Diego Rivera
by Pete Hamill

He had done something that few artists have ever done: he’d given a nation an identity. Rivera put his stamp on Mexico the way Bernini placed his on Rome. It is impossible to think of Mexico today without also seeing the images of Diego Rivera.

In his best mural paintings, he merged past, present, and future into dense, crowded visions of an essential Mexico. He drew on Mexican history, folk art, the discoveries of archaeology and other sciences. He mixed them in his own powerful imagination, refined by long years of apprenticeship in Europe, and made something that
was not there before: a unifying, celebratory image of Mexico. In his art, he unified a people long fractured by history, language, racism, religious and political schism. He said in his art: you are all Mexico.

This might now seem to be a platitude: it was not a platitude when Rivera was painting his first great public works in the 1920s. His ideas and desires were made powerful by his art, and I've come to think that Rivera was one of the great artists of the century. He brought to his walls immense gifts as a draftsman and colorist; he added a genius for spatial organization, which in his finest works led to paintings in which every part is welded to the whole. He also suffused those works with a passion for the intimate. His beloved peasants, for example, are almost always both specific and universal. So are his conquistadores and his urban workers, his corrupt politicians and his heroic revolutionaries. He looked at individuals and made archetypes.

We stand back and see the vast mosaic. We come close and see an Indian woman wearing high heels to a fiesta. Those shoes are symbols of what the city is doing to the new arrivals from the Mexican countryside. We also know her feet hurt. In his public works, Diego’s great contemporary, José Clemente Orozco, aspires to the universal and loses Mexico. His other artistic rival, David Alfaro Siqueiros, lusts for a Marxist universalism, but there is no room in his vision for women whose feet hurt. The daughter of an industrialist and the son of a farmer could look at the work of Diego Rivera and recognize Mexico. He is like some great writers, from Charles Dickens to William Faulkner to Gabriel García Márquez: the insistence on the value of the local leads to the universal.

The mural paintings are only part of his enormous production. He was a superb portrait painter, using design and detail to reveal human character. His own self-portraits are themselves an extended examination of his own mortality, among the most ruthless in the history of art. He was a very good Cubist painter of the second generation. He was a great painter of machinery, finding beauty in the immense twentieth-century objects that caused revulsion among so many others. As a painter, he reacted to his own times, and also created a vision of the future.
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