An extraordinary artist, a political
militant and an eccentric spirit of his age, Diego Rivera played a prime
role in an outstanding period in Mexican history, which made him a
controversial figure outside his own country and the best-known artist of
Latin America. A painter, draughtsman, graphic artist, sculptor,
book-illustrator, costume- and stage-designer and architect, Rivera was
also one of the first private collectors of pre-Columbian Mexican art.
Linked to names like those of Pablo
Picasso, Andre Breton, Leon Trotsky, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti and Frida
Kahlo, he was the object of love and hatred, admiration and disgust,
legend and abuse. The myths that surrounded him, even in his own lifetime,
arose not only from his work but also from his active participation in the
life of his time, his friendships and conflicts with leading figures, his
imposing physical appearance and his rebellious nature.
Rivera himself contributed not a little
to this myth-making process in his memoirs, which have been drawn upon in
numerous biographies. He liked to present himself as being of exotic
origin, precocious in youth, a young rebel who fought in the Mexican
Revolution, a visionary who declined to join the European avant-garde and
whose role as leader of the artistic revolution in Mexico was predestined.
That the facts were much more mundane, and that Rivera had great
difficulty in separating fiction from reality, is attested by Gladys March
in her preface to the artist's autobiography as told to her: "Rivera, who
later, in his work, was to make Mexican history into one of the great
myths of our century, was incapable of restraining his colossal
imagination when telling me of his own life. He had transformed certain
events, especially those belonging to his earliest years, into legends."
To present the life and the work of this extraordinary artist will
therefore be to bring the two into closer relationship.
Jose Diego Maria and his twin brother
Jose Carlos Maria were born on 8 or 13 December 1886 (the sources give
different dates), the eldest sons of Diego Rivera and Maria del Pilar
Barrientos, two years after their marriage, in Guanajuato, capital of the
State of Guanajuato in Mexico. Both parents were teachers. Diego Rivera
was of Creole origin; his father, owner of numerous silver mines in
Guanajuato, is said to have been Russian born and, after emigrating to
Mexico, to have fought alongside Benito
Juarez, who was the first president of
Mexico after independence, against Maximilian, emperor of Mexico
(1863-1867), and the invading French. The maternal grandmother is said to
have been of half-Indian blood. Both these claims, though as yet unproven,
nevertheless reflect those ancestral elements to which Rivera was later to
attach special value. He was proud both of his right to call himself,
through his grandmother's Indian blood, a real mestizo, and of the
revolutionary inheritance from his grandfather that was to prove so
important to him.