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New Book: Diego Rivera: Great Illustrator

June 18, 2008


I was on tour in 2000, my band had played a sloppy show the night before and our host (Erik Ruin) took us to The Detroit Institute of Arts (Det. art museum) before we got back on the road. Just past the front desk you walk into a giant atrium filled with Diego Rivera’s auto industry murals. I had poured over pictures of this mural numerous times, but it had not prepared me for the beauty and grandeur of seeing it in person. I don’t know how big the room is, maybe three stories tall, the architecture done in the fake greek style that was the preferred choice for many public buildings (see washington dc or most state capitols). And the mural covered the whole thing… the giant walls, the nooks and crannies…. a giant factory scene in all it’s terrible, awesome and fascinating complexity…. the workers in full communist-style action shots pulling levers and wrenches…. the gods of the earth elements up around the ceiling… little panels with industry scientists, women workers. Ore and metal itself. I just stood there and rotated in awe at this big powerful piece of art.

At some point Erik was like, “fuck this commie sell out shit, we should check out the fluxus exhibit”. But I hung on for awhile longer in the big room in front of this big mural.

There’s lots of problems with Rivera (as Erik was quick to point out)… his specific politics were for the most part pretty odious (lenin- trotsky- stalin- trotsky- then stalin again), he was a bad husband, he was a self-aggrandizer and a liar, and he did some lame moves in the US (ie the Detroit mural was commissioned by Edsel Ford and had some minor communist themes (dignity of labor) but otherwise glorified an industry that was viciously anti-union and chewed through people and lives…). But he was also a madman and a genius, his murals are pretty wild (especially in context of the times) taking ideas from cubism, indigenous mexican art, social realism and putting them all into a blender and making something totally vivid and new. And if you brush aside his flip-flop with internal communist party factions his politics were basically pretty decent. He was for life, humanity, workers and revolution.
I like Diego Rivera. He’s not in my top whatever list of favorite artists, but he’s up there, and I think seeing that mural in Detroit might be one of the most powerful pieces of art I’ve seen in person.

There’s a new book out covering a whole different spectrum of his work… “Diego Rivera: Great Illustrator” edited by Raquel Tibol. It’s collection of drawings, generally simple pen and ink work, recently put together for the first time. The book says there’s something like 3000 drawings he left behind, so this is just a sampling. This stuff is totally different then his murals, not worlds apart- you can see it’s from the same hand- but scrappier, sometimes more playful, sometimes more fucked up looking. I’ve found this book to be super inspiring. I like seeing sketches by artists who generally were pretty tight with their work, it’s a little peek into the process, and there’s some of that in here. There’s also plenty of stuff in here that lacks some the characteristic heft of Rivera’s mural figures, but still have the same sense of life and struggle. There’s work that seems more indebted to indigenous art, but there’s also stuff that looks like it could be in a modern hipster comic book (if the author was a marxist). The book looks good, printed full color on matte paper. Its lay-out is kinda confounding sometime, but for the most part the book lets the artwork speak for itself. It’s a big hard-cover thing and it’s not cheap! But it is worth a peek if you can find it. I saw it at a bookstore here and then had to go back two days later and look at it again. And then I had to scheme how I could get it.

Also for just general interest in Rivera’s life, there’s a critical but loving biography of him called “Dreaming With His Eyes Open” by Patrick Marnham from a few years ago that I’d recommend.

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3 comments on “New Book: Diego Rivera: Great Illustrator”

Thanks for sharing this icky!
I also have a similar political “flinch” as Erik, to Rivera’s work. Yet his capabiliies and creation as an artist is awesome and inspiring. I visited the National Palace, in Mexico City, and found his “History of Mexico”, and other murals, a beutiful narrative of pre-colonial times leading up to the revolution. They’re frescos, weighing tons, incorporating Rivera’s different styles. I go back to it every time I visit.
I also went to the Dolores Olmeda museum, her house turned into a museum. There were a set of 24 paintings Rivera made of sunsets from a vista in Acapulco. These are incredibly different from his mural work, drawings, and cubist paintings, that I find really beautiful.

for the record, i’ve always loved this mural. i grew up seeing it on a regular basis as a kid, and find little bits of it popping up in my own work here and there in unexpected ways- especially how rivera used the sections of masonry to divide the work into more narrative frieze-like panels.
while i am still very critical of rivera the man- kinda of an opportunist leftist, even going over to stalin a little late in the game for that kind of thing- these days that doesnt effect as much my opinion of rivera the artist, whose work shines with passion and invention.
on a side note, bec young and i, in our old troupe Rust & Riot, made a puppetshow once on Diego & Frida’s time in Detroit- there was an incredible controversy over that mural, with conservatives calling for it to be painted over immediately!

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