Diego Rivera: Renowned Artist Who Courted Controversy

Mexican Communist Was Married to Frida Kahlo

Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera.

Diego Rivera was a talented Mexican painter associated with the muralist movement. A Communist, he was often criticized for creating paintings that were controversial. Along with Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquieros, he is considered one of the “big three” most important Mexican muralists. Today he is remembered as much for his volatile marriage to fellow artist Frida Kahlo as he is for his art.

Early Years

Diego Rivera was born in 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico. A naturally gifted artist, he began his formal art training at a young age, but it wasn’t until he went to Europe in 1907 that his talent truly began to blossom.

1907-1921: In Europe

During his stay in Europe, Rivera was exposed to cutting-edge avant-garde art. In Paris, he had a front-row seat to the development of the cubist movement, and in 1914 he met Pablo Picasso, who expressed admiration for the young Mexican’s work. He left Paris when World War I broke out and went to Spain, where he helped introduce cubism in Madrid. He traveled around Europe until 1921, visiting many regions, including southern France and Italy, and was influenced by the works of Cezanne and Renoir.

Return to Mexico

When he returned home to Mexico, Rivera soon found work for the new revolutionary government. Secretary of Public Education Jose Vasconcelos believed in education through public art, and he commissioned several murals on government buildings by Rivera, as well as fellow painters Siquieros and Orozco.

The beauty and artistic depth of the paintings gained Rivera and his fellow muralists international acclaim.

International Work

Rivera’s fame earned him commissions to paint in other countries besides Mexico. He traveled to the Soviet Union in 1927 as part of a delegation of Mexican Communists. He painted murals at the California School of Fine Arts, the American Stock Exchange Luncheon Club and the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and another was commissioned for Rockefeller Center in New York.

However, it was never completed because of a controversy over Rivera’s inclusion of the image of Vladimir Lenin in the work. Although his stay in the United States was short, he is considered a major influence on American art.

Political Activism

Rivera returned to Mexico, where he resumed the life of a politically active artist. He was instrumental in the defection of Leon Trotsky from the Soviet Union to Mexico; Trotsky even lived with Rivera and Kahlo for a time. He continued to court controversy; one of his murals, at the Hotel del Prado, contained the phrase “God does not exist” and was hidden from view for years. Another, this one at the Palace of Fine Arts, was removed because it included images of Stalin and Mao Tse-tung.

Marriage to Kahlo

Rivera met ​Kahlo, a promising art student, in 1928; they married the next year. The mixture of the fiery Kahlo and the dramatic Rivera would prove to be a volatile one. They each had numerous extramarital affairs and fought often. Rivera even had a fling with Kahlo's sister Cristina. Rivera and Kahlo divorced in 1940 but remarried later the same year.

Rivera’s Final Years

Although their relationship had been stormy, Rivera was devastated by the death of Kahlo in 1954.

He never really recovered, falling ill not long afterward. Although weak, he continued to paint and even remarried. He died of heart failure in 1957.

Legacy

Rivera is considered the greatest of the Mexican muralists, an art form that was imitated around the world. His influence in the United States is significant: His paintings in the 1930s directly influenced President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s work programs, and hundreds of American artists began creating public art with a conscience. His smaller works are extremely valuable, and many are on display in museums around the globe.