Dreaming of Peace: Diego Rivera


Tomorrow is the little-known holiday National Dance Day, which coincides with this week's observance of National Dance Week. Today then is a good day to feature Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and his "Baile en Tehauntepec." The Mexican artist, who was born Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez, was requested by reader AMT.

1. In America, Diego Rivera is known for his 1933 mural for Rockefeller Center, "Man at the Crossroads." Rivera was friendly with the Rockefeller family, which led to his commission, but he upset them (and much of the press and public) by his inclusion of Vladimir Lenin in the painting. He was ordered to stop painting and the mural was hidden from the public; it was chipped off the wall on February 9, 1934. Later, Rivera created a variation of the mural in Mexico City's Palace of Fine Arts with the new title, "Man, Controller of the Universe." He reportedly included a portrait of John D. Rockefeller at a nightclub, with "syphilis bacteria floating above his head."

2. As a child, Rivera was nicknamed "the engineer" for his fascination with trains and other machines. This interest is reflected in some of his works, most notably his Detroit Industry frescoes in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Commissioned by the Fords, the paintings depict U.S. industrial life, with a focus on Detroit's car plant workers. Although Rivera considered it the most successful work of his career, the local newspaper did not react very favorably: they described the works as "coarse in conception"¦ foolishly vulgar"¦ a slander to Detroit workmen"¦" and even "un-American." Henry Ford's son Edsel replied to the controversy with the simple statement, "I admire Rivera's spirit. I really believe he was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit.

3. One of Rivera's last works, the 1952 painting "Nightmare of War, Dream of Peace," disappeared more than 50 years ago, an incredible feat since the mural is 40 feet long by 10 feet high. The Mexican government had asked Rivera to produce a work to represent Mexico at a global exhibition, a request Rivera accepted, saying he would paint a mural "dedicated to peace." His final product depicts "a benevolent Mao and Stalin" attempting to reach a peace agreement with "a sour-looking Uncle Sam" flanked by representatives from England and France. The government refused to exhibit the work due to its anti-American theme. The work is rumored to have been given to Mao by Rivera in the 1950s and then to have been destroyed by Mao, though other rumors place it in Moscow or Poland.

4. Rivera was a bit of a ladies' man. He married four times, to three different women. (He married Frida Kahlo twice.) One of his long-term lovers is sometimes also referred to as his common-law wife. With his wives and lovers, he fathered several children, and supposedly abandoned all of them. His marriage to Frida Kahlo, about 20 years his junior, gained him the most notoriety, though. Rivera is often said to have been abusive to Frida; he himself stated, "If I ever loved a woman, the more I loved her, the more I wanted to hurt her. Frida was only the most obvious victim of this disgusting trait." Yet one of Rivera's children, Guadalupe, refutes the claims her father was abusive, stating, "It has been said that my father made Frida suffer and I can tell you"¦ Frida made my father suffer."

A larger version of "Baile en Tehauntepec" is available here. Fans should check out Rivera's autobiography; the Diego River virtual museum; the collection of his work on Art in the Picture; the Diego Rivera Mural Project; the Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera exhibition at NGA; Kahlo's portrait of Rivera and his cover on TIME magazine; this photo of Rivera and Amelia Earhart; Rupert Garcia on Rivera and Kahlo (video); image galleries from The New York Times and NPR; and, for teachers, a Rivera curriculum guide and Web activity. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.