How Can One Follow in a Myth’s Footsteps?

Diego Rivera / ART & REVOLUTION

The glorification of Rivera ironically has lessened his impact on artists. After all, who’d want to be a mere reflection of the master?

May 24, 1999|YISHAI JUSIDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. Yishai Jusidman is a Mexican painter who also dabbles in criticism

Diego Rivera was, by all accounts, larger than life. He was a massive, extroverted man with a protruding belly, a fleshy mouth and goggle-eyes. Brilliantly gifted, he painted fast and big–and grew to be one of the best-known celebrities of his time. He was second after Matisse to have a one-person show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Rivera lived through a heroic epoch–the Mexican Revolution and both world wars–and even became a hero of sorts. He played Vulcan to Frida Kahlo’s Venus. In short, he is a legend, a national symbol, the stuff movies are made of.


Rivera was mas grande than the other grandes of Mexican muralism–Orozco and Siqueiros–but not necessarily thanks to his painting. (I personally prefer Orozco’s.) It’s as clear as this: When you look at a Rivera mural as a Mexican does, you don’t see the hand of the painter, but the hand of Destiny itself. Sounds overblown? So it is. But it’s also very real. Schoolchildren from all over Mexico are religiously shepherded to learn the country’s history from Rivera’s candy-colored, picturesque frescoes on the walls of the National Palace in the heart of Mexico City.

The master didn’t leave any disciples, though. No one could dare follow him, so far above mere mortals, even artists, he was made out to be. And so, four decades after his death, Rivera’s work has become a three-star sight along with the monumental pyramids and churches that fill the archeological mausoleum of Mexico’s past. But there was a price to be paid for Rivera’s glorification, and this was that younger Mexican artists would no longer pay heed to him. For how would we even consider competing against, let alone emulating, a figure of such mythic proportions? Art, after all, is something that takes place among mortals.

I would have held on to my indifference toward Diego Rivera if it hadn’t been for a visit to the recently restored 1929 Rivera-Kahlo studio in the chic San Angel barrio of Mexico City. The austere, Bauhaus-like studio designed by architect Juan O’Gorman is in itself a surprise: an unlikely international-flavored setup given its occupants’ nationalistic concerns. What’s more, there I came across an extraordinary woodcut that had been designed as an advertisement for an Andre Breton lecture in 1938. At that time, Mexico struck Breton as something of a Surrealist land; the French poet adopted Rivera as his local guide, and Rivera took every opportunity to return the honors.

The print in question is nothing one could have imagined as coming from the hand of the muralist master: a grotesque landscape-cum-face done in brutish graphic style, showing a “tree” made up by a brain from which arteries and veins sprout and take root in blood-filled glasses. While its title, “Communicating Vessels,” refers to one of Breton’s writings, I couldn’t help but think of this image as predating, or predicting, certain scatological drawings of bad-boy extraordinaire Mike Kelley–done 50 years later and now in the vaults of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Could there be a link, after all, between Don Diego and Young Mike? Well, that’s a tough one. Kind of like trying to link Egyptian and pre-Columbian pyramids. Hmmm. . . .

‘Greatest Pseudo-Sage and Storyteller’

But, come to think of it, Rivera was a pretty bad boy himself, although you cannot tell it from his better-known folksy murals and saccharine flower-seller paintings. Rivera wanted to portray himself as a renaissance genius, one whose painting would attest to his universal, all-encompassing intelligence. He had his nose (and his tongue) mixed up in everything, from art to politics to science. And, above it all, he was a consummate con man: astonishingly talented, innately seductive and astutely manipulative. Scholars and intellectuals from around the world gravitated toward Rivera when answers about Mexico were called for. By 1931, anthropologist Anita Brenner advised her famous colleague Franz Boaz to beware of the “tall tales told by the greatest pseudo-sage and storyteller of Mexico, Diego Rivera.”

Rivera’s self-mythologizing persona should not detract from his artistic achievements. On the contrary, such whims place him on the level of other genial con men-artists of the century. For instance, he shared several traits with his contemporary Pablo Picasso: They both suffered enough egomaniacal self-assuredness to ride the crest of the wave of history, which in turn allowed them to enjoy the favors of the ladies in spite of their uncomely physiques (it’s a close call as to which of them had more wives and concubines). And on top of it all, they shared a particular style for painting Cubist trees.

Well, yes, the “Cubist-trees incident” was one of those eccentric true stories that bestowed credibility on Rivera’s other fabrications. It was in those jolly, aesthetically incestuous days of 1915 when artists from all over flocked to Montparnasse looking to be modern. Cubism was all the rage, and Picasso was the untouchable boss. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe fried in World War I. Young Diego had joined the Cubist gang only two years earlier and soon enough became a favorite of Pablo himself. One day, Diego was painting his best Cubist work, “Zapatista Landscape,” and devised a playful way of representing trees on the Cubist plane by scumbling green and white paint over black, much as Bob Ross does today on TV.

Pablo wanted to give this happy little technique a try but forgot to tell Diego. So Diego got really mad when he found out that Pablo was pirating the patent in his “Man With Shrubbery.” Pablo quickly hid the evidence under a fresh layer of paint, but it was too late: A photograph of the painting had been taken earlier. Diego made a big fuss and was never, ever friends with Pablo again. But, wait a minute! Next-door neighbor Piet Mondrian never complained about Diego’s previous pillaging of his way of doing Cubist trees in 1913. After all, Piet was too cool.

There is also an unlikely kinship between Rivera and another great con man-artist: Andy Warhol. One was a Populist, the other one was Pop. Perhaps Rivera’s paintings of adorable Indians and Mexican heroes are as far away as can be on the aesthetic spectrum from Warhol’s silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, yet they were all meant to overturn the art world’s elitist pedantry, to trigger readily available readings and to please as many people as possible. Furthermore, both artists shared the ambivalent fascination with the famous and wealthy and the ability to become one of theirs by making a lucrative, if rather banal, industry out of doing their portraits.

Rivera was above all a multifarious artist. He changed styles to fit his personal machinations and toyed with very many: Symbolism, Cubism, Neo-classicism, Mexicanism, Surrealism. . . . But though he always had an eye on the doings of the avant-garde, he never touched abstractionism. He remained a figurative artist throughout–as did Picasso and Warhol. All three turned to the painted figure as their medium for engaging in a self-affirming, perhaps even self-glorifying, relationship with the world–with what is given, and given in order to be tested, shaped, distorted, played around with.

Living One’s Life as a Work of Art

And make no mistake: Rivera’s cutesification of most everything he painted is as much a calculated distortion as Picasso’s Cubification. Simply put, they needed the figure in their art the way they needed people around them in their lives (none of them was exactly a recluse), as beings to make use of, upon which power is exercised in the guise of seducing, gratifying, patronizing, even annoying and enraging. It was through their mastery of this ever-so-artful multiple dealing–and our complicity in their game–that Pablo, Andy and Diego became victors of both life and art.

Hence it needn’t come as a surprise that, when asked late in his life why he didn’t tire of making up stories, Rivera replied that it was because, in his youth, poet Ramon del Valle Inclan had told him one should live as if one’s life were a work of art. Makes no difference whether we believe Diego on this one, for in the end–and much as Picasso and Warhol did with their lives–Diego Rivera made a masterpiece out of his own.


Yishai Jusidman is a Mexican painter who also dabbles in criticism. “PICTORIAL INveSTIGATIONS,” a survey of his work, was shown at L.A.’s Otis Gallery in 1997. His most recent series, “en/treat/ment,” is on view at the Ramis Barquet Gallery in New York. He is Mexico correspondent for Artforum International and a regular columnist for Reforma, a Mexico City daily.