, unschooled herself, taught music and grammar.

According to his own account many years later, Diego had nearly died on the day he was born. He had been so weak that the midwife had disposed of him in a dung bucket; his grandmother had then saved his life by killing some pigeons and wrapping him in their entrails ... This story seems to be the only evidence that Diego was ever anything but perfectly healthy on arrival.

Diego did not, as he claimed, drive the local priest out of the temple at the age of six, nor was he summoned by the Mexican minister of war to lecture generals about tactics and fortifications at the age of II, nor was his family banished from Guanajuato in 1893 for their dangerous progressive views: on the death of a financial patron, they moved to Mexico City, where his parents found new jobs. Rivera attended a conventional Catholic primary school, and being noticeably good at drawing, entered the Academia de San Carlos in 1898. The school was influenced by the Comtean philosophy of the Mexican dictator, Porfirio Díaz, and offered a broad curriculum with an emphasis on science (an education that paid off most triumphantly in Rivera’s Detroit murals, celebrating the dark beauty of the Ford assembly line). He won a grant after graduation and travelled to Spain in 1907, where his study of Ingres and Symbolism was enriched by a fondness for El Greco, bizarre hero of the Spanish avantgarde, and for their anti-hero, the luminous Modernist Joaquín Sorolla. This contradiction was the first of many for Rivera, who was soon to infuriate everyone as the artist of simultaneous compromise and provocation.

He returned briefly to Mexico in 1910 for a show sponsored by his patron, the Governor of Veracruz, ignoring the first rumblings of the Revolution, which he later claimed to have all but led. He then settled in Montparnasse, fell romantically in love for the first and last time with a Russian émigré artist called Angelina Beloff, and invented himself as a Character – burly savage with Mexican walking stick. It’s a neglected period of his life that deserves the space allocated here, even if some of Marnham’s assessments are cavalier.

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