The Lasting Power of Diego Rivera’s Murals

Painted almost a hundred years ago, his murals still deliver powerful messages
Painted almost a hundred years ago, his murals still deliver powerful messages

From ancient scratches on the walls of prehistoric caves to street art on the walls of buildings today, one of the greatest legacies of public art is the mural paintings of Mexico’s Diego Rivera.

“Every piece makes a powerful political statement,” Magellan says when I ask him about Diego’s murals. “It’s not dainty art.” (He’s heard me rant about Vancouver’s meaningless street art, “Hello Kitty” soft or virtue-signalling patterns.)

In Mexico City, you can see Diego’s murals in five places. We decided on the National Palace (where History of Mexico is, considered one of his best works) and the Education Centre. However, a protest was underway, and the National Palace was closed. Not a bad thing, as seeing Diego’s mural cycle of 125 panels on three floors at the Education Centre occupied us all morning.

Diego believed that easel painting, the style for centuries, was elitist. So, after Mexico’s ten-year revolution (1910-1920) and the ousting of its feudal dictatorship, Diego and others signed the Manifesto of the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, contending that artists invest “their greatest efforts in the aim of materializing an art valuable to the people.” The new leaders of Mexico sponsored this movement, hoping it would help to unite post-war factions and shape a national identity that honoured the country’s indigenous roots, cultural heritage and common man. In a country where the illiteracy rate was 90%, the visual language of murals could be a powerful tool.

Originally, the Education Centre was a Franciscan convent built by the Spanish conquerors. It was renovated in 1921 to host the new Ministry of Public Education, which in addition to its educational responsibilities, sponsors cultural works and festivals. 

Diego painted the murals here between 1923-1928, after his return from living and studying in Europe. His goal was,

to reproduce the pure, basic images of my land. I wanted the paintings to reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it, and through my vision of the truth to show the masses the outline of the future.

The Mechanization of the Country, 1926
In the Arsenal shows Frida Kahlo handing out munition to revolutionary soldiers

Diego was a Marxist and high-ranking member of the Mexican Communist party. At the Education Centre, and elsewhere, his representation of labourers and ordinary people in a monumental style was a radical departure from the Spanish friars’ use of religious mural paintings to convert Indigenous people to Christianity.

Facing inward toward the courtyards, 17,000 square feet of painted walls line a continuous corridor on all three levels. Diego, who had studied the fresco painting of the early Italian renaissance, worked with Jean Charlot and Xavier Guerrero, painting on wet plaster.

On the first floor, Diego painted Cubist murals of Mexican festivals and labourers. On the second floor, scenes dealing with science and technology. And on the third floor (our favourite of his murals here), depictions of capitalist and clerical greed and the growing divide between rich and poor.

On each floor, Diego divided the murals thematically into the “Courtyard of Labor” and the “Courtyard of Fiestas”. The Courtyard of Labor represents traditional economic activities controlled by foreign interests prior to the revolution, like mining, steelworks, sugarcane harvesting, textiles, pottery-making and education. The Courtyard of Fiestas shows the Day of the Dead, market scenes, the corn harvest, the floating gardens and dances.

 “I loved the colours and how he portrayed the people as they went about their lives and as his political activism played out,” Karol says. “Such a rich history.”

Not having a guide, we simply enjoyed the art. Here are our favourite pieces.

Revolution

Courtyard of Festivals

Courtyard of Labor

On the third floor above every mural, Diego painted a matte red banner with the lyrics of revolutionary ballads, unusual at a time in a country that was mostly illiterate. It was his way of supporting and emphasizing state-sponsored literacy programs, of embracing change while honouring the oral history of the past, of bridging music with art.

If/when we’re back in Mexico City, I’d go to the Diego Rivera Mural Museum—which houses only this one painting, A Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park. Known for his breakneck speed, Diego took less than three months to paint this huge mural of hundreds of characters from 400 years of Mexican history strolling through Mexico City’s largest park. A cornucopia of Spanish conquerors, Indigenous families, police officers, Diego’s wife (the artist Frida Kahlo) and “La Catrina”, a sinister skeleton representing (and critiquing) upper-class Mexican women who indulged in European fashion.

Diego Rivera, A Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, 1947, 4.8m x 15m (Photo: https://wikioo.org/en)
“The central section begins with Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera greeting José Martí with his hat, important writers who distinguished themselves in the modernist movement. Next to them are Lucecita Díaz and Carmen Romero Rubio, daughter and wife of Porfirio Díaz. Among these characters appears Diego Rivera at the age of 9 and behind him, Frida Kahlo, who in a maternal gesture hugs the artist. La Calavera Catrina gives her hand to Diego as a child and her arm to José Guadalupe Posada, creator of the famous skull.” Secretary of Culture (Photo: Smarthistory.org)

Diego was imperfect. A Communist who converted, late in life, to Catholicism. A womanizer, who late in life, realized what a shitty husband he had been to Frida and his four other wives. Egocentric to the end. But he painted with purpose and wit for a more equitable world.

Navigation

Flattley, Megan. “Diego Rivera, first and second floor murals of the Secretaría de Educación Pública.” SmARThistory.

11 Responses

  1. Some of the nicest artwork I have ever viewed as the simplicity is magnificent. It is not for everyone, yet it is viewed easily by any eye, there is a certain peace that is displayed that does not upset the mind.
    The author has shown us what is important.
    Nice story and photos.
    👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍

  2. Terrifc article!
    The Wall Street Banquet mural parodies US industrialists John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and their wives. Perhaps unaware of that mural and hsi Communist sympathies, the Ford Foundation hired Rivera to do murals at the Detroit Institute of the Arts in 1933. The murals are a magnificent depiction of the Ford Rouge River production line. This article by the National Parks service has an excellent sample of the murals and the interesting history of Rivera and Frida Kahlo who has equally interesting art and life story.
    https://www.nps.gov/places/detroit-industry-murals-detroit-institute-of-arts.htm

  3. Love Mexico, so perhaps next year we will venture to Mexico City. learning a lot about it of late. Thanks, Heather
    \

  4. It seems Diego lived his life exactly as he pleased but in the end worried about where it was leading him. The art telling a story is beautiful and so different.

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