Diego Rivera: Art without politics does not make sense
In many countries, Diego Rivera is known as the husband of the famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The couple was described as “The Elephant and the Dove”. However, the truth is she was living in his shadow, a famous muralist whose works can be admire both at the National Palace in Mexico City and at the Art Museum in Detroit. Elena Poniatowska, a Mexican journalist of Polish descent, went to see him accompanied by her mother, as Rivera is known as a womanizer. She admitted he had so much charm that the journalists kept clinging to him like bees to honey. At the same time, he was an impulsive man. “My grandfather hated criticism and that’s why he broke friendship with Pablo Picasso,” recalls Juan Pablo Gómez Morín Rivera, his grandson.
Honorata Zapaśnik: When you were a child, did you realize that Diego Rivera is a well-known muralist?
Juan Pablo Gómez Morín Rivera: I did not know he was that famous. It was only when I grew up that I got to know my grandfather’s achievements better. Today he is one of the most popular Mexicans. Many people come to Mexico to learn about his work. And he was the husband of Frida Kahlo…
Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter, was the third wife of your grandfather. Do you remember her?
Not so well. I saw her a few times in the Blue House in Coyoacán, where they lived together, but she was already ill, and she was moving in a wheelchair. I was there when she died, my grandfather was very depressed then. Later the coffin with her body was taken to the Palace of Fine Arts in order to pay tribute to her.
It was difficult for my grandad to make peace with Frida’s passing. He lived there for some time, then moved to San Ángel and donated the old house to the city so that the museum could be founded there – the Frida Kahlo Museum.
Their second home – studio museum of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo was shown in the film Frida with Salma Hayek playing the title role.
Yes, that’s true. He lived in a red house and me and my mother in blue one. Both houses are connected by a bridge. Earlier our house belonged to Frida, but my mother bought it from her in the 1950s. Diego spent there last 18 months of his life. I did not see him every day because he was very busy.
What was he doing?
He was spending time in his studio. He did not watch TV, he did not listen to the radio, he was always painting: 10-13 hours a day and he rarely rested. Once we went with our grandad to Acapulco. As always, he had a notebook in which he drew a beach, a sea, fishermen and a sunset. That is how he created few watercolours. He was working even when he was seriously ill. He stopped painting only a few days before his death. It was not long after he visited Poland.
In 1957, when he knew he had a cancer, he flew to the Soviet Union with his last wife and his agent Emma Hurtado. He was also invited to Czechoslovakia and Poland. He took his mural “The Glorious Victory” to Warsaw.
This mural shows a massacre of Guatemalans during the civil war. In my grandad’s opinion, it was Dwight Eisenhower, the President of the United States, who was the winner of this war. His face is painted on the bomb. Diego wanted to say that Eisenhower was a tyrant, because he attacked Latin America. I will just remind you that Eisenhower supported the organization of a coup in Guatemala, which was supposed to overthrow the President elected in democratic elections and he helped to take power by people who favoured America and its economic interests. This mural returned to Russia and then it was lost. It was found in 2007 at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
Your grandfather was against US politics, but at the same time he took jobs from Americans.
Yes, he was painting murals in the United States. Have you seen a mural in the Detroit Museum of Art? It is a series of 27 panels, which he painted in the early 1930s, on order by Henry Ford’s son. They show Detroit’s industry. I had the opportunity to see them about 17 years ago.
I’ve read this exhibition showing workmen at work created much controversy in the US. However, the bigger scandal was related to the mural painted at the Rockefeller Centre in New York. One of the portraits showed an image of Lenin and Rockefeller ordered to destroy it.
During my grandfather’s life there were two empires – the United States and the Soviet Union. Diego was born in 1886, and died in 1957, in the glory days of the socialist countries. He supported the idea of socialism. A few months earlier Russia had sent Sputnik, the first artificial satellite of the Earth, into space. My grandfather was very proud of it and thanks to him whole family knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain.
And why was your grandfather so much into politics?
He was often saying that “art without politics does not make sense”. It is important to understand that Diego began to make art in times when Mexico was under a totalitarian regime. Porfirio Díaz was a President and a dictator for 30 years. Life was peaceful, but many people were poor and wanted a change for the better. That is why the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910. My grandfather’s skills were noticed and two years before the revolution he got a scholarship to study painting in Europe. He spent there couple of years. He was in Spain and France. In Paris, he got to know the ideas of the socialist movement. At that time Lenin lived there too, and Diego had the opportunity to meet him during one of the meetings. Later, he became very interested in the October Revolution in Russia.
During that time many great painters were making art in Paris…
Yes, they were, my grandfather was a great admirer of a Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne, later he met Picasso and discovered cubism. Amedeo Modigliani and Joaquín Sorolla were also his friends. They all had an influence on his work.
Unfortunately, he argued with Picasso. At one of the exhibitions, Pablo criticized the work of my grandfather. In Diego’s opinion Picasso was simply jealous. He did not like the fact that Diego painted a cubist painting taking under consideration some Latin influence. Pablo told him that it was too colourful. My grandfather defended himself: “I paint the way I like it”. He was not tolerant if someone did not think like him and criticized him.
You know, my middle name is Pablo. My mother said that when I was born, she chose a name for me after my grandfather. Besides, she liked that name. One day Diego asked: “Why did you name him Pablo? To make me angry?”
That was pretty charming…
My mother was a very strong person since she was a child and she was always rebelling against Diego because he was trying to influence her. Anyway, he was a strong persona too.
Who discovered the talent of your grandfather?
His dad. He was the first to give him some paper and pencils. When Diego was eight years old, he drew a portrait of his mother. It has been kept in the family and it is of really good quality.
Once we went with Diego to Guanajuato, where he was born. We visited his old house, empty and abandoned. It was only later that the government bought it and turned into a museum. My grandfather told us that he lived there with his parents, his twin brother died, and when his mother fell ill, he was fed by an Indian wet nurse.
Guanajuato is a beautiful colonial city. What did Diego’s family decided to move?
My great-grandfather was a liberal and a mason, he disagreed with the ideas of the Catholic church and taught my grandfather to be critical of the clergy. That is why he had many problems and was forced to move from Guanajuato. At the age of ten Diego got into the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City where he started to learn painting.
When did Diego Rivera become famous?
When he was still living in Europe he sent his paintings to Mexico and organized his exhibition there. Then he returned to his homeland as a painter already known in Europe. José Vasconcelos, the Minister of Education, said that the murals would help in educating the Mexican society. Back then, many people could not read or write so they could learn something about the history and culture of Mexico by looking at the paintings. Diego and other artists began working on murals in government buildings. Then my grandfather became even more popular.
He often painted his family.
There is one mural, “The Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park”. It is located in a museum in the Old Town. In the centre of it you can see Frida, and there are two women in the right corner. One of them is holding a child in his hands. It’s me and my mom.
Have you seen your grandfather working?
My grandfather was nervous when me and my cousins were peeping into his studio because he preferred painting alone. He was keeping there some unfinished paintings and figurines of stone and ceramics he had bought. I remember that his favourite figure was an Aztec warrior. He put a small shotgun in its hands. I was not allowed to touch it.
One can see a lot of figures from the Pre-Columbian era in the Blue House where they lived with Frida.
Yes, after the Mexican Revolution, the government began to be interested in archaeological finds. There are millions of them in Mexico. Moreover, the Mexicans suddenly realized that we are a part of a very old culture. My grandfather wanted to save and protect the memory of the past days, so he started collecting old things.
At the time Diego was my grandma’s husband. Her name was Lupe Marín. She once told me: “We did not have any money. Diego earned little as a painter, he did not spend it on women and wine, but on his archaeological collection.” One day he returned home and said, “I want to eat.” My grandmother put a pot on the table in front of him with a broken statue inside. “That’s all we had to eat” she said.
How did they meet?
My grandfather asked my grandmother to become his model because she was a very attractive woman – tall, fair skin, green eyes. They got married and they lived together for some time. It was thanks to her that he discovered the Mexican village and its inhabitants. There was a huge difference between living in the city and in the village. Besides, it was not the same country as before the revolution. Diego was completely fascinated by what he saw in the Mexican countryside. He started painting simple inhabitants of Mexico and commemorating the history of the country in his frescoes.
When my grandfather went on one of his trips to the Soviet Union, grandma did not want to accompany him and so their separation began. However, when they weren’t together, they were still in good relationships. When Diego married Frida, they lived above my grandmother’s house, who also got married again. Frida was a good friend of my grandma and she loved their daughters very much. My mother lived with Frida for some time. She remembers her very well, she liked to play with her.
And did your grandfather liked to play with you and your cousins?
No, not really. There was an artistic soul in him and he did not show much affection for us. Adults, however, loved to talk to him. My grandfather was an extrovert, he talked a lot and he talked vividly. At the same time, he was critical when it came to the social and political situation in the country.
How did he imagine the future of Mexico?
He wanted the country to be more developed and he considered education as really important. He always claimed that Mexicans should be more aware and educated.
Was Diego Rivera proud of being a Mexican?
Very proud. He talked about it and lived like a Mexican, although his family came from Europe. He was white, in fact he did not have Indian blood, because my daddy’s great-grandfather escaped from Spain in the early 1800s.
Diego did not hide his love for Mexico, he celebrated his 70th birthday at the Anahuacalli Museum, where he gathered his entire archaeological collection of 50,000 Pre-Columbian items. On that day he organized a popular Mexican party there with pulque and mariachi. The greatest Mexican artists played with him. He loved such simple events.
Sometimes during the weekends, we went with him to the State of Morelos. He had a typical Mexican house with a pool in a small town there. As befits a true Mexican, he was eating pieces of chili with onions. It was so spicy! I remember that he was really glad when I was wearing denim clothes, although only workmen dressed like that at that time. He was usually painting wearing a jacket but sometimes he was wearing jeans. That’s why I can say that he was a visionary.
Juan Pablo Gómez Morín Rivera – a chemical engineer and a grandson of Diego Rivera, who was a Mexican painter, muralist and a husband of Frida Kahlo. In 2004, together with his brother and mother, Guadalupe Rivera, Juan Pablo started to run the Diego Rivera Foundation, which aims to support the projects of young muralists.
Photo: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera along with Malu Block (on the left). (Photo: Carl Van Vechten, 1932/Wikimedia.org / Public domain).