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.

He is right to say that it was Beloff, not Picasso, who led Rivera to Cubism ‘despite his deeply conservative instincts’. But it’s wrong to suggest that, having lost his grant when the first Revolutionary Government fell in 1913, Rivera adopted Cubism for opportunistic reasons, and wrong to claim that he did so immediately. The Russian set whose company he kept favoured the greater iconoclasm of Futurism, and for a while Rivera was divided over the road to take. In the opinion of the Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes, Diego was painting ‘Futurist rubbish’ in 1913. Marnham describes a scandal-driven art market that made the shocking profitable, but no vanguardism was a safe option at that date. Reyes actually feared for his friend’s prospects. ‘Diego worries me,’ he wrote. ‘He has renounced the fame he had in order to do what he is doing.’ It is between the Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard and The Adoration of the Virgin, both painted in 1913, that Marnham pinpoints Rivera’s move to Cubism. The second work certainly shows a completely different, broken-up treatment of space, but it can hardly be called Cubist. Both pictures emphasise movement. The first vibrates with industrial hardware – Ferris wheel, steamy station and diagonally-moving train, in front of which Best Maugard appears in languid gyratory motion; in the second, the painting itself is spinning, with a touch of the Delaunays, its dynamism unusually set off by a rural landscape. Diego’s Cubism coalesced later, and few of his Cubist efforts – except perhaps Zapatista Landscape, which Picasso was caught copying – are a match for the hybrid sensibility of the earlier period.

A fascination with the technological side of modernity, common to Positivism and Futurism, was to resurface as a constant force in Rivera’s work; but the guitars and newspapers of Cubism, which he practised with decreasing orthodoxy for four years, proved a dead-end. In 1917 came the storm in a wine-glass known as ‘l’affaire Rivera’. The poet Pierre Reverdy was conducting a curious rearguard campaign in Nord-Sud against deviations from analytical Cubism, with special attention to Rivera, whose ‘Cubist portraits’ he considered an oxymoron. Max Jacob gives a gloating account of a late-night reunion of artists in the studio of André Lhote (another of Reverdy’s targets), at which Reverdy began to improvise on the subject of apes, cannibals and Indians. Rivera slapped him. ‘ “Me gifler! moa! moa!” ... The young and ardent theorist of Cubism ... tore out Rivera’s hair, shouting; the assembled guests threw themselves upon the combatants.’

A social boycott of Rivera ensued that can only be called racist. The ‘exotic’ Mexican had a Cézanne-like vision of peaches and gave up Cubism almost overnight. Rethinking art and history and his place in both, he became politicised at last around 1919, through conversations with Siqueiros and a close friendship with Elie Faure, who was writing a five-volume Histoire de l’art at the time. Faure had been active in socialist politics since the Dreyfus Affair and, as the antithesis of Montparnasse bickering and chauvinism, was undoubtedly good for Rivera. His love of medieval art and his belief in the imminence of a new collectivist cycle of history in which the cathedral would be replaced by the cinema, and architecture become once more a canvas, offered Rivera a way home. Similar ideas were emerging in Mexico, Siqueiros told him, under the tutelage of the nationalist painter, Gerardo Murillo, alias Dr Atl, who had been the younger man’s teacher at San Carlos. Atl mesmerised a whole generation of Mexican artists with his agitator’s demeanour, secret-agent past and Whistler-inspired calls for the destruction of ivory towers. He ended up a Nazi, and, unlike Faure, was slightly deranged. At this point, however, ‘what Atl and Faure had in common was a dedication to fresco and an appreciation of the political potential ... of a public art inspired by the Italian Renaissance.’

Rivera travelled to Italy for a few months to see what this was all about. Then went back, to enrol in the education minister José Vasconcelos’s visionary cultural programme. Unlike Siqueiros and Orozco, Rivera had missed the mythical days of the Revolution: of Madero, Villa and Zapata, of the troop trains and cactus liquor, the female soldaderas and dying campesinos that haunted their work. In 1921 the civil war, or bout of serial political assassination we refer to as the Mexican Revolution, was almost over, as a new clique of generals, the embryo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that still rules today, divided up the spoils behind the veil of a national-populist jargon designed to perpetuate the illusion of a people’s government.

‘By the time Rivera returned to Mexico,’ Marnham writes, ‘the Revolution had already been betrayed and defeated. But for the next ten years he ... devoted most of his energy to the assumption that it was, on the contrary, in the process of being realised.’ Vasconcelos certainly made that mistake, but he resigned in 1924, as right-wing students defaced the murals in progress at the National Preparatory School, and high-level assassinations continued. Rivera’s joining the Communist Party in 1922 suggests that he was not so naive about the direction the Revolution was taking. He attempted to call its bluff by painting insurgent peons and thronged May Day meetings, enjoying the outrage the pictures caused. With Siqueiros and Xavier Guerrero he also founded the famously belligerent Sindicato (Union of Workers, Technicians, Painters and Sculptors), an early example of the syndicates, leagues and blocs that were the milestones of left-wing American culture for the next twenty years.

The First Mural Movement collapsed in bitter disarray after Vasconcelos’s resignation and most of the mural squad left Mexico City in disgust, but not Rivera: alone of all his colleagues, who never forgave him, he managed to keep his ample seat on the scaffolding. Refusing to condemn the attacks on the murals, he ploughed on at the Ministry of Education and at the National Agricultural School at Chapingo, housed in a former hacienda that had once been a Jesuit convent. Here he embarked on a set of heaven-and-hell interpretations of Good Government and Bad Government, based on Lorenzetti’s paired allegories in Siena. The chapel, to which he turned his attention next, was the ideal setting in which to imitate Giotto’s methods and at the same time turn the master’s pious message on its head. Richly daubed with scientific-socialist parables and erotic allegory, the vaults were a formidable achievement, which, while testing the limits of the permissible, was anti-clerical enough to suit the new administration of President Calles. Calles, a priest-hater of the old school and a Freemason, had engineered an extraordinary twist in the Church-State saga: in order to distract the popular mind from unfulfilled promises of land reform he conjured up a new enemy within, and outlawed the Church, only to be faced with a massive uprising of peasant worshippers (the background to Greene’s The Power and the Glory). Though Marnham omits the involvement of such Church commandos as the Society of Catholic Ladies in the attacks on the murals, he doesn’t miss the irony of Chapingo. Just when Rivera was, in paint, liberating the peasants from the clutches of evil priests, a real revolt was being conducted by identical campesinos ‘dedicated to the destruction of every atheist and humanistic ideal advocated in Rivera’s frescos’. The artist seems not to have noticed.

Invited to Moscow for the tenthanniversary celebrations of the October Revolution, Rivera was sufficently dismayed by the rise of Stalinism to attempt to play the provocateur – a role that was paying off reasonably well in Mexico. If he could get away with Communist imagery in Mexico, might he not take an ‘incorrect’ position against the hardening official line in the USSR? Disenchanted with Modernism but properly contemptuous of Socialist Realism, Rivera the born-again artisan spoke up for the Union of Former Icon Painters, and signed the manifesto of the October Group of Trotskyist artists. He was promptly thrown out: a fact he concealed on his return to Mexico, where he continued to depict decadent capitalists and the class struggle in Indian society; he even allowed himself a disloyal caricature of Vasconcelos.

Rivera’s balancing act was upset by events. The Mexican regime’s tolerance of the Communist Party came to an end just as the Party itself began a worldwide crackdown. Purges within the Mexican CP were conducted by the infamous GPU agent and executioner Vittorio Vidali, whose mission at this point was to oust slackers, collaborators and Trotskyists from the ranks: Rivera was top of the list. He had just married his third wife, the fierce young Communist painter, Frida Kahlo, a friend of Modotti’s, who in this account was one of Rivera’s many lovers. Vidali became obsessed by Modotti (their romance ended, true to form, when he murdered her in 1942) and disliked Rivera with more than political venom. The muralist had accepted a government commission to paint the National Palace; he had made ‘unfraternal statements’: he was expelled from the Party. The sinister comedy of this whole episode shows Marnham at his best, while pointing up one of the book’s major flaws. What are his sources for the Rivera-Modotti affair? It was a persistent rumour, one Rivera’s second wife divorced him over, but to my knowledge it has never been substantiated. Marnham presents it as fact, in a book with no footnotes and a good deal of unattributed quotation.

While Rivera’s popularity with both Left and Right in Mexico now stood at a very low ebb indeed, he had an admirer in the US Ambassador, who offered $12,000 for a history of Morelos state to be painted on the walls of Cortés’s palace in Cuernavaca. This, his first private commission, endeared him neither to the comrades nor to the nationalists, though he turned it into a typical provocation of the white establishment: a tableau of colonial brutality and Indian suffering. Symbolically avenged at last, ‘the ghosts of the dead Aztecs of Morelos walk in triumph on the walls of the conquistador’s stronghold.’ But this was anti-colonialism with the imperialists’ blessing, and Rivera was cast as a ‘henchman of the Yankee millionaires’. It was time to disappear, so he put the National Palace on hold and – his faith in progress intact – took off in 1930 to test the limits of American liberalism.

Marnham provides fascinating detail about the next three years’ wheeling and dealing in San Francisco, Detroit and New York, though he cannot repress the conservative’s smirk when the radical is beguiled by glamour. Rivera’s 1931 retrospective at MoMA was the biggest of the decade, but like many of the artist’s opponents, Marnham is more interested in his perceived eagerness to sell out: ‘So Rivera had caricatured the world of East Side capitalism on the walls of Mexico City? Well, here it was in the flesh, and delighted to see him.’ Nor for long. While Rivera was openly, perhaps naively, entranced by the thrusting culture of California and the beauty he found in American industry – ‘as beautiful,’ he wrote, ‘as the early Aztec or Mayan sculptures’ – he was caught in a furore stoked by ‘a rich mixture of patriots, anti-Communists, philistines and bigots’: that is, by those on the Right who did not appreciate the Pan-American message brought by this swarthy foreign Bolshevik. Public painting became, as in Mexico, a battleground.

In this, as in most accounts, the epic murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts that so strikingly glorify the future in the style and materials of the past only survived thanks to the good taste of Edsel Ford, son of Henry, financier of the Institute and president of the Institute board. However, Linda Bank Downs’s superb new study of the Rivera Court suggests that Edsel engineered the scandal himself, so as to drum up public interest and reverse the budget cut that had him funding directors, curators and the murals from his own pocket. Publicly, he defended Rivera. After all, the alleged Communist had fallen wholesale for the cosmic megalomania of Fordism, which he associated in the murals with the Aztec universal order – right down to the need for human sacrifice. Using a wealth of contemporary photographs, sketches and cartoons, Downs shows how every element in the work was part of a complex statement about human origins and destiny. At the same time, these murals were so obviously hymns to Michigan that the supporters finally prevailed over the detractors. But the artist was not so lucky with Man at the Crossroads at the new RCA building in New York. Here the Rockefellers failed to defend him against their developers, the Todd Corporation, who had only agreed to have Rivera when Picasso and Matisse declined the job. Alerted to the mural’s political content by a large head of Lenin on the side of the ‘good’ road, the Todds broke the contract, and Rivera was driven off the scaffolding. His assistant Ben Shahn remembered Todd Corporation staff coming in and ordering ‘Mr Riviera’ to stop work. ‘And when he said he wouldn’t they just called some men over and they just moved our scaffold and so Diego being kind of dramatic ... that was the end.’ The artists were shooed out, and that evening, protesters were dispersed by mounted police.

It is arguable, and Marnham argues it by devoting a mere sixth of the book to the last 23 years of his life, that Rivera’s career went into decline from the moment this international venture was cut short. Both Communism and capitalism had censored his efforts, and he never again found true favour with the Mexican regime, although it was very happy to exploit a debased image of his work as part of its policy of projecting a radical image abroad. He tried to solve his political dilemma by joining the International Communist League and persuaded the Government to shelter Trotsky in Mexico; the ensuing social and sexual capers (the old goat ‘retained his physical vigour’) and the dénouement are given most space here, with minor inaccuracies. Trotsky’s villa was not properly fortified until after the first attempt on his life, three months before Ramón Mercader got him.

In Marnham’s haste to wind things up, however, he leaves out far too much. He hugely underestimates the repercussions of André Breton’s visit, and the growth of a Mexican Surrealism après la lettre, fuelled by immigrant artists such as Carrington and Remedios Varo; he overlooks Rivera’s participation during the 1950s in the construction of a mystic mexicanismo, based on the alleged discovery of the bones of the last Aztec Emperor; and he has nothing to say about the legacy of ‘Diego’, the state’s pet painter who was hardly allowed to paint.

Consider the record of frustration, beginning with the obliterated murals of the RCA building in New York. In 1936 a privately commissioned work for the Hotel Reforma was judged to be offensive to living politicians, and warehoused for years; there were no state orders for the rest of the decade. (Marnham implies that Lázaro Cárdenas, the relatively enlightened President whose six-year term began in 1934, wanted nothing to do with this troublesome artist. In reality Cárdenas, who had unbanned the Mexican CP and harboured Trotsky, was reluctant to bolster either party any further by patronising Siqueiros or Rivera, who were fighting it out quite happily by themselves.) Rivera did not paint another mural until 1940 – for a college in San Francisco, where he fled after the Vidali-Siqueiros attempt on Trotsky’s life. Considered frivolous and anti-German, this work, too, went into storage. In 1948, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda was cloaked from view after objections from the Archbishop of Mexico City. The 1952 mural showing a reconciled Stalin and Mao – Rivera was rather pathetically applying to rejoin the CP in his old age – was censored by the Government. He was only working, intermittently, on the National Palace, with a sprinkling of other jobs: a theatre, a hospital, a university building, none of them without budget or censorship problems. The final paradox of his life was that from roughly 1940 – the year a vast show at Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art postulated an unbroken national spirit, beginning in prehistory and culminating in muralism – he was officially upheld as the doyen of the Mexican School of Painting.

This state-promoted programme, insisting on an accessible, figurative style and social themes, had its roots in the Revolution’s early cultural enthusiasms, and, more specifically, in the Escuelas Libres, open-air workshops that romanticised the untutored Mexican hand. Such projects would have been too intellectual, or too popular, and certainly too independent, for the PRI. But Rivera’s 20-year labour on the National Palace spanned the Party’s history, and epitomised the soft nativism that was ideally suited to the PRI’s self-presentation, from the 1940 exhibition onward. There were other convenient parallels: Mexican culture, like Rivera’s anti-vanguardist painting, had to be ‘unique’, of a different order from that of the West; Mexico’s Revolution pretended to address the common man rather than the élites in much the same way as Rivera’s transparent symbolism did. In the heyday of repressive nationalism it was as though the literary, artistic or political alternatives of the previous two decades had never existed, as though the cultural fists had not continued to fly behind the scenes.

An art bureaucracy was created, offering stipends and sinecures to artists who registered with the Mexican School, and labelled the ‘prickly-pear curtain’ by those who did not. There were guaranteed opportunities to paint murals of workers and peasants achieving everything that they were denied in reality, while a slavish press applauded the primitivism it had found so offensive in Rivera’s early work. Art students of the 1940s and 1950s were indoctrinated in a single technique that was scathingly satirised by members of the Ruptura generation of writers and artists who finally broke the nationalist stranglehold in the late 1950s, when the influence of refugee Europeans and Abstract Expressionism, the growth of the art market, and the rising impatience with authoritarian, hypocritical definitions of the ‘revolutionary’ in art could no longer be resisted. José Luis Cuevas, the unruliest member of this refreshingly disparate group, summed up their training as follows: we were ‘shown how to do simplified figures with big fat arms and legs ... coarsely foreshortened, so that certain intellectuals would call them “powerful” ’.

That is a painfully good description, especially of the easel paintings, which Rivera lived off during the long periods without mural commissions. In 1933, after the failed gamble on a North American future, he took a knife to one of his folksier cactus pictures, crying: ‘I don’t want to go back to that.’ But he did, quite profitably. And here’s another interesting question. He mostly sold those easel works to North American collectors, making him one of the first painters to be caught in a double-bind that still arouses acrimony and soul-searching in Mexican art circles. Which is the more ‘colonised’ option: to produce the Mexican-looking images that remain so popular with nostalgic Northerners, or to abandon the national heritage altogether and measure up to the big league defined largely by New York? Marnham doesn’t tackle these issues. Post-1989 flippancy and cultural culichés (‘Fiesta!’) decorate a narrow focus on ‘the life’, a fascinating one for sure: but we are left none the wiser as to its significance.