In 1931, Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, accepted a commission to make frescoes for the Detroit Institute of Art. It seems at first glance to have been an unlikely commission. He was a communist, and the funding for this project was provided by the Ford motor company, Capitalist, big C.
We were walking down Madison Avenue in NYC, my mom and I, looking in art gallery windows here and there. I was maybe twelve. It would have been the mid-1950. In one window, there was a detail print of a mural. I can’t remember whether it was from a work by Larry Rivers or Diego Rivera. My mother was intensely interested in modern art and had just enough luck to continue trying to fan my interest in it. So I found myself gently roped into a lesson on murals. My mother wasn’t impressed with Rivers’ one mural effort by that time, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, but she said she liked, or maybe I should say enjoyed Diego Rivera´s murals -- she thought they appealed too much to “popular” sensibilities and were too political. In her mind, art should be neither popular or political. She told me about Nelson Rockefeller’s destruction of the one Rivera had not quite finished at Rockefeller Center a number of months after he was fired from the job. It seems that Rivera included a portrait of Lenin which was one step too far leftward. With that story she managed to plant a seed of interest in my mind since the idea of politics in art did interest me much more than what seemed to me the hyper-intellectualism of art critics and my mother. The seed lay almost dormant for years and years. I did recognize Rivera as the creator of pictures of peasant girls with armfuls of calla lilies which hung in doctors’ offices and such, I didn’t think much more about him until my husband and I went to Guanajuato in the 1990s. Rivera was from Guanajuato. But even after our visit, he remained part of the clutter in my brain, if perhaps a slightly more noticeable part.
My interest in Rivera burst into full bloom quite unexpectedly. I was reading the NY Times online one morning not long ago a (it becomes a way to avoid more serious projects) and came upon a story about Detroit's bankruptcy which told of the possibility that the bankruptcy might make it necessary for the Detroit Art Institute to sell its collection to pay city workers’ pensions. Among the top four or five works most likely to bring in large sums was Rivera’s mural called Detroit Industry. Huh? Who knew he’d done a mural in Detroit of all places? I poked around a little and found a number of sites with photos of the mural. They were incredible. For the first time in my life I wanted to go to Detroit, if only to see this mural.
I started to read, first about Rivera, then about Detroit at the time of the creation of the mural, then about Mexico at that time and earlier, and about Henry and Edsel Ford and about actual conditions at Ford plants, about the effects of the Depression, about other actors in the story of the Detroit murals: Henry and Edsel Ford, Valentiner, Frida Kahlo, and other Mexican muralists and on and on. How could I stop? It’s a growing tapestry I'm not ready to disentangle myself from.
I pictured Rivera, when I thought of him at all, as short, fat, homely and left-wing. I knew considerably more about Frida Kahlo, as many USAers do. I wasn’t alone wondering how Kahlo could find Rivera attractive, which indeed she did.
I saw both Rivera and Kahlo in this mural Diego painted called ”Dream of a Sunday afternoon in Alameda Park”.
I didn’t realize that Diego had pictured himself as a boy in this central panel (he is standing in front of Kahlo and next to a calavera). I hadn’t even realized it was part of a mural, a complicated, ambitious one which essentially tells the post-Conquest history of Mexico. Talk about preconceived notions and unacknowledged biases.
I found that Rivera was indeed an attractive man for all that people (including him) described odd and ugly-sounding features. For one thing, he was quite tall, over six feet. His height balanced his weight somewhat.
In the photo at left, you can get some idea of his size. In the next post on Rivera, I’ll show you some photos and paintings of Diego and some quotes from him and others so you can perhaps build up an idea of what he was like.