Rivera’s History of Mexico
The Mexican Mural Movement inspired Diego Rivera to paint epic frescoes of the world as he saw it. He spent countless hours detailing provocative allegories of unjust social and economic inequities he saw and deplored in Mexico. As he tackled the task of painting his beloved country’s thorny history, his Communist beliefs and his womanizing stirred controversy. Yet, to capture a country’s entire history, the glorious and the shameful alike, in a single mural was a feat few other artists could have achieved.
Global Village Travel Guide: “The Mural Movement is undoubtedly Mexico’s greatest contribution to contemporary art. Its legacy can be seen in every city in the country, and throughout the world."
Ross Chambless: The Mexican Mural Movement that began in the early 1920s, essentially began when the Mexican government – still trying to heal after 10 years of a violent Revolution – offered public walls to painters. They wanted art that would teach an official history of Mexico to a largely poor, illiterate populace.
Susan Vogel: People came from all over the world to observe the painting of these murals in Mexico City. They often had them painted in public places where the common person would see the murals. So, these are government walls.
Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, Formerly the National Preparatory School
Ross: Often the murals are found within old colonial buildings with courtyards inside.
Susan: So, from the outside, they look like monolithic, rectangular three-story buildings. But from the inside, they’ll have one or two courtyards. There they have balconies or porticos, and those are the walls that were painted. So, if people are walking to their offices or classrooms, they’re walking past the murals.
Ross: Today, the murals are free to see. You don’t need to pay anything to see them. Here’s Fanny Blauer. She grew up in Mexico City.
Fanny Blauer: It’s amazing to come to this building, and you suddenly find this courtyard, and it’s just art everywhere.
Susan: And people are working there, and walking by it. And we study it from afar and get enamored with it. And then to see it in person and is so incredible. And then just people walking by it.
Luis: Yeah, whatever.
Ross: This is Nuevas Voces, the podcast by Artes de Mexico en Utah, Part 13. In this episode, we’re continuing to talk about the Muralist Movement, and specifically some of the earliest works by one of the Movements most famous muralists, - Diego Rivera. Remarkably, not only would Rivera later attempt to capture Mexico’s entire history in a single mural, he helped to create a new national identity for Mexicans and bring the country together after it’s brutal civil war.
Global Village Travel Guide: “His worldview shocked many. He was a revolutionary. An eloquent and impassioned defender of collective justice. Despite his notoriety, the people loved his paintings. Today his works are clearly some of Mexico’s greatest national treasures."
Ross: That’s one opinion of Rivera and his work, from a Global Village Travel Guide video. Rivera was talented and charismatic, but as we’ll talk about a little later, he was also controversial. Regardless, his murals created a spectacle.
Susan: And Diego made it more of a spectacle by carrying a gun, and putting on all kinds of shows for people.
Ross: Rivera completed his first mural in the Mexico City National Preparatory School, where the Mural movement essentially began. That’s something we talked about in the last episode if you remember.
Mexico's Ministry of Public Education
Susan: The next project was in the Ministry of Education, where all the education work for the country is done, in terms of the curriculum and policy.
Ross: It was here, beginning in 1923, that Rivera began working with a team of artists on the walls of the two courtyards, each with three stories. By 1928 he had created over a hundred fresco panels, covering over 1500 square meters.
Susan: One of the courtyards he painted as the court of Labor. And the other was the court of Fiestas.
Ross: Rivera liked to contrast the wealthy imperialists, usually filthy rich Americans, with the hardworking, genuine, Mexican laborers and indigenous people. Specifically, panels found on a long corridor of archways are scenes in direct contrast.
Diego Rivera's Night of the Poor
Susan: In this one, the Night of the Poor is contrasted with a similar mural called the Banquet of Wallstreet. That one shows John D. Rockefeller and his ilk at a banquet, with a bottle of champagne on ice in the middle, and a ticker tape in their hands as they watch their wealth increase. A safe behind them with their stocks and bonds.
Ross: Another mural shows a fancy cocktail party of wealthy people who seem to be binge drinking on champagne. One man in a tuxedo is passed out drunk. Contrast this unrestrained debauchery with another mural – called Night of the Poor – showing a group of poor women and children huddling together, while a group of wealthy aristocrats leer in from outside. Most people think Rivera was evoking how foreign companies – many of them wealthy Americans – milked the wealth out of Mexico prior to the Revolution.
Susan: Part of the reason for the Revolution was for Mexico to assert its own independence from the U.S., and its independence from foreign influences, and its ability to make its own decisions and to care for its own population.
Diego Rivera's image
Fanny: I think speaking for someone who maybe doesn’t know the history, I can see this nowadays. This situation still happens in Mexico. You don’t have to be a foreigner to experience the cultural segregation of someone sitting at your table. It’s still there. Mexico City is a perfect example of a city of contrasts. You can go to neighborhoods that are very upscale, and people sitting at tables of fancy restaurants are all white. White Mexicans, more European features. And you see the indigenous people outside working as valet parking, kids selling gum. I specifically recall a scene where there’s a park across the street from a nice neighborhood called Palanco and there was a family of indigenous people sitting in a circle eating tortillas with nopal (cactus). And you can cross the street and see a fancy upscale restaurant with mostly rich Mexicans.
Ross: In context of when Rivera painted these murals, he was commenting on the inequity between rich foreigners and poor Mexicans. But Fanny says the inequity today exists between Mexicans themselves.
Fanny: This is very uncomfortable for me. I see it still in my country.
Luis: To me, the most striking image is the man in overalls. He’s telling the two people in front of him, you’re not on the list. But he’s also pulling at the leaves of the bushes, kind hiding the American men. I’ve encountered people like that. It’s difficult to process when you feel like they come from your community, they look like you, maybe they think like you, they've gone through similar obstacles and challenges like you and yet they are a gatekeeper and protecting those who oppress you. That stands out to me. We definitely still see that today.
Diego Rivera image
Ross: Finally, one last comment on this series of murals: many of them are adorned with red banners overhead with messages. Susan says it was during this project that Rivera allowed the Salt Lake City-born artist Pablo O’Higgins to assist him with the project. Susan, of course, authored a biography titled Becoming Pablo O’Higgins.
Susan: This is where Pablo O’Higgins first arrived. And Pablo started his first work assisting Diego painting those red ribbons above a lot of the doorways, that describe things. He was writing things like "the land is owned by everyone, just like the air and water". Things like that, slogans.
Ross: While we’re on the topic of Pablo O-Higgins – who is quite a fascinating character himself – apparently, he went to Mexico City as a young man and connected with Rivera after reading a magazine that his mother had.
Susan: “His mother was an upper-middle-class lady, who had luncheons and poured tea. She had a magazine called The Arts. It had an article about Diego Rivera's projects in Mexico City when he had come back from Paris to work on these mural projects. Pablo was an art student, then Paul Higgins from Salt Lake City, Utah. He read this magazine article and wrote a letter to Rivera and said, what you're doing looks really interesting. Rivera wrote back and said come down and see our projects. So, Pablo arrives there in 1923 by train and goes over to Rivera’s house, knocks on the door. Rivera gave him a role of drawings and asked him to come to the Ministry of Education to see what they were doing. Pablo was one of the spectators, artists from the U.S., there were others from other countries watching this painting going on. And after 6 months, he was still there. Rivera asked him to work with them. And soon he was grinding paints for Rivera. So, there were lots of people from the U.S. there. Some became assistants to Rivera. Some others became lovers. Paul stayed and became a Mexican citizen. Many stayed for quite a while and painted there.
Rivera's History of Mexico, National Palace, Mexico City, 1929.
Ross: OK, let’s skip forward to another work started by Diego Rivera beginning in 1929 in Mexico’s National Palace. It was a massive undertaking, to capture the entire history of Mexico with a single mural. The mural was to celebrate the Mexican Revolution, the overthrow of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, and help Mexican people create and celebrate a new national identity. If you can, take a look at it on our website.
Susan: This one’s kind of controversial. Because by now Mexico has a new president, Plutarco Calles. And he’s anticommunist, and suddenly the muralists aren’t feeling quite as welcome. And they’re not being offered the walls. If you’re going to do massive public murals, you need to have the government’s approval. Now there's a president who doesn't support the Communist muralists and this is the time when many of the Communist muralists come to the U.S. Siqueros comes to the U.S., so does Orozco, and Rivera will go.
Ross: For Rivera, a known Communist and the leader of the Peasant and Worker block of the party, he found himself in an awkward position when he started working for the new anticommunist president.
Diego Rivera speaking at a communist party meeting.
Susan: He gets kicked out of the Mexican Communist Party, not surprisingly. But he does quite a bit of this mural before he leaves. A lot of people are not happy at all. There was a big scandal over this mural. One of the people who was raising issues about it was our own Pablo O’Higgins. O’Higgins was about to go study in Moscow. He was a very good member of the Communist Party. He was not happy with what Diego Rivera was doing. So, a lot of the hardcore Communists are very upset with Rivera. And Pablo O'Higgins is no longer working as an assistant to Diego Rivera at this point.
Ross: The Communists alleged that Rivera had sold out to the anti-Communist interests and watered down his original plans for the mural.
Susan: They said that in the middle, underneath the eagle, it was supposed to have a Mexican woman with the fruits of Mexican labor. Instead, it became something innocuous, they take her out and put just something less political. It doesn’t seem terribly obvious, but it was enough to make people really angry at this time.
The 600 year history of Mexico City as seen through a Diego Rivera mural in the national palace in Mexico City.
Ross: Regardless of how the Communists felt about the mural at the time, you don’t have to see it in person to appreciate the magnitude of the project. The History of Mexico mural consists of four main sections – and they are HUGE – some as big as 70 meters by 9 meters. The bottom section portrays the Spanish conquest and moves upward through independence, and finally the revolutionary figures towards the top.
Global Village Travel Guide: “Rivera’s powerful work depicts the History of Mexico, from the conquest by Cortés until the Revolution of 1910. His intention was to create a visual textbook for the illiterate, portraying Mexico's past, and telling the stories of the heroes and the villains of national history.
Fanny: There’s so much going on this painting. I grew up going here… it's still overwhelming, you have to see it from different angles. As you come into the building, the stairs are in the center and you can go up to the right or to the left, and there’s a balcony where you can see the whole thing. The way it was structured, it invites you to take the time to observe everything. It is basically an interpretation of the History of Mexico by Rivera.
Ross: It seems like a massive, overwhelming project to cram one’s own country’s entire history into a single mural all at once. I think he did a pretty good job and showing context of here’s what we’ve been through and here is perhaps where we are going. Let's keep in mind this what has shaped us. This is extremely powerful. But another thought I had is I cannot think of a similar attempt to capture the history of our own country – the history of the United States.
Susan: And it’s only 200 years.
Ross: We don't have to deal with as much time as Mexico has.
She means barely over 240 years, but still relatively short, right?
I certainly can’t think of any famous works. Maybe nobody has attempted that, at least an honest attempt. Even in you have a mural or some kind of painting where you are trying to show this moment in history often you're leaving things out. At least from one perspective.
The Frieze in U.S. Capitol depicting the history of the U.S.
Ross: So, I want to amend my statement from that moment, because as it turns out there have been efforts by artists to tell the story of the United States history through public works of art. One example can be seen in the frieze in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where there’s a panorama depicting significant events in U.S. history. It only goes up to the birth of aviation in 1903, but it’s a nice try.
Susan: And there was the work project administration. The New Deal art projects that were very much influenced by the Mexican Muralist movement. And it did a lot of that, showing history, but probably not the entire history. But think about what this was for, it was for creating a national identity where there had not been one. Or, there had been one that was fragmented and European, and made up of different people who didn’t speak the same languages and had separate and distinct cultures. So, this was like creating a comprehensive textbook on a wall.
"Mail Transportation" (1938) by Fletcher Martin, in the San Pedro, California, post office. One of many post office murals.
By the Way: The Public Works of Art Project (1933–34), one of several projects commissioned in the New Deal during the Great Depression in the United States, was developed to give employment to artist workers and assure the American public that better financial times were on the way. In 1933, nearly $145 million in public funds was appropriated for the construction of federal buildings, such as courthouses, schools, libraries, post offices and other public structures, nationwide. The Public Works of Art Project agency oversaw the production of 15,660 works of art by 3,750 artists.
Ross: It’s clear that Rivera spent a lot of time on little details.
Fanny: I just see a lot of details I still see in Mexico. The faces, the artifacts, the animals. The expressions of the faces. My family lives in this plaza in Mexico City where every year in July, hundreds of Mexicans gather in their ancestral outfits, costumes with feathers. And I look at this mural, it’s like looking at that festival, that still happens in that plaza.
Susan: It looks positive, in spite of all the violence in it?
Luis: I think having seen Orozco pieces, it’s definitely cleaned up and the colors are vibrant. One thing you mentioned Ross, I definitely see honesty. It’s acknowledging the history. Perhaps it’s not showing it as it actually happened with bloodshed and violence, but it’s all there. Going back to your question about pieces in the United States, I think the attitude isn’t as honest about our history. Because that would dismantle Manifest Destiny and all that, so until we are able to process that and can acknowledge that, I don’t think we’ll have any true representations of our true history.
Ross: There may not be a comprehensive mural of United States history that honestly acknowledges our country’s most shameful moments, as well as its proudest. Today we can learn about Native Americans being slaughtered under the guise of Manifest Destiny, the institution of slavery, or the systemic discrimination and oppression of people of color in dramatic films or documentaries. But I don’t think we’ve ever seen much public art on those matters. That’s all too depressing and sad.
Portrait of Frida Khalo, 1930.
Susan: Calles kept power until 1934. It was the period called the Maximato. He kept power through surrogate presidents. Then in 1934, Lázaro Cárdenas took office, and the Mural Movement burst back into full swing. Because he was a Liberal.
Luis: He gave a real push for returning resources from international investors back to Mexico. He was actually from Jiquilpan, Michoacán, the town my wife is from.
Susan: He expropriated the oil companies.
Luis: Yeah, he took them back.
Scene from the 2002 film Frida.
Ross: We can’t end this episode without also talking about another important aspect of Diego Rivera. Namely, his very famous relationship with another famous Mexican artist, Frida Khalo.
[Scene from the film Frida: “It’s not like you to be late for lunch Diego…
- I was at the Ministry explaining why the history of Mexican people is an appropriate subject for the Mexican National Palace...
- When I work they scream about my politics, when I don't work they scream about my delays. It's a farce.
- "Hijo de $%/&" That model, ha?
- Yes. It was just a f$%/&, that's all. I've given more affection in a handshake.
- Well, that makes me feel so much better. Was she good at least?
- Not very.
- Too bad."]
Diego Rivera had many lovers.
Fanny: Diego Rivera was famous for that. He was very… "mujeriego".
Luis: He’s a player.
Ross: It turns out there are lots of stories out there that don’t paint Diego’s personal life in the best light.
Susan: We do have someone here in Utah, Tina Martin who grew up with Frida and Diego. Her father was Diego’s art dealer. So when she was 8 years old she spent a lot of time with Diego and Frida. And the stories she has about Diego’s behavior are pretty outrageous. He really was obnoxious. He really treated women badly. He treated a lot of people badly. He just loved to get attention and stir things up and cause trouble. I didn’t come away with… I left with no good feelings about how he treated people and his family and those close to him.
The Love Story: Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera
Fanny: It is true there were no muralist women during this time period.
Ross: Actually, since this recording, Fanny tells me there were a handful of women artists during the muralist period. She asked me to make note of this.
Fanny: But studying this time I discovered this woman named Fanny Rabel. She came to Mexico in 1938. She was from Poland and nationalized. She was a student of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. She developed her style of painting children especially. Homeless children. She was one of the few in the circle of artist and painters of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Diego and Frida
Susan: Mexican women were not taken seriously as female painters. It’s interesting that many who got fame were immigrants. Tina Modotti, an Italian immigrant from the U.S. And there were immigrants from England, Leonora Carrington, from Spain, Remedios Varo. But Frida, thinking of how talented she was and she didn’t get recognition at all. We asked Tina Martin why didn’t your dad promote Frida? And, she believed Frida didn’t consider herself much of an artist. When Diego was painting murals in Detroit, and Frida was painting her works there, which was very public. People saw her painting. The Detroit News titled an article: “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art".
Fanny: And now, Frida is an iconic figure in the world.
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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; Luis Lopez, Ciriac Alvarez; Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; Music credit: The music you heard in this episode comes from Paco De Lucia, Calexico, Antonio Pinto, Gustavo Santaolalla, Pedro Bromfman, Elias Torres and his Guitarra Romantica, and Jun Miyake.
Engage with Us:
What are your impressions of Diego Rivera’s murals? Are there specific works, or details of those works that stand out to you?
Also, have you seen Rivera’s History of Mexico Mural? If you were to paint a history of the United States in a single mural what important moments or key people would you include?