European Artist at the Dawn of the Mexican Revolution : Notes on Diego Rivera
Dec. 8 is the birthday of an artist whose studies of Italian, French and Spanish paintings evolved into a mural style that is seen as distinctly Mexican.
What do we see in the 1913 painting? We have Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard (1891–1964) depicted as the epitome of a Parisian dandy. He radiates elegance. It even appears that the iconic ferris wheel of the Belle Époque — Grande Roue de Paris — spins on the tip of his gloved hand.
Under Maugard’s feet we see a passing locomotive.
Who painted this celebration of Paris and urbanism and progress in 1913? Diego Rivera.
Yes, that Diego Rivera (1886–1957), the most famous of Mexico’s three major muralists.
Around this time, the other two giants of 20th century Mexican murals were immersed in the dawn of their nation’s revolution. David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974) had left art school to fight in the army of Venustiano Carranza during the Mexican Revolution.
By 1914, the third of Mexico’s three major muralists, José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949), was supporting Carranza by working as a satiric artist for a revolutionary newspaper. Carranza faced oppositions from rebels led by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. But Carranza secured his position as provisional president with the help of Gen. Álvaro Obregón, who defeated the forces of Villa in 1915 — but not before losing his right arm in a battle with Villa’s forces.
And where was Rivera during these tumultuous years for Mexico? In France and Spain.
While Villa, Zapata, Carranza and Obregón fought over the future of Mexico, Rivera was immersed in a contest for his heart, fought by two Russian painters, Angelina Beloff and Marevna Vorobev.
Rivera during the 1910s soaked in European traditions and experimented with the latest techniques. He showed the same reverence for modern Paris as did his friends like French artist Robert Delaunay (1885–1941).
Rivera sampled and then plunged into the Cubist style made more famous by painters like Picasso.
Rivera painted many fine works in the Cubist style. But my favorites are the portrait of Best Maugard and the painting seen below, “Paisaje Zapatista.”
In “Paisaje zapatista,” we see Rivera in 1915 using what he learned abroad to tell a story of Mexico. We see that country’s mountains. We get bits of the marvelous colors and textures of Mexican serape weaving. We see Rivera’s interest in Emiliano Zapata’s quest for a more just Mexico.
By the time Rivera painted “Paisaje zapatista,” his friend Best Maugard likely had returned to their home country, where he would over time become a champion for mexicanidad . This term refers to a reverence for the cultures of Mexico that predated the arrival of Europeans in the New World and that have continued to thrive.
Around 1920, the Mexican government gave Rivera a grant that allowed him to study fresco painting in Italy. By 1922, Rivera was back in Mexico and on the path to becoming the muralist whose work many of us know and love.
Click here for a bibliography of sources I’ve used in writing on artists of the Americas. There is an entry for Rivera. For more on Rivera’s friend, here’s an essay, Painter Who Traveled in Good Company : Thoughts on Robert Delaunay