With his grandiose and politically charged murals, Diego Rivera became one of the most important Latin American artists of the 20th century. His work has been hugely influential to contemporary Mexican culture, and even to this day, his art continues to be impactful. Just last month, he dethroned Frida Kahlo as the best-selling Latin American artist with the $15.7 million sale of his “Dance in Tehuantepec” – a 1928 painting that depicts a group of dancers performing zandunga. However, for Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe Rivera y Marín, the painter’s sympathy toward Marxism became a source of frustration for her in her youth.
“This was hard for me when I was a child, because people saw me as the daughter of a Communist,” Rivera y Marín revealed during a recent talk. “Now, my father is the most prominent figure in Mexican art and is seen as an example of a respected and admired Mexican around the world.” Titled “The Mexico of My Father Diego Rivera,” Guadalupe participated in a chat that the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley and San Francisco’s Mexican Museum organized. She spoke about her father’s progression as an artist, his relationship with other painters, and one of his biggest disappointments.
Here are six of the most interesting things we learned from Rivera y Marín’s talk:
On his lack of knowledge of Mexico
Diego Rivera didn’t truly start learning about his country until he was 35. He had returned to Mexico after living in Europe for eight years. “He came back [to Mexico] in 1921. He was invited to collaborate with the artistic revolution that the Secretary of Education, José Vasconcelos, planned to start,” Guadalupe said.
Vasconcelos wanted to capture a new Mexican culture, but Diego’s work didn’t speak to their country. His first mural, “La Creación,” wasn’t what Vasconcelos wanted; it looked too European. So Vasconcelos bought him train tickets so that he could travel around Mexico.
On his Chapel of the Universidad Autónoma Chapingo masterpiece:
Many of Rivera’s works, like the mural at the Chapel of the Universidad Autónoma Chapingo, reflected his political ideologies. “According to art critics, this was Diego Rivera’s masterpiece,” Rivera y Marín said. “To the left, there is the land and the unfortunate living conditions of farmers, and to the right, the way the land was distributed.”
On the mural Rockefeller destroyed:
In the 1930s, Rivera painted the Detroit Industry murals, which led to him being commissioned to paint a mural at the Rockefeller Center. Titled “Man at the Crossroads,” Rivera included portraits of communist icons, such as Vladimir Lenin, which fostered criticism from U.S. citizens. When he refused to switch in a more suitable American figure, John D. Rockefeller destroyed the mural. “That was a great emotional shock for my father. It depressed him,” Guadalupe said. This depression led Diego Rivera to the idlest era of his artistic career.
The “Pan American Unity” came as part of the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, and it portrays a blend of religion, art, and politics across the Americas. “My father found the way in which the United States and Mexico belong to America, and that there is a reason to fight for America, the continent,” Guadalupe said. “It was a reconciliation of my father with the United States.”
When he went to Europe, his friendship with Pablo Picasso inspired him to try Cubism. “The Cubism created by Picasso was a dark Cubism, without political meaning, and what did Diego Rivera do? He used Cubism to confirm his political ideologies,” she said. “In 1915, he was already convinced that Zapata was a national hero and was sure of the success of the Revolution, so this painting was done in tribute to Zapata. It has bright Mexican colors. Picasso was very upset and stopped being my father’s friend. He also asked him to leave the Cubist group because he had broken the Cubist tradition.”
On his Relationship With Leon Trotsky
“Trotsky and Diego’s relationship had some highs and lows. Why? Because Trotsky fell in love with Frida, and Frida fell in love with Trotsky,” said Guadalupe.“When my father found out, he terminated the friendship. It was tough, because when Trotsky moved to another house … he was killed.”