Diego Rivera: An expert guide to the artist, revolutionary and storyteller

Alastair Smart and Virgilio Garza, Head of Latin American Art at Christie’s, look at the life and art of the giant of modernism, and arguably the greatest painter in Mexico’s history

Diego Rivera with his mural El agua, el origen de la vida, Water, source of life, in Mexico City, 1951

Diego Rivera with his mural El agua, el origen de la vida, (Water, source of life), Mexico City, 1951. Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Gisèle Freund, reproduction de Georges Meguerditchian. Artwork: © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2018

Born in the central Mexican city of Guanajuato in 1886, Diego Rivera went on to become one of the great Modernists of 20th-century art, as well as, arguably, the most important painter in his nation’s history.

Best-known for his murals on public buildings in Mexico and the United States, Rivera also made a number of easel paintings, watercolours and drawings. ‘Above all, he was a magnificent storyteller,’ says Virgilio Garza, Head of Latin American Art at Christie’s. ‘Rivera could tell tales on both an epic scale and a small, intimate one’.

In May 2018, his painting The Rivals  realised $9,762,500 in The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller sale, setting a world-record price at auction for not just Rivera but any Latin American artist.

Diego Rivera (1886-1957), The Rivals, painted in 1931. 60 x 50 in (152.4 x 127 cm). Sold for $9,762,500 on 9 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2018

Rivera’s early career and Cubism

A child prodigy, he started drawing at three. By the age of 10, Rivera was enrolled full-time at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, in Mexico City. In 1907, he moved to Europe, settling first in Spain and then Paris. His work from this period reveals the influence of a wealth of European masters: from El Greco to Cézanne.

A friend and rival of Picasso’s, Rivera made his name as part of the Cubist movement. One of his main works in this style was 1915’s Zapatista Landscape, which today forms part of the collection of the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City.

When did Rivera start painting murals?

Rivera returned to his homeland in the early 1920s, shortly after the Mexican Revolution concluded. The artist was one of the revolution’s greatest champions, helping to spread the message of a new Mexico by painting vast, state-sponsored murals — on buildings such as the National Palace and the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City. Here he connected the country’s revolutionary present to a heroic, ancient past.

‘Gone was the doubt which had tormented me in Europe,’ said Rivera, later in life. ‘I now painted as naturally as I breathed, spoke, or perspired’.

For Rivera, children were political — ‘They represented the hope of a new generation in a new Mexico’

Once back in Mexico, says his biographer Patrick Marnham in Dreaming with His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera (1988), ‘he now believed that an artist must be engagé  and must not withdraw from society. Rivera challenged the stereotype of the artist as inarticulate genius.’

By the 1930s, he was being commissioned for murals in the United States too — in Detroit, San Francisco and New York — and had become a bona fide  star of the art world. Rivera became only the second artist, after Henri Matisse, to be granted a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

Among his American patrons was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, for whom he produced the aforementioned canvas, The Rivals, depicting a traditional festival in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The importance of pre-Columbian culture to Rivera

Rivera was an avid collector of pre-Columbian art, amassing 50,000 pieces over the course of his life, a large proportion of which are housed today at the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City.

These had a major influence on his art, the figures in which hark back to the heavily stylised, volumetric figures of Mesoamerican stone carvings. A fine example is 1926’s Madre con Hijos, where a mother and two children of steadfast gaze have a body-shape that might best be described as monumental.

Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Communards (Comuna de Paris), executed in 1928. 19⅜ x 15½ in (49.2 x 39.4 cm). Sold for $492,500 on 20-21 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Common themes in Rivera’s work

Children are among the most common: both in scenes of everyday life and in portraits. Examples include Niña con rebozo, Portrait of Inesita Martínez, and Niña con muñeca de trapo. ‘It was normal for Rivera to paint these tender images of indigenous children that resonated with an American audience,’ Garza says. ‘Many who visited Mexico would bring back home pictures that captured a slice of Mexican culture.’

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Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Niña con muñeca de trapo, painted in 1939. 32⅛ x 24¾ in (81.6 x 62.9 cm).

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Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Niña con alcatraces (also known as Alcatraces), executed circa 1936. 15⅛ x 11 in (38.4 x 27.9 cm). Sold for $100,000 on 20-21 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

For Rivera, children — were political. ‘They represented the hope of a new generation in a new Mexico,’ says Garza, ‘the promise of a bright future, marked by equality and social justice. His boys and girls are always captured positively and with dignity.’

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Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Niño con alcatraces, executed in 1950. 15⅛ x 11 in (38.4 x 27.9 cm). Sold for $118,750 on 20-21 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

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Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Niña con flores amarillas, executed in 1950. 15 ¼ x 11 in (38.7 x 27.9 cm). Sold for $106,250 on 20-21 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

In Portrait of Inesita Martinez, one is struck by the subject’s inquisitive eyes; while the girl in Niña con muñeca de trapo sits on a humble chair, holding a shawl-wrapped doll with all the affection that a mother might embrace her baby.

Workers and labourers feature in a large number of Rivera’s works too, as symbols of the noble toil of ordinary Mexicans who’d formed the backbone of their nation for centuries.

In his murals, whole fields or factories of people might be seen working en masse, while in easel paintings — such as Lavanderas con zopilotes, of two women bending their backs to wash clothes in a river — acts of labour tend to be isolated.

The critical reception for Rivera

Rivera died in 1957, aged 70. For most of his life, he was hailed as a master. A biography, written soon after his death by Bertram D. Wolfe, was titled, entirely earnestly, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera.

Over time, however, his reputation diminished. His brand of social realism fell out of fashion, as movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Pop art came to the fore. The artist came to be seen as something of a propagandist for Communism during the Cold War years.

Towards the end of the 20th century, his popularity was surpassed by that of his wife Frida Kahlo whose work was re-discovered amidst the backdrop of feminist and cultural theory.

‘Understandably, people associate Rivera with his murals, but there’s a real market for his other work, too’ — Virgilio Garza

‘The decline in Rivera's reputation since his death has been remarkable,’ wrote Marnham. ‘In an extraordinary twist of fate, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century is remembered… as merely the unsatisfactory husband of a feminist icon.’

He did receive a big retrospective (marking the centenary of his birth) in 1986, though, which started at the Detroit Institute of Arts before travelling to Philadelphia, Mexico City, Berlin and the Hayward Gallery in London.

As for the 21st-Century, there are signs that Rivera’s reputation is on the up again: in large part because of the more globalised notion of modernism that has developed (in contrast to the Euro-/US-centric notion of old). ‘I think there’s a proper appreciation nowadays,’ says Garza, ‘that Mexican muralism was the first major art movement born in the Americas.’

In recent years, Rivera’s work has appeared in a number of exhibitions alongside Kahlo’s, as well as one at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) alongside Picasso’s. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has also just announced it will stage a Rivera retrospective in 2020.

The market for works by Diego Rivera

Like his reputation in the art world as a whole, Rivera’s prices are on the rise. ‘The record-breaking sale of The Rivals was the clearest example of that,’ says Garza, ‘but not the only one’. Four of the top five prices for Rivera works at Christie’s have been achieved since 2015.

‘His Cubist pictures are largely all in public collections,’ Garza adds. ‘What we see at auction are the [post-1920] easel paintings and works on paper, which he produced to supplement his income from mural commissions.

Usually, these are colourful slices of Mexican life featuring, say, peasant children or huge bundles of calla lilies, his favourite flower, which proved popular with contemporary collectors from the United States. Rivera’s small-scale work tends to be more pleasant and less overtly political in subject-matter than his murals.

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Another important factor to bear in mind with Rivera’s market is that, in 1959, the Mexican government declared all his art a ‘historic monument’ — essentially imposing strict restrictions on the ability to export it. A large chunk of his works had already left the country by that point, of course, but it does mean something of a limit on supply.

Is there a way in at lower price points? ‘Absolutely,’ says Garza. ‘I recommend the vibrant watercolours Rivera did on rice paper, many of which are exceptionally beautiful. Cargando alcatraces (Tres mujeres, una sentada), featuring three women carrying calla lilies for sale, is a fine example. Likewise Niña con flores amarillas and Niño con alcatraces, from our upcoming (November 2018) sales.

‘Works on rice paper can range from as little as $20,000 up to $400,000. Understandably, people associate Rivera with his murals, but there’s a real market for his other work, too, that’s both strong and inclusive.’

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