Diego Rivera Part 1
MY ART, MY LIFE
When I posted the video of Jose Maria Velasco, I talked about the different muralists of Mexico. However, I intended to write about Diego Rivera
exclusively, because of the various muralists, he is my favorite.
And what better source than writing excerpts of his book My Art, My Life, so you will know his true character and struggles to find his true identity as an artist, which is my primary interest, but also to know about his controversial political, religious, beliefs, and his intense love life full of dramatism.
Diego says: “My twin brother and I were born on the night of December 8, 1886. I, the older, was named Diego after my father, and my brother arriving a few minutes later, was named Carlos. The coming of Carlos and me brought great joy to our parents. At twenty-two, my mother had already had four pregnancies, of
which the first three had ended in stillbirths. After each child was born dead, my father went out and bought my mother a doll to console her.
Now he did not buy a doll but cried with delight. However, when Carlos was only a year and a half, he died. My mother developed a terrible neurosis, installed herself beside his tomb, and refused to leave. My father, then a municipal councilor, was obliged to rent a room in the home of the cemetery’s caretaker to be with her at night. The doctor warned my father that, unless my mother’s mind was distracted by some work, she would become a lunatic.
The family explained her case to my mother and urged her to study for a career. She agreed, chose obstetrics, and began her studies at once. To everyone’s delight, the cure succeeded. My mother’s melancholia passed. At two years old, I was thin and had rickets. My health was so poor that the doctor advised that I be sent to the country to live a healthy, outdoor life, lest I die like my brother. For that reason, my father gave me to Antonia, my Indian nurse, who took me to live with her in the mountains of Sierra. I can still recall Antonia vividly because I loved her more than my mother; I have painted her many times. ”
Diego tells us how liberal and anti-clerical his father was and that he had worked a truce with two boarders, his Aunt Cesaria and Great-aunt Vicenta, who were very religious. Around his soul, however, his father drew a line; that was off-limits. However, they took him to the Church of San Diego for the first time when
he was six years old. He says in his words. When entering the church, my aversion was so great that I still get a sick feeling in my stomach when I recall it. There were paintings all around of women and men sitting or walking on clouds with little winged boys flying above them. In my house, I had inspected my aunts images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. I had scratched them and discovered that they were made of wood. I had put sticks into their glass eyes. Suddenly a rage possessed me, and I climbed the stairs to the altar; then, at the top of my voice, I began to address the astonished worshipers.
“Stupid people, you reek of dirt and stupidity! You are so crazy that you believe that if I were to ask the portrait of my father, hanging in my house, for one peso, the picture would give me one peso. You ask for heaven, pointing with your fingers over your head. What heaven is there? There is only air, clouds that give rain, lightning, which makes a loud sound and breaks the tree branches, flying birds, to have the priest appease these idols to spare you because you are cruel, dirty, and bad people, you give this money to the priest. The terrified audience made the sign of the cross, screaming This child is Satan.”
After his behavior at the church, he was named esteemed iconoclast, son of the liberal brotherhood. To understand Diego’s behavior and anti-clerical beliefs, we must know that his great-grandfather lived in Russia; coming back to Mexico, he passed on to his son and grandson the communist ideas given to Diego and that he followed throughout his life.
At the age of 20, he met with Murillo Atl; he was an anarchist, a product of the discontent of the middle class. He had just returned from Europe; he was the dominant influence among aspiring artists, dissatisfied with academicism. Diego went to Europe with a scholarship to study European artists because he had a sense of inferiority. It was a racial feeling, not unlike felt by many artists in the United States.
Diego expressed this feeling:
“The Indian artists, before the conquest of Mexico, had shown great force and genius. Their work had been intensely local: related to the soil, the landscape, the forms, animals, deities, and colors of their world. Above all, it had been emotion-centered. It was molded by their hopes, fears, joys, superstitions, and sufferings.
Under the tyranny of the Spaniards, the mixed-race descendants of these great Indian creators turned away from the native sources that had given Mexican art its power. Feeling inferior to their conquerors and oppressors, they sought to raise themselves to equality by imitating the accepted models of classical European
art. It was the response of men reacting to a tradition of defeat, and this tradition was within me, too, buried in my subconscious. I fought against inhibiting academic conventions, trusting my emotions to guide me in painting canvases .”
In Spain, his first stop, he met with many artists; he wandered through Madrid’s excellent Prado Museum and other galleries where the masterpieces hung.
“My contact with Spanish art, however, affected me in the most unfortunate way. The inner qualities of my early works in Mexico were gradually strangled by the vulgar Spanish ability to paint. By the end of my stay in Spain, I became so sick from my excesses in eating, drinking, and working that I put myself on a
vegetarian diet and fresh-air regimen. I took long hikes through the countryside, stopping along the way to become better acquainted with the Spanish peasantry. I also developed an indulged a sudden voracious appetite for reading. I immersed myself in the works of Nietzche, Huxley, Zola, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Voltaire, Kropotkin, and above all, Karl Marx. I read very little fiction in books that did not satisfy me because of its unreality. ”
I arrived in Paris one spring morning in 1909; Paris had been my goal. My roving now ended. I set to work and soon fell into the usual routine of the art student, studying the museums; collections, attending exhibitions and lectures, and working in the free academies of Montparnasse. I also did open-air work along the Seine River. At night I joined groups of fellow students in the cafe in a warm discussion of art and politics.
Among these students were several Russians who had suffered exile and lived among professional revolutionaries. Two great French revolutionary artists, Daumier and Courbet, lit my path with great torches. Yet though aware of their examples, I was slow and timid in translating my inner feelings on canvas.
I have often tried to explain the contradiction between my understanding of life and my way of responding to it in this period of my painting. The more native art is, the more it belongs to the entire world because the taste is rooted in nature. This is the secret of primitive art and the art of the masters-Michelangelo,
Cezanne, Seurat, and Renoir. The secret of my best work is that it is Mexican.
In 1909, I went to Brussels, where I remained a short while to paint. I came upon Maria Gutierrez Blanchard, a painter friend I had met in ¨Spain with her was a slender blonde young Russian painter, Angeline Beloff; a kind, sensitive, almost unbelievably decent person. Angelina became my common-law wife two years
later; we had a child, who died the following year.
From Burges, we made a voyage to England on a small freighter.We arrived at the mouth of the Thames River. In London Angeline and I spent a lot of time together visiting the museums. In the London Museum, I experienced a siege of home-sickness; I had come upon my first love in art, the Art of the Pre-Conquest of Mexico. In Europe, I began to see my objectives in life as a human being and how my art could serve them. I now had a vision of my vocation-to produce accurate and complete pictures of the life of the toiling masses., the poetry of the ordinary people, working, suffering, fighting, seeking joy, living, and dying.
At that point, Diego decided to come back to Mexico.