Cars: Accelerating the Modern World @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The blight of cars

I hate cars.

Pollution Cars emit vast amounts of toxic fumes, poisoning passersby and making our cities hellholes of pollution.

Due to the increase in the use of private cars, road traffic pollution is considered a major threat to clean air in the UK and other industrialised countries. Traffic fumes contain harmful chemicals that pollute the atmosphere. Road traffic emissions produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. (Road Traffic and pollution)

Destruction The post-war obsession with cars led councils and developers to rip the historic hearts out of most English cities and towns, creating inhumane, alienating and polluted labyrinths of urban freeways with urine-drenched concrete subways as an afterthought for the humble pedestrian.

Death Cars kill people, lots of people.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes, and injuries from road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among people aged between 15 and 29 years of age. (Road accident casualties in Britain and the world)

Cars killed childhood Lastly, the number one concern of most parents of small children isn’t paedophiles or internet porn, it’s that their kids might be run over by traffic. (Play England website) That explains why parents don’t let their kids play in the street as they did in the halcyon past, but prefer to keep them safely inside. Which contributes to lack of exercise and growth of obesity among children, as well as adversely affecting children’s mental health. Car culture, in other words, killed childhood.

Personally, I think cars should be banned, period.

Cars: Accelerating the Modern World at the Victoria and Albert Museum

This is a dazzling exhibition celebrating the rise and rise of cars which shows how they are not just machines for getting from A to B but were, right from the start, spurs to all kinds of other industries, helping to create:

  • countless aspects of industrial and commercial design, from instrument panels to ergonomic chairs
  • innovations in industrial production, specifically the assembly line techniques pioneered at the Ford car plant in Detroit
  • entire new areas of engineering relating to roads and then to motorways, the construction of stronger road bridges, flyovers, ring roads etc using the new materials of concrete and tarmac
  • an explosion of consumer accessories from safety hats and goggles to driving coats and gloves all the way up to modern Satnavs
  • as well as providing a mainstay for the advertising industry for over a hundred years
  • and becoming a dominating feature of popular culture in films, novels and much more

The car is, when you stop to consider it, arguably the central product of the twentieth century, the defining artifact of our civilisation (and, in my jaundiced view, a perfect symbol of our society’s relentless drive to excess consumption, ruinous pollution and global destruction.)

They promised us the freedom of the road, instead we got day-long traffic jams on 12-lane highways, toxic air pollution, and over a million dead every year. This photo shows congestion blocking the G4 Beijing-Hong Kong-Macau Expressway

The car has transformed how we move around, how we design and lay out our cities and towns, it has transformed our psychologies and imaginations. As one of the curators explains:

“The V&A’s mission is to champion the power of design to change the world, and no other design object has impacted the world more than the automobile. This exhibition is about the power of design to effect change, and the unintended consequences that have contributed to our current environmental situation.

Structure of the show

This exhibition is brilliantly laid out. You progress through a labyrinthine serpentine curve of cases displaying over 250 artefacts large and small, and studded by no fewer than 15 actual cars, from one of the first ever built to a ‘popup’ car of the future.

Photo of the Benz patent motor car, model no. 3, 1888. Image courtesy of Daimler

The exhibition is immensely informative, with sections and sub-sections devoted to every aspect of cars, their design, manufacture, the subsidiary industries and crafts they support, the global oil industry, and car cultures around the world, it really is an impressively huge and all-embracing overview.

But the thing that made the impact on me was the films.

I counted no fewer than 35 films running, from little black-and-white documentaries showing on TV-sized monitors, through to clips of Blade Runner and Fifth Element on large screens.

There’s the iconic car chase from Bullitt on a very big screen hanging from the ceiling and then an enormous, long, narrow, gallery-wide screen which was showing three long, slow and beautifully shot  films of landscapes which have been impacted by the car – a complicated freeway junction in Japan, oil fields in central California, and the ‘lithium triangle’ in Chile, between Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, where lithium is extracted for battery production a vast expanse of flat desert which is being mined to produce lithium and its landscape converted into a colourful patchwork of slag and beautiful blue purification reservoirs.

At both the start and the end of the show are totally immersive films which are projected on screens from floor to ceiling, the first one a speeded-up film of a car journey through London, projected onto three split screens; the final experience in the show is standing in front of a shiny round little Pop.Up Next car around which stretches a curved screen onto which is projected a montage of car disaster imagery, including car crashes, road rage incidents, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, Jimmy Carter telling us about the energy crisis, which gets louder and faster and more intense until it collapses into a high speed blur of colour. And looming over us, the viewers, I realised after a while, is an enormous drone hanging from the ceiling and looking down on us like one of H.G. Wells’s conquering Martians.

Cars Exhibition, 19th November 2019

All very trippy and intense and sense-bombarding. If you fancy a quiet exhibition, this is not it, sound from all the films is playing at once and, given the subject matter, they are almost all dynamic and fast-moving.

The exhibition is divided into three parts although the continuous serpentine journey past the display cases and films isn’t divided, as in a ‘normal’ gallery, into ‘rooms’.

1. ‘Going Fast’

The exhibition with records of all the gee-whizz visions of a perfect techno future which the car has been lined with throughout its history, with lots of illustrations from magazines and sci fi stories, clips from movies predicting flying cars such as Blade Runner or The Fifth Element. On a massive projector screen right at the start is playing Key To the Future, a film made by General Motors for their 1956 Motorama car show.

This was just one of a series of Firebird concept cars produced by General Motors. Interestingly, the design was inspired by the new jet fighter planes which had just started flying, and the cars copied the jets’ fluid silhouettes, cockpit seats and gas turbine engines designed to reach 200mph. they weren’t actually sold but were produced as experiments in function and design. And to thrill the public at motor shows with exciting visions of hands-free driving.

One feature of these designs for future cars was that a number of them were Russian, from Soviet-era drawings of an ideal communist future. It’s worth noting that the curators have made an effort to get outside the Anglosphere. Unavoidably most of the footage and technology is from America, with a healthy amount about the British car industry, and then sections about Fiat in Italy and Citroen in France.

But the V&A have gone out of their way to try and internationalise their coverage and they commissioned a series of films about car culture in five other parts of the world including one on South African ‘spinners’ (who compete to be able to spin cars very fast in as small a circle as possible), California low-riders, Emirati dune racers in the Middle East, and Japanese drivers of highly decorated trucks. As well as a section towards the end about the ‘Paykan’, a popular people’s car heavily promoted in Iran in the early 1970s which became a symbol of modernity and affluence.

Installation view of Cars at the Victoria and Albert Museum showing an Iranian Paykan on the left, a desert-crossing Auto-Chenille by Citroën in the centre, and a funky bubble car on the right. Note the massive projection screen at the back displaying a panoramic film of oil fields in central California

The section continues with the first-ever production car, the Benz Patent Motorwagen 3, introduced to the public in 1888, and the futuristic Tatra T77 from the Czech Republic, which was designed in the 1920s by Paul Jaray, the man who developed the aerodynamics of airships.

French advertisement for the Tatra 77 (1934)

There’s a whole section about the founding and development of car races, from the Daytona track in Florida, to Brooklands race track in Surrey, both accompanied, of course, by vintage film footage. They explain how the British Gordon Bennett Cup prompted the French to invent the Grand Prix in 1906. There’s racing against other cars, but also, of course, the successive attempts to break the land speed record which attracted great publicity from the 1920s, through the 30s, 40s and 50s.

Britain First Always – Buy British, UK (1930s) Artwork by R. Granger Barrett

And there’s a feminist section of the show which focuses solely on the great women car drivers who appeared at Brooklands such as Camille du Gast from France and Dorothy Levitt, and Jill Scott Thomas who became an important symbol of the women’s rights movement.

There’s a gruesome life-size sculpture of a man named ‘Graham’, which shows what shape a human being would have to be to withstand a car collision. Graham was commissioned last year by The Transport Accident Commission in Victoria, Australia to demonstrate human vulnerability in traffic accidents, and made by Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini in collaboration with leading trauma surgeon Christian Kenfield and crash investigation expert Dr David Logan.

Graham: what humans ought to look like to optimise their chances of surviving a car crash

2. ‘Making More’

The second section is devoted to the manufacturing of cars and focuses heavily on the range of innovations in manufacturing pioneered at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit as early as 1913. There are models of the factory, black and white film footage of conveyor belts, unexpected footage of meat processing plants where Ford worked as a young man and which the car plants were to some extent modelled on, photos and sketches of all aspects of the production line along with a list of the very tough rules and regulations Ford imposed on his workers.

Sure, they were paid double what they could earn at other factories (a whopping $5) but the stress of staying in one place performing the same function for 12 hours a day, with no smoking or talking and strictly regulated loo breaks took its tool: many workers developed psychological illnesses, many just quit.

Ford’s factories were designed by the architect Albert Kahn who pioneered an entirely new construction space that allowed for larger, more flexible workspaces, a design which quickly spread around the world, for example at Fiat’s Lingotto factory. There are floorplans, architects’ designs, models and photos of all this twentieth century innovation, plus the animated feature Symphony in F celebrating the complex supply chains Ford had established which was shown at the 1933 ‘Century of Progress’ Chicago World’s Fair.

By contrast one wall is filled with some immense film projections of a modern, almost totally-automated BMW car assembly plant in Munich, and there’s a Unimate Robotoc Arm, one of the first robot implements used on a production line as early as 1961 at the General Motors plant in New Jersey The principles are the same but human input, effort and endurance have been almost completely eliminated.

Murals were commissioned to celebrate the wonderful new productiveness of human labour, including the wonderful Detroit Murals by Mexican mural maker Diego Rivera

Production line methods were quickly adopted to a wide range of goods including everything from furniture to architecture, and the speed and rhythms of factory life spread into pop culture, influencing music, dance, fashion and the propaganda of the new totalitarian states.

Hitler, the show reminds us, was a big admirer of Henry Ford, who was himself a noted anti-Semite, and consulted Ford about mass production techniques to help improve German efficiency, which resulted in the remarkably enduring design of the Volkswagen and Hitler’s pioneering Autobahns, but also led the Germans to the efficient mass manufacture of other consumer goods like the Volsempfänger or People’s Radio.

At the other end of the cultural scale, the exhibition includes the ‘production line’ video made in 1965 for the Detroit girl group Martha and the Vandellas song Nowhere To Run To. The Motown Sound which they typified was, after all, named after Motor Town, the town that Henry Ford built up into the centre of the American car industry.

There were to (at least) reactions against production line culture. An obvious one was the creation of powerful unions formed to represent assembly line workers. Following the landmark sit-down strike from 1936 to 1937 in Flint, Michigan, membership of the Union of Automotive Workers grew from 30,000 to 500,000 in one year! Thirty years later, and the exhibition includes some of the posters produced by a Marxist art collective in Paris to support striking car workers during the 1968 mass strikes in France.

But another reaction was against mass production, and in favour of luxury. The Model T meant cars for the masses, but what about cars for the better off? In the 1920s luxury car manufacturers returned to creating bespoke, hand-crafted models, and this triggered a growing market for high-end car accessories. The exhibition includes examples of chic hats and lighters and motoring gloves, all associating the idea of motoring with glamour and luxury (‘To drive a Peugeot is to be in fashion’).

A custom-made Hispano-Suiza Type H6B car from 1922 provides a close-up look at the luxurious and meticulously crafted world of early automotive design.

Hispano-Suiza Type HB6 ‘Skiff Torpedo’. Hispano-Suiza (chassis) Henri Labourdette (body) 1922. Photo by Michael Furman © The Mullin Automotive Museum

Thus the development of mascots on car bonnets, a small symbol which allowed consumers to quietly flaunt their wealth and taste. Thus between 1920 and 1931 French designer René Lalique produced a series of car bonnet ornaments made of glass, which are on display here.

There’s a section devoted to the development of colours, shades and tones, and to the science of producing lacquers and paint which would be durable enough to protect cars in all weathers. Even mass market manufacturers took note and in 1927 General Motors was the first producer to set up an entire department devoted to styling, the ‘Art and Colour Section’. As far back as 1921, under chairman Alfred Sloan, General Motors implemented a policy known as ‘annual model renewal’. Taking its lead from the fashion industry, the cars would be restyled and relaunched annually, with a new look and new colours (although the engineering and motors mostly stayed the same).

And hence the development of extravagant car shows like ‘Motorama’ launched in 1949 by General Motors, an annual series which came to involve celebrity performers, original songs, choreography, models in clothes straight off catwalks, and promotional films.

The ever-growing commercialisation of cars and life in general sparked a backlash in the 1960s and the exhibition explains how the humble VolksWagen became a cheap and cheerful symbol of people who dropped out, adopted alternative lifestyles, and often decorated their VW with hippy images and symbols.

The exhibition features a striking example of a car customised by Tomas Vazquez, a member of the lowrider culture that emerged in Latino communities in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s.

3. ‘Shaping Space’

The final section of the exhibition explores the vast impact of the car on the world’s landscape, nations, and cities. It looks at how the petrol engine beat early electric and steam-powered competitors by promising the ability to travel the world, transforming drivers into individual explorers.

Displays include the first ever Michelin guide published in 1900, a little red book giving tips about where to drive in France – examples of the tremendous artwork Shell commissioned to encourage drivers to get out and explore Britain (the Shell guides), and a look at the special off-road cars called Auto-Chenille by Citroën and created to undertake a publicised treks across Africa and Asia.

This section looks at the vast ramifications and impact of the oil industry around the world, from the early days when it was celebrated as a miracle resource, through the evolution of oil-based products like Tupperware and nylon. There are fascinating maps of oil reserves, films about oil extraction

And then on to the 1970s oil crisis which helped inspire the new environmental movement. There’s footage of a grim-faced president Carter making a TV broadcast to the American people and telling them they have to be more careful how they use their limited resources, ha ha ha, and a poster for the first ever Earth Day, called by new environmental activists for 22 April 1970.

Poster for the first Earth Day, 22 April 1970, designed by Robert Leydenfrost, photography by Don Brewster

So it’ll be Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in a few months. And how well have we looked after the earth in the past 50 years?

Not too well, I think. Most of us have been too busy buying stuff, consuming stuff, competing to have shinier, newer stuff, and top of the list comes a shiny new car. I was amused to read the recent report that all the world’s efforts to get people to use electric cars have been completely eclipsed by the unstoppable rise of gas-guzzling Sports Utilities Vehicles. These throng the streets of Clapham where I live. In twenty minutes I’m going to have to dodge and weave among these huge, poisonous dinosaurs as I cycle to work.

As a tiny symbol of our ongoing addiction to the internal combustion engine, there’s an animated map showing the spread of motorways across Europe from 1920 to 2020, which contains the mind-boggling fact that plans are well advanced for a motorway which will stretch from Hamburg to Shanghai! More cars, more lorries, more coaches and buses and taxis and motorbikes and scooters, burn it up, baby!

This final room has the most diverse range of cars on display, including early cars from the 1950s that attempted to address fuel scarcity such as the Messerschmitt KR200 bubble car, alongside the Ford Nucleon, a nuclear-powered concept car, and the exhibition closes with the immersive film I mentioned above, streaming around the ‘Pop.Up Next autonomous flying car’ co-designed by Italdesign, Airbus and Audi.

Summary

I think this is a really brilliant exhibition, setting out to document a madly ambitious subject – one of the central subjects of the 20th century – with impressive range and seriousness.  It covers not only ‘the car’ itself but touches on loads of other fields and aspects of twentieth century history, with a confident touch and fascinating wall labels. The serpentine layout combines with the clever use of mirrors and gaps between the partition walls to make it seem much bigger than it is, as do the umpteen films showing on screens large, extra-large and ginormous.

It’s a feast for the mind and the senses.

And it’s not at all a hymn of praise: the curators are well aware of the baleful effects of car culture: there’s a digital clock recording the number of people who’ve died in traffic accidents so far in the world, and another one (in the 1970s oil crisis section) giving a countdown till the world’s oil resources are utterly exhausted (how do they know? how can anyone know?).

But there’s also another digital counter showing the number of cars manufactured in the world so far this year and it shows no sign of abating or slowing down. Car, lorry, bus, truck, coach, motorbike production continue to increase all around the world and is often [author puts his head in his hands and sighs with despair] taken as the primary indicator of a country’s economy.

We’re going to burn this planet down, aren’t we?

Promo video

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Brendan Cormier and Lizzie Bisley, with Esme Hawes as Assistant Curator.


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals by Linda Bank Downs

[Rivera] has built up a powerful narrative style of painting, which makes him, it is safe to say, the only man now working, who adequately represents the world we live in – wars, tumult, struggling peoples, hope, discontent, humour and speeding existence.’
(Edgar P. Richardson, one of the directors of the Art Institute of Detroit)

Diego Rivera’s Detroit murals

In April 1932 the Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, arrived in Detroit to fulfil a commission from the city’s Art Institute. Rivera had already painted two sets of murals in San Francisco and was coming fresh from being the subject of an immensely successful one-man retrospective at New York’s (new) Museum of Modern Art.

Chief patron of the Art Institute and sponsor of the murals was Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, founder of the famous automobile company. In fact Ford, by this stage, was no longer just running a successful car company, he had created the largest and most technically advanced industrial complex in the world. This industrial city within a city not only contained all the manufacturing elements required for the production of cars, it included factories turning out steel, cement, glass and electricity. The site had its own canals and railways, and had developed ship, tractor and airplane manufacture so that it could control the delivery of all the raw materials necessary to car production.

Like many visitors, Rivera was awe-struck at what he saw. He spent three months visiting every part of the works, having the engineering and machines explained to him, and developing his designs. He made hundreds of sketches and studies as well as commissioning photographs by the company photographer.

The murals were to be painted on the two long, tall, facing walls of what was, at that point, the garden courtyard of the Art Institute. There were to be two main murals, giant paintings in which Rivera captured the thrilling complexity of factory production – the construction of the interior of an automobile on the North Wall, the manufacture of the exterior of the car on the South wall.

Detroit, Man and Machine, North Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Detroit, Man and Machine, North Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Above these giant paintings ran two horizontal bands in which Rivera painted less cluttered, more monumental figures depicting the races of the world and the raw materials lying under Detroit’s soil (on the North Wall [above] you can see the figures representing the Indian and African races; on the South Wall [below] figures representing the white and Chinese races.)

Detroit, Man and Machine, South Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Detroit, Man and Machine, South Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

And running along beneath the main panels were a series of smaller, rectangular spaces into which Rivera painted different aspects of the worker’s day – arriving at work, lunch break, and different perspectives on the works.

The East and West walls contained doors and windows so Rivera had less space to play with and so, again, painted symbolical rather than naturalistic subjects – on the East wall a long thin band with a foetus lying in the soil, on the West wall [below] two depictions of shiny, tubular machines flank the main door while directly above them is a black and white painting designed to look like a relief frieze showing a Ford transporter ship bringing raw materials from abroad, while above that is a set of paintings depicting the latest Ford airplanes.

The West wall murals

The West wall murals

In all there were 27 separate panels.

Rivera began painting on 25 July 1932 and finished work in March 1933. Despite vocal criticism from right-wing journalists, politicians and preachers attacking him for being foreign, an atheist and a communist – and attacks from the other end of the political spectrum, from communist writers and officials accusing him of selling out to the Yankee dollar – the murals were opened to tremendous critical acclaim, and became an instant hit with visitors.

The images were reproduced in papers and magazines and art books around the world and consolidated Rivera’s reputation as Mexico’s greatest artist with one of the most recognisable visual styles in the world. It is telling that when the Rockefeller Foundation was looking for bang up-to-date artists to decorate the lobby of their new skyscraper in New York, they approached Matisse, Picasso and Rivera. He was in that league.

This book

This book is a joy to behold and handle. It’s a large-size and hefty hardback (31.5 cm tall by 20.5 cm wide), the paper is beautiful, the print is lovely and crisp, and the quality of the photo and painting reproductions are first class.

The USP of the book is that it was only during the 1990s that a whole world of cartoons, sketches and photographs which had been involved in the making of the murals first came to light.

Linda Bank Downs helped to direct investigations into the archives of not only the Art Institute but the Ford Company Museum and Detroit’s other archives, so that researchers were able to slowly assemble a massive collection of preparatory works, sketches, cartoons, notebooks, plans, designs, as well as official and private photos which record and document every stage of Rivera’s researches, preparations and painting.

These are now all gathered together and explained in this book. The result is fabulously presented and absolutely fascinating. There are chapters on the origin and development of the commission itself, and then an absolutely riveting description of exactly how the murals were prepared, which includes a precise recipe for each of the five layers of plaster required, and detail on the painstaking preparation of each of the colours to just the right fineness and density.

We learn the biographies of the half dozen assistants who were required for the project (including the unlikely figure of Lord Hastings, an English aristocrat who wanted to help the working classes), and a portrait of life in broader Detroit – in reality, a grimly rundown city with mass unemployment, hunger, riots and endemic racism.

A chapter describes ‘the Cosmology of Technology’ i.e. explains the multitude of manufacturing processes which Rivera depicted, and the next chapter presents the surprising variety of art scholarly interpretations the murals have been subjected to.

The book ends with an entertaining account of the ‘controversy’ surrounding the paintings which Downs, after extensive research, now thinks might actually have been created by the Ford Company’s own press and PR people – and was a spectacular success.

All the way through there are excellent, top quality photos – of Detroit, of the factory, of Diego at work, of his assistants hard at work, of him mingling with his American hosts in embarrassed group shots, even of the great man sneaking a secret snog with his wife, Frida Kahlo, who dutifully brought him a cooked meal of vegetarian Mexican food, just the way he liked it every day at lunchtime.

Diego Rivera having a cheeky snog with Frida Kahlo on the scaffold inside the Detroit Institute of Arts (1933)

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo having a snog on the scaffold inside the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932)

There are extensive reproductions of Diego’s preparatory sketches and drafts and plans – and then the book goes on to present wonderfully panoramic views of each panel alongside extensive close-ups of details, explaining the function of each piece of equipment, the names of many of the men depicted, and also the cameo appearances Rivera painted in to the murals of his patron, the Institute’s director and a cheeky self-portrait, among many more.

This is a wonderfully intelligent and beautifully produced book about a major twentieth century work of art.


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

The Murals of Diego Rivera by Desmond Rochfort (1987)

Diego Rivera:

  • painted murals from 1921 to 1957
  • painted literally hundreds of mural panels
  • covered more wall space with murals than anyone else in history

Whether you like the murals comes down to a couple of questions:

  1. do you like the rejection of almost all 20th century artistic sophistication in favour of a deliberately figurative, almost cartoon-like style?
  2. do you respond to the composition and layout and design of specific murals?
  3. do you like the political or ideological message of the murals?

The message

As to point 3 – the message – I take it that Rivera’s repeated themes that the Aztecs had a fine civilization until the killer Cortes massacred them all, that Mexican peasants are noble and pure but are tyrannised and brutalised by their Hispanic masters, and that unemployed striking workers are being beaten up by the police while the spoilt rich bourgeoisie swigs cocktails in evening dress – so that the workers must take up arms and stage a revolution to overthrow the regime – I take it none of these ideas come as news to anyone any more, or that anyone gets very excited about murals with titles like ‘This is how the proletarian revolution will be’.

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

Given the thousands of paintings, murals and statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin which festooned every space across the Soviet Union and eastern Europe for 70 years until its collapse in 1990… I take it no-one is excited by the image of Marx et al in a mural any more.

The opposite: all of Diego’s murals evoke a deep nostalgia for the long-lost period of the 1920s and 1930s when artists and poets and playwrights were all solidly left-wing, joined the Communist Party, made plays and poems and paintings and posters extolling the noble proletariat, confident that history was about to topple in their direction. How wonderfully certain they must have been.

Thinking about it, Rivera is very like Otto Dix, George Grosz and the other Weimar artists who used cartoons and caricature to express their seething anger at social injustice in the style which became known as The New Sobriety.

The only difference from them is in Rivera’s additional twin themes of colonisation and race. George Grosz didn’t have to go back to the era of the Reformation (1517) to explain 1920s Germany, but Rivera did have to go back to the Spanish conquistadors (1519) to explain 1920s Mexico.

The history of Mexico

Grosz didn’t feel compelled to draw a history of Germany; there were already countless histories of Germany; he was only interested in the corrupt and unfair present.

But Rivera did feel compelled to draw a history of Mexico, in fact he drew it again and again, because the meaning of Mexican history was still very fiercely contested in his age. After you get beyond the same kind of nostalgia for a simpler, more polarised and more politically charged artistic world that you get when you read Brecht or listen to Kurt Weill – after the purely proletarian concerns fade away – it is the multiracial and ethnographic aspects of Rivera’s imagery which sticks out.

The Ancient World by Diego Rivera (1935)

The Aztec World on the west wall of the National Palace of Mexico by Diego Rivera (1929)

After the initial burst of invention in the 1920s, what this book rather brings home is the repetitiveness of the imagery. Or, if a scholar argued that the actual images and compositions are amazingly diverse – maybe what I mean is the repetitiveness of the problem.

And the problem is – the meaning of Mexico. Where did it come from? Who are the Mexicans? What does it mean to be the joint heir of both the cruel Aztecs and the bloody conquistadors? When both sides very obviously had their shortcomings, which ones do you choose as your ancestors? Where is Justice? What – as Lenin said – is to be done?

The Ministry of Education murals 1922-28

Rivera’s first project was the biggest of his career, painting the walls of the galleries surrounding the two big courtyards of the Ministry of Education, which he renamed the Court of Labour and the Court of Fiesta. It took from 1923 to 1928 and by the end he’d created 235 panels or 1,585 square metres of murals.

At the same time he began a commission to paint a converted chapel at the new Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo. The earliest Education Ministry ones, like the entire Chapingo set, ones have a really primitive didactic feel. There are relatively few figures, carrying out archetypal actions set against a brown background. The influence of the early Renaissance is really visible: the bent figures of the mourning women entirely wrapped in their cloaks reminds me of Giotto.

'The Blood of the Martyrs' from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Blood of the Martyrs’ from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

In both sets of murals you immediately see that his central achievement was to heave the entire concept of mural painting from its religious origins – and even from the heavily ‘symbolic’ imagery used by some secular, monumental muralists at the end of the 19th century –  and to consciously, deliberately and powerfully, turn it into the depiction of an entire nation, of Mexico – through portrayals of its geographic regions, of its favourite fiestas and festivals, of its industry and agriculture, using compositions packed with people, characters, caricatures, satire and sentiment.

To me many of them have a medieval interest in crowds. They remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their enjoyment of the variety and quirkiness of life – not forgetting that Chaucer’s variety also included bitter social satire, sentimental religiosity, and unquestioning praise of the medieval knightly code.

In just the same way Rivera features:

  • crowd scenes, whose pleasure derives from the sheer profusion of humanity, as in the village scenes of Brueghel
  • crudely bitter but still amusing social satire
  • revolutionary sentimentality – for example where a poor whipped peon is wrapped in a shroud or a fallen comrade is buried and the viewer is meant to choke back a sob of emotion
  • and throughout many of the murals runs unfettered praise for men draped in bandoliers and holding guns – revolutionaries, freedom fighters, guarantors of the Revolution etc.

The joy of crowds

The Day of The Dead - The Minitry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

‘The Day of The Dead’ from The Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

The mass, the throng, the diversity of life – like Breughel.

Political satire

The Wall Street Banquet form the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Wall Street Banquet’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

The rich are sat at table not to eat, but to read off a tickertape telling them the value of their stocks and shares. The bluntness of the idea and the grotesqueness of the faces remind me of George Grosz and other Weimar satirists who had been doing the same thing for eight years or more, just not on walls.

The noble poor

We are meant to compare and contrast the filthy rich with the noble poor, the liberated peasants, who live with simplicity and dignity. Eating what they grow themselves. For, as Zapata repeatedly said: the land belongs to he who tills it… and the fruits thereof.

Children. The elderly. All under the governance of the wise man, who is himself beholden to the female principle of the fruit of the soil, as worked by peasants (to the left) under the watchful gaze of a Party commissar (to the right).

'Our Bread from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

‘Our Bread’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

War is wrong

War is always wrong unless, of course, it’s your war, fighting for your cause.

Fighting in the imperialist war was, according to the Bolsheviks, foolishness. Not because there should be peace. But because workers of all lands should unite together to exterminate the bourgeoisie and other class enemies right across Europe, right around the world. A creed which certainly did lead to guerrilla and civil wars across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, for much of the 20th century.

'In the Trenches' at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

‘In the Trenches’ at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

Off to America

It is ironic that, as soon as Rivera had become famous as a bitingly anti-capitalist, communist artist, he was taken up by … super-capitalist, mega-rich Americans.

The Yankees invited him to do murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (1930-31) and Art Institute (1931), at the Ford motor works in Detroit (1932), and then at the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933). At the same time as Diego was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s second ever one-artist retrospective.

God, how simply fabulous the super-rich New Yorkers and their wives in their diamonds and furs look as they arrived for the opening night party! How simply adorable the fire-breathing Communist Mexican turned out to be! And so witty! And did you talk to his simply delightful wife!

Just to make this point quite clear, the mural Rivera painted in San Francisco adorns the stairs leading up from the Stock Exchange itself to the Stock Exchange’s private luncheon club. The word ‘elitist’ is thrown around a lot by left-wing critics, but could a location be more restricted and elite?

But it was the murals he made in Detroit which Rivera himself considered the best he ever made. He was intensely professional about preparing the space, researching the engineering and technology of car manufacture, and then creating compositions which are awesome in scale, packed with detail, but so cunningly composed as to create a beautiful sense of rhythm and flow.

Crucially for the patron Edsel Ford, and the Art Institute which hosts them, and for admiring visitors generally, there is next to no political content in them whatsoever. They simply show men at work in modern factories, hymns to the marvel of modern technology.

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

The Detroit murals were followed by a falling-out with the owners of the Rockefeller Building who had commissioned a big mural in the lobby of their swanky new Manhattan skyscraper but cancelled it when Rivera insisted on painting in the face of Lenin.

With no other commissions in view, Diego reluctantly returned to Mexico in 1934 where he fell out with the government and devoted the rest of the decade to easel painting and political activism.

He only returned to mural painting in 1940 with the immense panorama of ‘Pan-American unity’ painted in America again, for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

I think what this book shows is that far from showing ‘Mexico’ any clear political way ahead (there wasn’t, after all, anything like a Communist revolution in Mexico. In fact precisely the opposite, the bourgeois class consolidated its permanent grip on power by inventing a ‘big tent’ political party during the 1930s – the Institutional Revolutionary Party – designed to incorporate all political factions and classes and thus make elections and political parties unnecessary, and the PRI went on to rule Mexico without interruption until the year 2000) Rivera’s work really brings out and dramatises

  1. its history to date (along with the more garish aspects of the contemporary situation – rich versus poor – town versus country – peasant versus landowner – Marx versus Henry Ford)
  2. puts ordinary Mexicans, the peasants and farmers and soldiers and workers and priests and landowners and urban passersby – all of them – up on the wall to be seen and recognised as Mexican

I think this explains why modern, post-political, post-communist scholarly commentary prefers to dwell on what it calls issues of ‘identity’ rather than the more blatantly communist elements in Diego’s work. It’s safer.

Mexico as a maze

Looking at Rivera’s densely packed and colourful later works, from the 1940s and 1950s, makes you realise that Rivera certainly created a strong visual identity for his country and countrymen in the 1920s and 1930s – but then remained trapped in the maze of that Mexican history and, above all, snagged on the horns of that Mexican dilemma: are we European or Indian? Aztec primitivists or scientific rationalists? Workers or bosses? Mestizos or criollos?

To some extent you could argue that the very packed-out nature of his great interlocking mural of Mexican history which decorates the stairwells of the National Palace in Mexico City – the way Aztecs and conquistadors, knights and peasants, the contemporary Mexican government and the heroes of the 1910 revolution, are all combined in the same image – captures the overwhelming, confusing and directionless nature of Mexican history.

As this book admits, Rivera’s history pictures present ‘a history shorn of many of the qualifications and complexities associated with the historical transformation of Mexico’ (p.59). In other words, a historical fantasy.

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace, by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

There’s a great deal of ‘Where’s Wally’-type pleasure to be had from identifying different groups of characters in these vast paintings – and figuring out who they are and how they fit into the national story.

Rivera and his contemporaries, supported by some critics, often explained his socially conscious murals as the modern equivalent of Christian iconography. Just as the frescos of the Renaissance depicted key moments in the story of Christ and illuminated key ideas in Christian theology for an illiterate audience so, they argued, Rivera’s murals were designed as visual guides to the illiterate Mexican peasant and prole, explaining key moments of Mexican history, showing Karl Marx with his arm stretched out pointing towards a better future.

But to the casual observer, his vast panoramas of Mexican history (like the one shown above) just look like a mess. A confusing and perplexing gallimaufrey of historical events and figures all thrown together into an almost indecipherable crowd.

They become, if you like, charming illustrations for an already-educated bourgeoisie. you have to be already very well educated to understand what is going on in his murals.

Hence his wild success with – not just Americans – but the very richest of the richest Americans. He wasn’t feted by John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange – the socially conscious artists – in New York. He was adulated by the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims and the Astors.

Maybe it’s a simplistic thought, but it seems to me that the more sophisticated and complex Riviera’s murals became, the more they became popcorn, bubblegum cartoons, full of fascinating detail, but lacking the anger and energy of his earliest works.

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pure against impure

To dig a little deeper, comparing the background and enactment of the Mexico City murals against the American ones, and reading up about Rivera’s wild enthusiasm for America, the conclusion I draw is that – he liked America because it was so psychologically untroubled.

I know there had been forty years of rocky industrial relations since the 1890s, and a march of unemployed workers ended in shooting only weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit to paint his mural there. But the Americans Rivera met were all full of national self-confidence, self-belief, untroubled by doubts. This was the exact opposite of the deeply troubled intellectual class in Mexico.

And, in my opinion, the reason for this is that the white Americans he met had essentially exterminated the native peoples in order to own the land and country. Nothing held them back. They were creating the American Dream free and untrammelled by negative thoughts or anxieties. As far as they were concerned it was a big empty space, ripe for the taking.

Whereas Mexico had been, and was still, held back by massive guilt for its colonial oppression, for the extermination of an obviously highly cultured civilisation. And Mexican intellectuals could never forget this fact because the majority of the Mexican population was mestizo or mixed race, in your face wherever you went, and almost all condemned to grotesque rural poverty.

The central problem of Mexican society – the land question – was an ongoing problem inherited from the Spanish, the systematic semi-slavery of the vast majority of the population of illiterate forced labourers, mostly descended from the original tribal peoples.

America didn’t have that problem, having very effectively exterminated its native peoples and not intermarried with them. Instead, Rivera met nothing but rich, confident, exuberant representatives of a boundlessly confident Master Race, carried along by the knowledge that they led the world in science and technology.

In other words, Rivera was a pioneering example of the Post-Colonial Predicament which trapped and challenged thousands of writers and artists, and tens of millions of subject peoples around the world, for much of the 20th century.

I think it’s this which makes Rivera truly revolutionary: not the slogans and pictures of Marx, but the fact that he struggled all his life to make sense of the mixed heritage of coloniser and colonised, struggling to reconcile two completely different histories, traditions, languages and ethnic identities. And if he didn’t really, in the end, succeed, it was an honourable failure and nonetheless produced a lifetime of wonderful, inspiring and fascinating public art.

The book

This is a large-format art book, containing just 104 pages, of which:

  • seven present a thorough chronology of Mexican history from Independence (1811) to the end of the reforming Cárdenas presidency in 1940, with many evocative b&w photos
  • one page carries a poem by Pablo Neruda
  • two pages of Bibliography
  • four of notes

Which leaves 81 pages of text, illustrated with about 30 contemporary black-and-white photos and 120 plates of the murals, of which 37 are in colour.

I found the text heavy going. It was written in 1987, which is a long time ago and people back then, especially academics in the humanities, still put a lot of faith in international communism. The text completely lacks the dry style, lively humour and interesting psycho-sexual speculation which makes Patrick Marnham’s biography of Rivera so enjoyable and thought-provoking.

A lot of the photos aren’t that great, and the black and white plates are quite small.

The book gives generous quotes from contemporaries, especially the other muralists of the day such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, and a highlight is the vitriolic attack which Siqueiros launched on Rivera in the mid-1930s, accusing Diego of selling out and becoming a bourgeois painter.

There is a lot of small detail, about minor murals missed by Marnham’s biography, and a number of sidebars pleasantly go off on a tangent from the main narrative with what are in effect little articles explaining all aspects of Mexican culture, which are diverting and often very interesting.


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Related reviews

Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day.
(Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biographer, friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe, to produce an ‘official’ biography (published in 1963) in which he continued to perpetrate all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera’s imagination and, maybe, of Mexico more generally. The opening chapter is a wonderful description of Marnham’s own visit to Rivera’s home town during the famous Day of the Dead festival, in which he really brings out the garish, fantastical and improbable nature of Mexican culture – a far far better introduction to Rivera’s world than a simple recital of the biographical facts.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three aspects:

  • via its turbulent and violent politics
  • in its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, sharp cacti and brilliantly-coloured parrots
  • and its troubled racial heritage

As to the whoppers – where Rivera insisted that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasquez and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had only recently been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

So it was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, for the first time grasping the importance of the Cubism, which had already been around for a few years. For the next four years Diego painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, a friend of Picasso, and a fully paid-up member of the avant-garde – all mistresses, models and drinking late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up until 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And it is a compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that, in this world of bohemian artists, whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door. The artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and also intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – in one sitting! Whoever gave up, to full to carry on, had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the ‘Paintings’ section of the Wikipedia gallery of his art. First half is all homely realism and landscapes, then Boom! a dozen or so hard-core cubist works.

Rivera returned to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help the Mexican revolutionary bandit leader Zapata hold up trains. He simply wanted to see his family and friends again.

But upon arrival, he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of the corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture had organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910, soon after his return, to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

As it happens, this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s reactionary government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead supervising his art exhibition in Mexico City and spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and where he had established himself with his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War (rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso) while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, with a seemingly endless series of raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later…

Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, during which he progressed from being a talented traditionalist and established himself at the heart of the modern movement with his distinctive and powerful brand of cubism. Some of the cubist works showcased in the Wikipedia gallery are really brilliant.

But all good things come to an end. Partly because of personal fallings-out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. Faure’s arguments seemed to be backed up by history. Both the First World War and the Russian Revolution had brought the whole meaning and purpose of art into question and the latter, especially, had given a huge boost to the notion of Art for the People.

It was with these radical new thoughts in mind that Diego finally got round to completing the Grand Tour of Europe which his grant from the Mexican government had been intended to fund. off he went to Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters. Here was art for the people, public art in chapels and churches, art which any peasant could relate to, clear, forceful depictions of the lives of Jesus and the apostles and the saints. Messages on walls.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, Diego had been contacted by Vasconcelos in 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the same time that Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies of Renaissance frescos in Italy.

In 1921 Rivera returned to Mexico and was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

Rivera was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was as natural as the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Mexican Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives (basically, they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives). Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, also named Diego (1916–1918)
1918 affair with Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, aka ‘Marevna’, mother of a daughter named Marika in 1919, whom he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 Diego married Guadalupe Marin, who was to be the mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe; she modelled for some of the nudes in his early murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– possible affair with Guadalupe’s sister
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals including ‘Earth enslaved’, ‘Germination’, ‘Virgin earth’ 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic ‘art for the people’.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

There is an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest socialist murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists.

In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca (in Mexico) from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this, Diego went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the San Francisco School of Arts.

His argument in his own defence was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses – but there’s no doubt that these commissions also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 Diego helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic about this event, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich, American multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Mexican Communist’. ‘Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this publicity, Diego was then invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever painted, anywhere. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong.

Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, into the mural the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building.

A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair, was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1934, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’ as he called it. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

Diego was ill for much of 1934, and started an affair with Frida Kahlo’s sister. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he had abandoned when he set off for America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. That was a bad idea. They caused so much offence to the powers that be that, once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by José Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Thus he found himself being more or less forced out of mural painting – and forced back into painting the kind of oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals. They were relatively quick and easy to do (compared to the back-breaking effort of the murals) and so for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as yet another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 but left it in 1925. He went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing. During his visit he made some tactless criticisms of the Party and so was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, a separate organisation from the Communist Party, which was affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist.

Trotsky had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. For the next 8 years he wandered as an exile, with spells in Turkey, France and Norway. As this last refuge became increasingly difficult, Diego gave his support to a suggestion by Mexican intellectuals that Trotsky be given refuge in Mexico. They persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at Diego’s home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (at one point in the company of the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise the dictatorial turn which Soviet communism was taking, and the point was rammed home for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces than combating the common enemy, Franco) and then by the outrageous Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38.

Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida Kahlo had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger by hosting Trotsky. We now know that Stalin commissioned no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House (the home he shared with Kahlo), the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, were fixed up in a house only a few hundred yards away.

It was here that Trotsky was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom. Amazingly, the gunmen managed to miss Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run.

Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the endlessly violent Mexican Revolution, I was not at all surprised: McLynn shows that this was the routine method for handling political disagreements in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, also hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leaned down to read a letter Mercader had handed him, attacked Trotsky with a small ice-pick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky who fought back, and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically  toSan Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

Also, a new president had taken office in Mexico with the result that the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted. He returned to his home country and, in 1940, began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, running around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete and weren’t finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds? Who are the Mexicans? What is the nation and its true heritage?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of Diego’s life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham devotes his final pages to developing a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He starts from the fact that Frida’s illness limited her mobility and made her a world-class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her various miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations, prosthetic legs and other physical ailments.

But overlaid on almost all of Frida’s paintings was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which presents her as a a pure victim.

And yet she was a powerful victim. Biographical accounts and some of the paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship, Diego could become the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became Frida’s ‘baby’, the baby she was never able to have. Apparently, Frida often gave Diego baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women dismiss men as big babies: it can be a consolation for their (women’s) powerlessness. But it can also be true. Men can be big babies.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much that sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida apparently poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts.

Marnham shows how their early childhoods had much in common: both had close siblings who died young and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not to their boring white European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their very mixed feelings for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful dresses, and earrings and head-dresses which she largely copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when the couple divorced in 1940, Frida promptly cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian.

The conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress and symbolism – and his murals, which obsess about the native inheritance of Mexico – were both ingredients in a psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders which they jointly created.

Their mutual infidelities upset the other, but they also found that they just couldn’t live apart. Sex between them may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they had created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated but in its complexity prompted the core of the artworks, in particular the endless reworking of her own image which have made Frida more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband.

Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for a spurious clarity, where the whole point was the hazy, messy, creativity of very non-academic, non-Western, non-judgmental, very Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This despite the Moscow Show Trials, Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky had told them from his unparalleled first-hand experience of the corrupt dictatorship Stalin was creating. None of that mattered.

Because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal and artistic mythology. Just as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than Frida – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forbears, and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican. Is being Mexican to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith, were, in other words, among the most reactionary elements in Mexican society.

Neither of them wrote clear, logical works of politics and philosophy. They both created fantasias into which their devotees and critics can read what they will. That, in my opinion, is how art works. It opens up spaces and possibilities for the imagination.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months later, one of Diego’s repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was successful.

He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says that after Frida’s death, he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – Diego was married his deceased wife’s art dealer while simultaneously having an affair with her principal customer.

In September 1957 Diego had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art, full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, strange and inspiring murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

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