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Learning Mexican history through Rivera's murals

Un altro saggio (ancora in inglese), questa volta su Diego Rivera, per il corso di Latin America Culture su

Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886 – November 24, 1957) was a very important Mexican painter, who helped establish the Mexican Mural Movement thanks to his large wall works in fresco: a member of the Communist party himself, he created popular political masterpieces throughout Mexico that often included attacks on the ruling class, the church and capitalism.

After spending some time in Europe, where he learnt the ropes and then developed his fresco tecnique, Rivera travelled back to Mexico with the dream to be "the artist of the Americas". At the same time, at the beginning of the 20s, the then Mexican Secretary of Public Education José Vasconcelos was developing a program of public education through art, and decided to commission the creation of murals on several government buildings, making art itself accessible to the everyday man, no more enclosed in museums and private exhibitions.

The time was perfect, the canvas was there, and Rivera started his work: first he painted the mural "Creation" on an indoor wall at the National Preparatory School, a work that did not satisfy him very much despite of the great excitement it caused; then, on the two floors of the courtyard walls of the Ministry of Public Education, a large building occupying two whole city blocks, he began a series of 124 frescoes, going on painting for over four years, and telling two different yet connected aspects of the Mexican life: in the Court of Labor, industrial and agricultural labors of the Mexican people as well as their art, sculpture, dance, music, poetry, and drama; and in the Court of Fiesta, popular festivals, traditional stories and legends, and folk ballads.

Since the beginning that work of art was considered a masterpiece, and got him the attention of international critics and public, to the point that he was soon invited to work on commission in the USA, a country where his murals had a strong influence on social and political developments, like Roosevelt’s New Deal work programs - it has been said that Roosevelt was literally drawn to Rivera’s murals, such as “Detroit Industry”, which featured images from American life on the walls of public buildings.

Rivera’s works focused on telling stories that dealt with Mexican society and referenced the revolution of 1910; he and the other two most famous Muralists (David Siqueiros and Jose Orozco) wanted the victory of that revolution to be told to the entire public,and the space Vasconcelos had granted them was almost perfect. Through bright, bold colors and a strong imagery, larger-than-life figures were born to tell the stories of the powerful Aztec past, the simplicity of a life in perfect harmony with Nature, the dark and cruel times of the european colonization and Inquisition, the glorious revolutionary present. A beautiful example is his "The Epic of the Mexican People" in which, on the stairwell of the National Palace in Mexico City, Rivera depicts 400 hundred years of history, from pre-Hispanic Mexico centered around the life of the god Quetzalcòatl, through the bloody period of the Conquest and the battles for independence, ’till the early and mid-20th century, where he criticizes the status quo and depicts a Communist kind of utopia where Karl Marx and John D. Rockefeller are seen together, almost as allies.

It was the first time that history was told this way, and the past was interpreted in light of modern politics; and, for the first time, common Mexicans were told their history, an history of which they should have been proud according to the intentions of the artists, an history of which they were finally an aknowledged part: the main characters were farmers and laborers, who found themselves at ease surrounded by popular Mexican figures, like in one of his most famous works, "Dreams of a Sunday in the Alameda"; another feature of the communist, popular approach of Rivera, who wanted to tell stories, using any useful character to reach that goal.

Sure enough, not everything went well, for Diego Rivera and his art: because of his ideas, and the way he depicted them, he suffered severe censorship, mostly in the USA - where his mural in the Radio corporation Arts Building in Rockefeller Center was first covered and then, some months later, "smashed to powder" - but not just there: the already quoted "Dreams of a Sunday in the Alameda" was initially showing the writing "God does not exist", on a sign in the hands of the libertarian Ignacio Ramìrez; for that reason it was kept hidden for 9 years, until Rivera agreed to remove the inscription, stating that "to affirm ’God does not exist’, I do not have to hide behind Don Ignacio Ramírez".

But most of his magnificent paintings are still where he painted them, on display, in public buildings, still telling to Mexicans and tourists the history of a big, strong, long-lasting important people, and the way it has been dealing with the place it was given on Earth.



- MoMA Talks: From Mexico to Manhattan: The Revolutionary Life and Times of Diego Rivera (

- Diego Rivera (

- Diego Rivera’s Murals (

- Diego Rivera: A Man and His Murals, by Susan Norwood (

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