Diego Rivera
209 pages
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Diego Rivera

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209 pages
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Description

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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Date de parution 15 septembre 2015
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781783107759
Langue English
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Author: Gerry Souter

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© Confidential Concepts, worldwide, USA
© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA
Image-Bar www.image-bar.com
© Victor Arnautoff
© Georges Braque, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, USA/ ADAGP, Paris
© 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

All rights reserved
No part of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission of the copyright holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyright on the works reproduced lies with the respective photographers.
Despite intensive research, it has not always been possible to establish copyright ownership. Where this is the case, we would appreciate notification.

ISBN: 978-1-78310-775-9
Gerry 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.
Contents


Foreword
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
Index
Notes
2. Diego Rivera , Self-Portrait, 1916.
Oil on canvas, 82 x 61 cm.
Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico City.


Foreword


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 self-indulgent 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 man.
Large, damp, soft-boiled lunarian eyes set in a moon face above a mouth designed for self-gratification 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, Illinois
4. Frida Kahlo , Self-Portrait, 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 professional midwife. 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 played-out 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. Gustave-Courbet , 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 rabble-rousing 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 avant-garde 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 pre-Spanish 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.
16. Diego Rivera , Suburbs of Paris, 1918.
Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 79.5 cm. Private collection.


Diego was singled out by Rebull as promising, and given instruction in the so-called “Golden Section”, a mathematical system of composition developed by the ancient Greeks, that establishes a harmonic ratio between two unequal parts. Its principles were widely distributed in Luca Pacioli’s three-volume work Divina Proportione published in 1509. In the Elements , Euclid of Alexandria (c. 300 B.C.) defined a proportion derived from a division of a line into what he calls its “extreme and mean ratio”. Euclid’s definition reads:
A straight line is said to have been cut in extreme and mean ratio when, as the whole line is to the greater segment, so is the greater to the lesser.
In other words, in the diagram below, point C divides the line in such a way that the ratio of AC to CB is equal to the ratio of AB to AC. Some elementary algebra shows that in this case the ratio of AC to CB is equal to the irrational number 1.618 (precisely half the sum of 1 and the square root of 5). [6]
This mathematical formula applied to fine art appealed to the engineer in Diego Rivera, who enjoyed mechanical systems such as trains and machines, often taking apart his toys to see how they worked. His practice of employing the Golden Section served him well later as he composed his huge murals over wall surfaces of all dimensions. This academic training including the use of colour optics imposed by “advancing” (warm) and “retreating” (cool) colours and the manipulation of line segments to achieve depth in a two-dimensional plane all became valuable tools in Rivera’s vast spaces.
By the age of eighteen in 1905, Diego Rivera was enjoying his final two years at San Carlos and had changed considerably from the docile, shabby eleven-year-old fat boy wearing short pants with pink socks who, back in 1898, sometimes cut class to go fishing in the smelly canals. Where once he shambled about in dishevelled anonymity, now he dressed like a young gentleman in jacket and boiled shirt with a wing collar and four-in-hand necktie. His hair was no longer a bird’s nest but was slicked back with pomade. A straggly moustache sprouted on his upper lip to affect the appearance of maturity upon the youngest student in class. He had won a medal competing in a drawing contest and an award of twenty pesos a month from the Ministry of Education, and then, took the “King’s Shilling”.
By 1906, Rivera had completed eight years of study at San Carlos and graduated with honours, appearing in his final student show with twenty-six works. His efforts had paid off with an excellent reputation among the government people he had to impress to keep grant money coming in. This was accomplished, but the money for study in Europe did not arrive for six months, allowing young Diego to live the life of a bohemian artist among his school chums.
17. Paul Cézanne , The Château Noir, 1903-1904.
Oil on canvas, 73.6 x 93.2 cm.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
18. Diego Rivera , Suburbs of Paris, 1918.
Oil on canvas, 65 x 80 cm. Private collection.


This gang of “intellectuals, artists and architects” – El Grupo Bohemio – who had struggled to finish college, worked hard at exploring a dissolute lifestyle. The timbre of this bohemian existence is demonstrated in Rivera’s fanciful story in his memoir titled An Experiment in Cannibalism , where he and his pals pooled their money to buy corpses from the morgue. He had read a story where a lunatic had fed the flesh of cats to other cats to be skinned for their pelts, and their coats became glossy and full. Would a diet of human flesh improve the health of humans? Diego claims to have tried it for two weeks and never felt better. He particularly “…savoured young women’s breaded ribs”. The experiment ended because of fear of social hostility rather than “squeamishness”. [7]
During this time he also came into contact with the curious character Gerardo Murillo, a faculty member and anarchist political agitator against Díaz. Murillo chose the name “Dr Atl” while living in Mexico. In Indian dialect, Atl is the name of the fourth sun – Nahui Atl – and means Water Sun , but Murillo was actually a rabble-rousing criollo , the same as the rest of the governing class.
Dr. Atl had been to Europe, and extolled the virtues of the post-Impressionists and rebels such as Gauguin and Paul Cézanne to El Grupo Bohemio in long discussions at their favourite cafés over many glasses of Pulque (an Indian drink made of fermented cactus juice) and beer. But, at most, Atl’s fire-breathing evangelism produced only a woozy fog of intellectual rhetoric, but no revolutionary deeds or marches in the streets.
Diego had other things on his mind more important than overthrowing governments. He wanted to win a contest that offered a grant of 300 pesos a month to live and paint in Europe. His rival was Roberto Montenegro, a well-brought-up handsome dandy with a skilled painting technique. He was as elegant and refined as Diego was lumpy and soup-stained. And yet, because of Diego’s life experience and omnivorous eclecticism, Diego was actually more worldly than the city-bred gentleman in the French-cut suit. But when the votes were counted Montenegro won, and headed for Paris with the grant money to meet Picasso, Juan Gris, sip absinthe and dissolve into the City of Light.
Diego accepted the decision and turned to his father who had made an accommodation with the Díaz regime he despised for the sake of his family. Now he could help his son with a tug on a few strings. The governor of the state of Veracruz, Teodoro Dehesa, a liberal member of the Díaz government, had come through earlier with 30 pesos a month for Diego’s art education. Now the boy had become the young man and his paintings and drawings were paraded once more before his benefactor. The demonstration of Diego’s skills and potential pried from the Don a travelling scholarship of 300 pesos a month.
More conservative than Roberto Montenegro, Diego decided to ease into the European adventure by beginning in Spain. To get to Madrid, he needed steamship fare. One of Dr Atl’s more useful functions was to help students organise shows of their work to raise money to supplement their grants. For this service he received a commission. He fed a dozen of Rivera’s oils and sketches into an exhibition. The sales from this show bought Diego a one-way ticket to Spain. Dr Atl also supplied Diego with a letter of introduction to the Spanish painter Eduardo Chicharro y Agüera, who had many rich and well-known clients. Atl became a shadowy figure who popped in and out of the volcanic mix of Mexican politics and the arts over the next decades and would figure many times in Diego’s future.
19. Diego Rivera , The Old Ones, 1912.
Oil on canvas, 210 x 184 cm.
Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico City.
20. Diego Rivera , Portrait of a Spaniard (Hermán Alsina) , 1912.
Oil on canvas, 200 x 166 cm. Private collection.


Discovering Europe

Diego Rivera was twenty years old when he arrived aboard the steamship King Alphonse XIII in Santander, Spain on January 6th, 1907. He must have been disappointed. The faces that looked back at him from the dock looked exactly like those he had left behind in another life far, far away. Their language was almost the same – except the Madrid natives lisped the letter d , turning it into th , in the elegant Castilian manner. On the train from Santander he would hear Galician that had the odd Graeco-Latin twists of Portuguese and Catalan spoken by the tourists from Barcelona. Two men smoked and swapped pulls from a wicker-wrapped bottle as they spoke in low, guttural Basque. Later, when he set up his easel in the studio of Chicharro y Agüera, his nickname would be “the Mexican”.
All he had to do was open his mouth in Madrid and he became the country boy. Diego Rivera hid behind a straggly beard, but he couldn’t hide the soft, frog-like eyes, the sloping shoulders accustomed to stooping so as not to stand out in crowds. He could not hide the six-foot bulk that supported his large head, which required a wide-brimmed sombrero to shade it because ordinary hats were too small.
When Rivera arrived in Madrid, he was the sum of everything he would be for the rest of his days. His life, as the gypsies say, was written in the lines of his palm. His work ethic was brutal, his politics were as yet unformed but inclined toward the lowest level in the trickle-down economy in which his father had been broken by the bosses. His art had no direction, but he was also an empty vessel anxiously waiting to be filled. Diego was ready to learn about women, but he already possessed sensitivity, a gentle nature and an ability to lie with great sincerity as he created stories that would become the myths of his life. He would always have women.
Best of all, Diego had discovered that his imagination need not be restricted to the images he created with his brushes and paints. Since he had been a small boy finding refuge from his frail mother’s drive to lift the family from the ruins of his father’s financial failure and ideological naivety, and both his parents’ desire to steer their lumpish son into some useful trade, he had turned to his sketchbook and its linear fantasies. As his skills grew and were recognised as a true gift, the fantasies he had created in childhood pictures of soldiers and trains and heroic deeds became habitable. At each stage of his formative years Diego met new people, involved himself with new groups and with each new telling of his stories his own role in them became greater. His father showed the sketches he made of battles and the disposition of troops to amazed generals. He stood shoulder to shoulder with strikers to be struck down by a soldier’s sabre and thrown into prison. His clever copying of Goya and El Greco paintings in the Prado were passed off as real and now reside in collections. He spent fine evenings with his bohemian chums feasting on “young women’s breaded ribs”.
Diego Rivera became his own myth. Later, as his fame grew, he inserted himself in his murals together with his patrons, historical characters, Communist ideologues, friends, those who inspired him and the women he was currently courting. He was there at last with his creations, forever the observer, forever part of history. The extent of his fabulous life became clear when he dictated his memoirs to Gladys March who, from 1944 to 1957, took down each fabrication word for word, with a straight face.
21. Diego Rivera , Portrait of the Poet Lalane , 1936.
Oil on canvas. Private collection.
22. Diego Rivera , Portrait of a Military Man .
Museo Regional de Guadalajara, Jalisco.


But standing outside the Madrid railway station at the age of twenty, his palette was hardly more than a tabula rasa. After days spent in discomfort on the train from Santander, still reeking of unwashed travel, wine and stale tobacco from the crowded coach, his waistcoat and trousers still speckled with drips and crumbs of food purchased on the journey, he hoisted his bags and located the Calle Sacramento and the Hotel de Rusta. An artist friend from the San Carlos Academy lived there and recommended the cheap pension . There he crashed and slept.
The next day, he presented himself at the studio of one of Madrid’s premier portrait painters, Eduardo Chicharro y Agüera. Diego proffered his letter of introduction from Dr Atl and was led to a corner of the studio he could call his own. The other students scrutinised the fat Mexican farm boy and were unimpressed. A heady perfume of paint and turpentine, open tins of linseed oil, raw canvas and pine wood for stretchers filled the room, and he set to work at once. He painted for days, arriving early and leaving late. Gradually, with his sheer brute concentration and resolve, the value of his stock rose among his fellow classmates and he became part of their social circle.
In his Rivera biography, Dreaming With His Eyes Open , the author Patrick Marnham offers an insightful appraisal of Rivera’s time spent in Spain and the value of the young artist’s first attempt to assert himself and discover his own style.
“Throughout the nineteenth century,” Marnham writes, “with brief liberal interregnums and spasmodic revolts ruthlessly suppressed, Spain dozed under four Habsburgs – one Ferdinand and one Isabella – and two Alfonsos. Alfonso XIII was still on the throne at the time of Rivera’s arrival.”
Spain had been passed by in the cultural, economic and political structure of a very vital Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century. Only Barcelona maintained a tenuous touch with the rest of Europe, and Picasso had studied there at the School of Fine Arts before bolting in 1900. He had hurried through Madrid, spent a day at the Prado, and penned a letter to a friend stating, “In Spain we are not stupid. We are just very badly educated.” Diego, in his search for the headwaters of the mainstream in modern painting, “…had sailed up a backwater.” [8]
As he settled into the rhythms of Madrid and the surrounding countryside, he appreciated the comfort factor of speaking the language – or something at least approximating to Castilian Spanish – and having his hotel only a stone’s throw from the Prado, which housed one of Europe’s finest collections of paintings. When not working with maestro Chicharro in the studio, he set up his easel opposite the finest examples of El Greco with the elongated figures towering above him, or feeling the heat come off Goya’s passionately restrained portraits of the Spanish rich and roughly-brushed stalwart peones massed before ranks of soldiers with bayonets. The vivid colours and brushstroke impasto came to life on the original canvases as opposed to the pale chromolithographs decorating walls in Mexico City. He slaved over these masterpieces, unlocking the secrets of their line, colour and dynamic compositions.
23. Diego Rivera , Portrait of John Dunbar, 1931.
Oil on canvas, 199.5 x 158 cm. Private collection.
24. Diego Rivera , Study for The Jug , 1912.
Gouache on paper, 28.5 x 23 cm.
María Rodríguez de Reyero Collection, New York.
25. El Greco , The Visitation, 1610.
Oil on canvas, 96 x 72.4 cm.
Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D. C.


And, here in Madrid, an interesting quirk of content appeared amidst his self-generated themes. No religious paintings by young Diego have been recovered or noted. Among the wealthy and those aspiring to higher positions, the purchase of art had contributed to a boom for painters, decorating walls with bucolic rural scenes, family portraits and the scarred and bloody body of Jesus on the Cross. Holy scenes from the Bible were big sellers and the more slickly rendered the better. Diego, however, who had bad memories of the Church and its effect on his mother’s impassioned judgments, and of his father’s anti-clerical teaching and writing, eschewed the gaudy morality plays of Madrid’s commercial painters. He continued as he was, a young Mexican man living off a free ride and working hard to find his own vision and style.
Chicharro’s reports to Don Dehesa, Governor of Veracruz and Diego’s sponsor, were glowing and the paintings regularly sent to Dehesa reflected the reports’ praise. Some of Chicharro’s student exhibitions drew critics who singled out Rivera as a “promising talent”. Diego’s brush with the Madrid avant-garde found him embroiled in an anti-modern art movement ( el Museísmo ) which demanded the abandonment of modern art for the 300-year-old El Grecos. Hardly a plunge into the future, but Rivera’s painting during his isolated two years in Spain was conventional, slick and bland.
While Picasso was creating the revolutionary Les Demoiselles d ’ Avignon , Rivera ground out The Forge , The Old Stone and New Flowers and The Fishing Boat . The paintings were handsome if only because of their superb technique, but they would also have looked at home in any mercado tourist shop. To be charitable, Rivera did manage to keep his meal ticket coming from the Governor of Veracruz. And he met a girl.
At the Café de Pombo, a hang-out for the Spanish avant-garde , Diego spent time with the two Ramóns and María Blanchard. Ramón number one was Ramón Gómez de la Serna, a critic and soon-to-be Dada poet. Ramón number two was Ramón del Valle-Inclán, a Spanish novelist who had lost his left arm to the swing of a cane in a brutal café brawl. He was a grand storyteller, and Diego thoroughly absorbed his enthralling gift of prevarication, adding touches to expand his own myth-making machine. María Blanchard’s real name was María Gutiérrez Cueto, and she was one of Chicharro’s painting students. She was bright, five years older than Diego and four feet tall with a subtle hunchback caused by an accident to her spine in her youth. She dressed in the English tourist style and made a striking contrast to her towering mountain of a friend (and lover, according to Rivera in later years). In 1908 she headed for Paris, leaving Diego to finish up his second year in Spain. He prowled the Basque countryside looking for material, and entered some of his paintings in another exhibition where his friend Ramón Gómez de la Serna gave him a booster review.
The bohemian lifestyle of this merry band eventually laid Diego low, so he stopped drinking and went on a vegetarian diet – a purge he resorted to again later in his life. He took hikes and began reading very serious books: Aldous Huxley, Emile Zola, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, Voltaire and Karl Marx. He devoured books on mathematics, biology and history, drowning his over-indulged body with intellectual stimulation.
26. Diego Rivera , Portrait of Angelina Beloff , 1909.
Oil on canvas, 59 x 45 cm. Collection of the
Government of the State of Veracruz, Veracruz.
27. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes , Woman at her Toilet, 1883.
Oil on canvas, 75 x 63 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
28. Paul Gauguin , Vaïraumati Tei Oa (Her name is Vaïraumati), 1892.
Oil on canvas, 91 x 68 cm. The Pushkin
State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
29. Diego Rivera , Bathers at Tehuantepec, 1923.
Oil on canvas, 63 x 52 cm.
Museo Casa Diego Rivera, Guanajuato.
30. Diego Rivera , Flower Vendor, 1926.
Oil on canvas, 89.5 x 109.9 cm.
Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu.
31. Diego Rivera , Portrait of Concha, c. 1927.
Oil on canvas, 62.3 x 48.3 cm.
Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu.
32. Paul Gauguin , Vahine no te tiare (Woman with a Flower), 1891. Oil on canvas,
70 x 46 cm. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.


After sticking it out for two years, Chicharro, Ramón Valle-Inclan and Rivera, apparently flush with winnings gathered from a Spanish casino, took a train to Paris, chipped in for a horse cab to the Place Saint-Michel and found rooms at number 31, the Hotel de Suez on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. This hotel near the Latin Quarter was crammed with penniless American and Spanish art students living off meagre stipends from various sources. No sooner had Diego put down his bags than he was out the door, down the hill and across the Seine heading for the Louvre.
The Paris art scene must have overwhelmed him. In the two months he spent in the city, very little time was wasted as he got out his paints and brushes, joining other Paris-struck painters on the banks of the Seine. He wandered through the galleries peering at the works of Pissarro, Monet, Daumier and Courbet. Gallery and museum walls glowed with colour and ways of seeing and techniques so foreign to his well-ordered provincial realism. He must have been desperate to try and locate a path to a style he could call his own. One painter stood out who had decorated the walls of the amphitheatre or “hemicycle” in the Sorbonne across rue St Jacques from a number of panels in the rotunda of the imposing Pantheon – formerly the church of St Genevieve – residing behind its portico of Corinthian columns. Both buildings were a five-minute walk from the Hotel de Suez.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was a French artist who was born in Lyon in 1824 and died in Paris in 1898. He studied with Eugène Delacroix and rose to prominence in the world of the Paris Salon. He embraced the allegorical tradition of representing abstract ideas of honour, triumph of the spirit, despair and sacrifice with classical figures arrayed on dreamscapes that symbolised the subtext of their actions. He accomplished his painting on large canvas surfaces that were fixed to the walls.

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