Between 1910 and 1920 Mexico underwent an era of profound political and social upheaval. Revolution and civil war destroyed the old order and a new, socialist regime emerged. At its centre was a group of art activists lead by the charismatic painter Diego Rivera. Together with José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo, these artists set out to bring art to the masses through murals depicting a united Mexican society.
Born in Guanajuato in 1886, Diego Rivera studied at the National School of Fine Arts before receiving a scholarship to travel to Europe, where he settled in Paris in 1907. In 1921, answering the call to intellectuals to leave their ivory towers and join the revolutionaries in establishing a new national culture, he returned to Mexico. His first commissions were murals for the National Preparatory School and the Ministry of Education; the latter he described as an attempt to ‘reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it, and through my vision of the truth to show the masses the outline of the future.’
In 1929 he married the artist Frida Kahlo, a partnership that was loving and tempestuous in equal measure. In 1931 he was invited to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and arrived six weeks in advance to create the murals for the show. After the opening, Rivera added three more murals depicting life in New York City, focusing on the plight of the worker during the Great Depression. These murals became pivotal in shaping the debate about the social and political value of public art during a period of economic crisis.
Throughout his life, Rivera’s commitment to communism and his close relationship with Russia caused controversy. In 1934 a mural commissioned for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed following the artist’s refusal to paint out a picture of Lenin. In 1955 he was diagnosed with cancer; he died in November 1957 in his studio in San Angel.
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