Chris Killip @ the Photographers Gallery

This is one of the most powerful and moving exhibitions I’ve ever been to.

Chris Killip was one of the UK’s most important and influential post-war documentary photographers. He was born in 1946 and died in October 2020. He is best known for his gritty photos of working class life in the north of England in the 1970s and 80s and we really mean ‘gritty’ – portraits of people living in the depths of poverty, immiseration, neglect, illness, marginalisation, scraping a living in grim, depressed, forgotten communities.

Spread over the top two floors at the Photographers’ Gallery, including some 150 black and white photographs as well as a couple of display cases of ephemera (magazines, posters, publicity flyers) works, this exhibition amounts to the most comprehensive survey of Killip’s work ever staged. And dear God, it’s devastating.

Helen and her hula-hoop, Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, Northumbria, 1984 © Chris Killip, Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

I’m going to replicate the structure of the exhibition and summarise the wall labels because it’s important to get a good understanding of time and place to really appreciate the work.

Off to London 1964

In 1963, aged 17 and living on the Isle of Man, Killip opened a copy of Paris Match looking for news about the Tour de France and instead came across the famous photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson of the little boy carrying two bottles of wine along the Rue Mouffetard in Paris. On the spot he realised he wanted to be a photographer. He bought a cheap camera and worked that summer as a beach photographer saving up the money to move to London in 1964, just at the start of Swinging London.

Here he found work as an assistant to the commercial photographer Adrian Flowers. They were heady times and he was at the heart of London, arranging commercial photoshoots for magazines, fashion, commercials.

New York 1969

In autumn 1969 he went on a visit to New York which changed his life. He went to see the exhibition of Bill Brandt photos at the Museum of Modern Art but it was the museum’s permanent collection which made his head spin. Here he saw photos by Paul Strand, August Sander, Walker Evans and others like them, documentary photographers who tried to depict the life of the common people in communities often remote from flashy urban living.

He returned to England, quit his job in flash London and returned to his homeland, the Isle of Man, a man with a mission, to photograph his truth, to record the traditional peasant lifestyle of the island before it was eroded and swept away by the very commercialism he had formerly served.

Isle of Man 1970 to 1972

Between 1970 and 1972 Killip photographed the island and its inhabitants during the day and worked at his dad’s pub by night. In 1973 he completed his book, Isle of Man.

This was the first of the long-form or long-term projects which form the basis of his achievement. the next few decades would see him applying the same in-depth approach to capturing marginalised communities on film, living in them, getting to know them, sharing their privations, getting under the skin of their physically and spiritually impoverished lives.

As you would expect, many of the photos of the Isle of man are landscapes but they are not that great, they are not as powerful as, say, Don McCullin’s louring, threatening studies of his adopted region of Somerset. But it’s not the landscapes that matter, it’s the people.

Mr ‘Snooky’ Corkhill and his son © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

My God, what a wonderful, wonderful collection of portraits, warm, humane, detailed, candid but compassionate portraits of the kind of plain-living, rural workers who were dying out as a breed even as he photographed them. You know those lines from Yeats’s poem, Easter 1916:

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in verse:

Invoking that mood of respect, it feels like an act almost of worship to write out the names of the people Killip photographed, the children, teenagers, farmers, wives and widows:

There is no God, no plan and no redemption. But images like this, full of understated dignity and wholeness on the part of the sitters, and respect and humanity on the part of the photographer, make you think maybe human love and compassion does redeem something, save something from the human wreck, raise us above our everyday lives into a higher realm blessed by more than human love.

(Note the way in the list above all the people are given titles, Mr, Mrs, Ms. It’s an old-fashioned mark of respect.)

Mrs Hyslop, Ballachrink Farm, the Braid © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

Immersion

He became an immersive photographer, living for months or more among the communities he sought to depict. His mission and his sympathies were not with the well-educated and well-heeled who run the country and write about it, but with ‘those who have had history done to them‘, the proles and chavs and pikeys and white trash who are dismissed by all commentators, make no impact on official culture, live and die in caravans or shitty council houses on sink estates at the arse end of nowhere.

Huddersfield 1972

In 1972 the Arts Council commissioned Killip to do a photo essay comparing and contrasting Huddersfield in Yorkshire with Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk for the exhibition ‘Two Views: Two Cities’. As far as I could see there was just one photo from Bury in the show, a neat-looking shot of some nice castle ruins. By contrast, as you can imagine, the rundown streets of Huddersfield with its mills, tenement housing, crappy high streets, boarded up shops and sad bus shelters grabbed Killip’s sympathies.

Playground in Huddersfield, 1974 © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

Newcastle 1975 to 1979

In 1975 Killip was commissioned to undertake a British Gas/Northern Arts fellowship. In his spare time from this commission he roved the streets and suburbs and slums of the city and as far afield as Castleford and Workington. My God, the squalor, the neglect, the decline, the decay, the old Victorian slums being demolished and the new cut-price, cheap council estates falling to pieces before your eyes. A landscape of vandalism and graffiti.

Demolished housing, Wallsend, August 1977. © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

Killip stayed in Newcastle for years, getting to know the area. For two years, 1977 to 1979, he served as director of a photo gallery, Amber’s Side Gallery. The May 1977 issue of Creative Camera was entirely devoted to Killip’s North East photos (a copy of it is one of the ephemera gathered in the display cases I mentioned earlier).

  • Children and terraced housing
  • Terraced house and coal mine
  • Two men on a bench
  • Looking East on Camp Road, Wallsend, 1975

There is a huge difference between the Manx series and this one. The Manx photos are dominated by large portraits of people who fill the screen, who are at home in their surroundings, their crofts or workshops. They’re big. They fill the photos as they fill their lives, at ease with who they are. They are fully human.

In the North East photos what dominates is the built environment. People are reduced to puppets, physically small against the backdrop of the enormous or decaying buildings. The buildings come in two types, terrible and appalling. The terrible ones are the old brick terraces thrown up in a hurry by the Victorian capitalists who owned the mines and steel works and shipbuilding yards and needed the bare minimum accommodation to keep their workers just about alive – badly built, no insulation, draughty windows, outside toilets and all.

Though Killip didn’t plan it, his time in Newcastle coincided with the wholesale destruction of the old brick terraces and their replacement with something even worse: the concrete high rises with broken lifts reeking of piss, the windswept plazas, dangerous underpasses, and oppressive network of toxic, child-killing urban highways, all the products of 1960s and 70s urban planners and brutalist architects.

May 5, 1981, North Shields, Tyneside © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

This is why I call the architects room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition the room of shame. Go on a tour of British cities to see for yourself the destruction of historic centres and their replacement with brutal concrete urban highways full of thundering traffic, concrete underpasses tailor made for muggers and rapists, bleak open spaces where the wind blows dust and grit into your eyes, the concrete facias of a thousand tragic shopping precincts and, looming above them, the badly built tower blocks and decaying office blocks. Concrete cancer.

This isn’t an architecture for people, it’s an architecture for articulated lorries. Thus the human beings in Killip’s harrowing photos of these killing precincts are reduced to shambling wrecks, shadows of humanity, scarecrows in raincoats, harassed mums, bored teenagers hanging round on street corners sniffing glue. This is what Killip captures, the death of hope presided over by a thousand architects and town planners who could quote Le Corbusier and Bauhaus till the cows came home and used them to build the most dehumanised environment known to man.

Killingworth new town, 1975 © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

As Philip Larkin wrote of young northern mums in their headscarves supervising their unruly children in some suburban playground:

Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.

(from Afternoons by Philip Larkin, 1959)

It’s epitomised by the photo of the silhouette of an old lady sitting in a half vandalised bush shelter in Middlesbrough. She’s wearing a headscarf and slumped forwards because her life, in this gritty, alienated environment, is bereft.

Woman in a bus shelter, Middlesborough, Teeside © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

Compare and contrast with the proud, erect, unashamed men and women of the Isle of Man. Pretty much all the humanity has been stolen from the mainlanders.

At some point I realised a lot of these grim Tyneside photos show a disproportionate number of children, children imprisoned in squalid houses, hanging round on derelict streets, trying to play in a crappy playground overshadowed by mines and factories, left outside the crappy, rundown bingo parlour, the cheapest nastiest, knockoff 60s architecture, complete with collapsing concrete canopy. A landscape of blighted lives and stunted childhoods.

Boy outside Prize Bingo Parlour, Newcastle 1976 © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

  • Two girls in Grangetown
  • Terraced house and coal mine, Castleford, 1976
  • Terraced housing, County Durham, 1976
  • Children and terraced housing, Byker, Newcastle, 1975
  • Butchers shop, Byker, Tyneside, 1975

Skinningrove 1982 to 1984

Skinningrove is a fishing community on the North Yorkshire coast. Killip had noticed its striking landscape on a drive up the east coast back in 1974 but found it difficult to penetrate the community. In fact locals chased him off the couple of times he tried to photograph them. His way in was through friendship with a young local named Leso, who made Killip feel welcome and reassured locals of his good intentions. Between 1982 and 84 Killip documented the crappy, poor, hard scrabbling lives of Leso and his mates – Blackie, Bever, Toothy, Richard, Whippet – as they fixed nets, repaired boats and hung around bored.

Leso and mates waiting for the tide to turn, Skinningrove, 1986 © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

This is an extraordinary, remarkable, amazing portrait of a dead-end community, poverty, low expectations and young people bored off their faces. No wonder they took to sniffing glue and as the 80s moved on and adopted the punk look pioneered down in London to express some kind of sense of identity and worth, rebellion against grey-clad council houses, the grey sky and the unremitting rhythms of the grey, cold, freezing sea.

This section is given tragic force when we learn that Leso, who got Killip his ‘in’ into the community and of whom there are many photos, fixing nets, waiting round for the tide to turn, hanging with his punk mates, walking across a dirty road carrying a rifle, he died tragically during Killips’s stay.

The fishing boat he and some mates were in was overturned at sea and Leso and David were drowned, tubby Bever made it back to shore. In tribute Killip made Leso’s grieving mother an album of three dozen photos of her lost son.

Leso, Blackie, Bever, ?, David, on a bench, Whippet standing, Skinningrove, 1986 © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

Seacoal Camp 1981 to1984

Killip discovered Lynemouth, Northumberland, in 1976. It had a strange and eerie vibe because there was a massive coalmine not far from the sea and waste coal was expelled into the sea, only to be brought back to shore on the incoming tides.

And a community of travellers or extremely poor people living in caravans and using horse-drawn wagons in and near the sea had sprung up which made a living scavenging this coal, using it to heat their homes, cook food, and to sell to other locals. An entire lifestyle based on coal scavenging.

Once again Killip had trouble penetrating this closed and fiercely protective community. From 1976 when he first came across it he made repeated attempts to photograph the people but was chased away. Only in 1982 was he finally accepted when, on a final visit to the local pub he was recognised by a man who’d given him shelter from a rainstorm at Appleby Horse fair and vouched for his good intentions.

So Killip set about taking photos, delicately tactfully at first. But in winter 1983 he bought a caravan of his own and got permission to park it alongside the community’s ones. Once really embedded he was able to record all the different types of moments experienced by individuals or between people engaged on this tough work, at the mercy of the elements, permanently dirty with coal muck.

Rocker and Rosie Going Home, Seacoal Beach, Lynemouth, Northumberland, 1984 © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

In the unpublished preface to the volume of poems he was working on when he was killed in the last days of the Great War, Wilfred Owen wrote:

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.

Same, with modifications, goes for Killip. The poetry, the deep, deep poetry of these photographs, derives from the immense love and compassion they evince, love of suffering humanity, the candour and accuracy of the shots, finding moments of piercing acuity amid the grinding poverty and mental horizons which are hemmed in on every side by slag heaps, metal works and the four walls of a cramped caravan.

Gordon in the water, Seacoal Beach, Lynemouth, 1983 © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

Photography and music

Photography is like music. Regarding music you can describe the notes and cadences, the technical manoeuvres and key changes, the invocation of traditions and forms and write at length about the ostensible subject (the Pastoral symphony, the Moonlight sonata etc). But in the end you have to let go of all of that and experience it as music, let the music do its work, what only it can do, triggering emotions, memories, fragments of feelings or thoughts, stirring forgotten moments, making all kinds of neural connections, filling your soul.

Same with these photographs. I’ve described what he was trying to do, bring respect and compassion to people right on the margins of society, the lost, the abandoned, the forgotten. He’s quoted as saying he had no idea he would end up recording the process of de-industralisation, it just happened to be going on as he developed his method and approach as a social photographer. Long essays could be written about class in England, about deindustrialisation and then, of course, about the Thatcher government which supervised the destruction of large swathes of industry and British working class life alongside it.

But at some point you pack all that way and let the photos do their work, which is to lacerate your heart and move you to tears. This is the best our society could offer to God’s children. What shame. What guilt.

Father and son watching a parade, West End of Newcastle, Tyneside, 1980 © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

The Miners Strike 1984 to 1985

A friend of mine at school in the Home Counties, his older sister was married to a copper. He told us the Miners Strike was great. They were bussed to Yorkshire, put up in army barracks, paid triple time wages and almost every day there was a fight, which he and his mates always won because they had the plastic shields, big truncheons and if things got really out of control, the cavalry. Killip apparently treated the long strike as another project with a view to producing another long-form series.

Durham Miners Gala, 1984 © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

But images from the Miners Strike project aren’t treated separately as the other projects are. Instead they’re rolled into the In Flagrante section.

In flagrante 1988

In 1985 the publisher Secker and Warburg told Killip they’d be interested in publishing his next book. This would mean access to a larger audience than previously and Killip was inspired. He worked with editor Mark Holborn and designer Peter Dyer to produce the 1988 book In Flagrante. Unlike all his previous projects which were heavily themed around specific communities and locations, In Flagrante deliberately cut his images adrift from their source projects to create a randomised cross-section of his career (although anyone who’d studied the previous projects has a good idea where each of them come from).

For the bitter bleakness and the unerring accuracy of the images, In Flagrante has been described as ‘the most important book of English photography from the 1980s.’ I was particularly taken by the set of photos of miserable English people from the 70s and 80s on various English beaches, at Whitley Bay, and so on. Narrow lives, no expectations, the quiet misery of the English working classes. They’ve come to the seaside for a break, for a ‘holiday’ and none of them know what to do there. Images of a nation at a loss what to do with the land it finds itself in.

Revolt

Respect goes to the tribes of young people who forged ways of rebelling against the poverty and low to zero expectations of their environment. In Flagrante contains a surprising number of photos of young punks who took the form to baroque extremes long after it was abandoned in London. There are lots of shots of the Angelic Upstarts of all bands, playing sweaty punk gigs in Gateshead. In fact the gallery shop has a music paper-size fanzine-style publication entirely full of shots he did of sweaty punk gigs in the mid-80s. ‘We’re the future, your future.’

The Station, Gateshead, 1985 © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

America 1991

What happened to Killip after that? America. I was disappointed to read that in 1991 he was invited to be a Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies in Harvard University. In 1994 he was made a tenured professor and was department chair from 1994 to 1998. He only retired from Harvard in 2017. Well, no doubt taking the Yankee dollar was the right move for him, but it meant the abrupt end of the sequence of breath-taking portfolio projects which had begun in 1970.

Summary

Killip’s oeuvre represents not only an invaluable document of social history 1970 to 1985 and, as such, a blistering indictment of an incompetent, uncaring, bewilderingly lost society – but it is also a testament to love and the redeeming possibilities of art.

The compassion and humanity of his work is embodied in its closeness and intimacy with its subjects, not the fake intimacy of eroticism, but being right there with poor suffering humanity; right up close as the dirty kids play in their abandoned playgrounds, the dispirited losers chain-smoke in a wretched bingo hall, an old lady loses the will to live in a vandalised bus shelter, bored young men sniff glue in a remote fishing town, and lost children spend all day every day clambering over filthy mounds of coal to help their mums and dads scrape a flimsy living The poetry is in the pity.

Youth on wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1975 © Chris Killip Photography Trust. All images courtesy Martin Parr Foundation

Levelling up

In the 50 years since Killip took these photos generations of politicians have come and gone, promising to narrow the North-South Divide and level up the whole country. All bollocks. Life expectancy for babies born in the North-East, like per household income, remain stubbornly below the national average. Pathetic, isn’t it. What a sorry excuse for a country.

Go and see this marvellous, searing, heart-rending exhibition.

The promotional video


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Anni Albers @ Tate Modern

Anni Albers combined the ancient craft of hand-weaving with the language of modern art.

This monumental, 11-room retrospective is the first major exhibition of Anni Albers’ work in the UK. It is a revelation and a fabulously calm, peaceful and enjoyable experience. The curators have somehow made all the rooms appear white and bright and open-plan. A couple of rooms are divided into sections partitioned off by translucent fabric stretched across Ikea-style pine frames.

The effect is to slow and calm you right down to a frame of mind which allows you to really soak up the beautiful and varied patterns of Anni’s fabrics and hangings, watercolours, prints and gouaches.

Installation view of Anni Albers at Tate Modern

Installation view of Anni Albers at Tate Modern

The exhibition includes more than 350 objects from exquisite small-scale ‘pictorial weavings’ (her term for weavings which were not meant to decorate or hang, weren’t intended to have an architectural purpose, but to have the same importance and impact as traditional paintings), to the large wall-hangings and textiles Anni designed for mass production, as well as a generous selection of her later prints and drawings.

It opens with a big visual statement – with a room dominated by an actual loom of the type she would have used while a student at the Bauhaus. To match or balance this, right at the end of the show, the final room includes samples of cloth and fabric which we are encouraged to touch and feel, as well as a film showing a weaving loom in use, highlighting the complex interaction of hand and eye which was required to use one of these machines.

A 12 Shaft Counter March loom of the type Albers would have used at the Bauhaus

A 12 Shaft Counter March loom of the type Albers would have used at the Bauhaus

Biography

Anni Albers (1899 to 1994) was born Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann in Berlin, Germany, to a bourgeois family of furniture manufacturers. In 1922 she joined the Bauhaus, the influential art and design school established by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar, and enrolled in the school’s weaving workshop. It was at the Bauhaus that she met the artist Josef Albers, who she married in 1925. (I am going to refer to her as Anni to distinguish her from her husband.)

Wall Hanging (1926) by Anni Albers. Mercerized cotton, silk © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Wall Hanging (1926) by Anni Albers. Mercerized cotton, silk © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

The early rooms display her student work alongside work by her tutors at the Bauhaus, including Paul Klee, and colleagues such as Gunta Stölzl and Lena Meyer-Bergner.

I couldn’t help revering the only Klee here, Measured Fields, a watercolour from 1929. Albers is quoted as saying that she didn’t learn that much from Klee’s teaching, but masses from the actual practice of his watercolours which experimented with laying blocks of (generally quite washed-out) colour next to each other.

Measured Fields by Paul Klee (1929)

Measured Fields by Paul Klee (1929)

Klee and Kandinsky were just the two most famous painters experimenting with colour and abstract design at the Bauhaus. Although he doesn’t get much mention here, Anni’s husband, Josef, was also thinking about colours and how they interact. The Bauhaus was an incredibly stimulating environment.

Anni completed her diploma in weaving in 1930 and succeeded Gunta Stölzl as the head of the weaving workshop the following year. However, in 1933 the Bauhaus closed under increasing pressure from the Nazi party, and the Alberses fled to America when they were invited by the American architect Philip Johnson to teach at Black Mountain College, an experimental art school in North Carolina.

Here Anni and Josef they initiated and led the art programme until 1949. That year, Anni Albers held her first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first solo exhibition to be dedicated to a textile artist at the institution.

In 1950 she moved for the final time in her life to New Haven, Connecticut, when Josef Albers was appointed to teach in the Department of Design at Yale University.

Pasture (1958) by Anni Albers. Cotton © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Pasture (1958) by Anni Albers. Cotton © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Printmaking

Anni Albers continued to hand-weave until the late 1960s when she began to focus on printmaking. On display here is a fabulous sequence of white prints on white paper. The effect is of embossed zigzag patterns on a plain white background which itself contrasts with the slightly stippled surface of the surround outside the main square. It sounds simple but they are tremendously evocative, in one way they were the most attractive thing in the show.

 Mountainous I by Anni Albers (1978)

Mountainous I by Anni Albers (1978)

Six Prayers

In the mid-1960s Anni was invited to design an ark covering for a Jewish temple in Dallas, Texas. The result was Six Prayers which are given a room to themselves. Into the cotton and linen of the tapestries is woven silver thread, giving them a scintillating effect in the carefully gauged darkness of the room.

The pattern, when you look up close, invokes but doesn’t quite use, the Hebrew script, an effect which can be interpreted as a fragmenting of language and meaning or, more hopefully, a sense of the numinous, of silver threads of meaning, struggling to pierce through the weight of the everyday.

Six Prayers by Anni Albers (1966-7)

Six Prayers by Anni Albers (1966 to 1967)

The event of a thread

Room eight – titled ‘The event of a thread’ – explores how, in the mid-1940s, Anni began to explore knots. She was probably influenced by the German mathematician and knot theorist Max Wilhelm Dehn, who joined Black Mountain College in 1945 and became a friend of the Alberses.

Although not a painter, in 1947 Anni Albers began to sketch and paint entangled, linear structures. Later, in the 1950s, she produced a number of scroll-like works with celtic-style knots, and then the Line Involvements print series in the 1960s.

To be honest, I think I respond to painting and drawing more immediately than I do to fabric, and so I found some of these knot paintings absolutely mesmeric. They are as if someone has taken the beautifully taut and compact interlocking lines of classic Celtic patterns and… unlocked them, loosened them, shaken them up, set them free. My photo of them is awful but the real things are entrancing.

Drawings for a rug by Anni Albers (1959)

Drawings for a rug by Anni Albers (1959)

On Weaving

Next to this section was the space which most epitomised the tasteful design and layout of the exhibition – a room created of see-through partitions, devoted to Anni’s writings. She published two influential books: in 1959, a short anthology of essays titled On Designing, and in 1965 the seminal book On Weaving.

The extensive display cases in this space convey the tremendous breadth and range of this latter work, which took as its subject the entire 4,000 year long history of the practice, from right round the world.

While still a student in Berlin, Anni had become a regular visitor to the Museum of Ethnology and become fascinated by its collection of Peruvian textile art. Apparently, the ancient Peruvians never developed a written language, in the way we think of it. Instead their art, and most of all their textiles, served a sort of communicative purpose.

Anni’s ‘pictorial weaving’, Ancient Writing, from 1936, was the first in an occasional series of works whose titles explicitly refer to language and texts, such as Haiku (1961), Code (1962) and Epitaph (1968).

Ancient Writing by Anni Albers (1936) Cotton and rayon © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Ancient Writing by Anni Albers (1936) Cotton and rayon © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

The Peruvian tradition was only one among hundreds of ancient techniques and traditions which Anni taught could be used to revitalise contemporary practice. The cases display the source material Anni gathered for the book, from images of works by contemporary artists such as Jean Arp, to fragments of woven pieces from Africa and Asia, Europe and the Americas.

These are accompanied by technical diagrams of various knotting techniques, as well as ‘draft notation’ diagrams which show the weaver how to create the different weave structures and patterns.

Although I didn’t follow the details, I did get a sense of how universal this art has been, practiced by all human cultures across a huge span of time. How there is something almost primeval about weaving and binding fabrics for human use.

Installation view of room 9, On Weaving, of Anni Albers at Tate Modern

Installation view of room 9, On Weaving, of Anni Albers at Tate Modern

In the 1970s Anni finally gave up the physically arduous task of weaving and switched her interest to printing techniques such as lithography, screen-printing, photo-offset, embossing and etching.

Printing allowed Anni to pursue her interest in colour, texture, pattern, surface qualities and other aspects of ‘textile language’, translating these concerns onto paper. She used simple grids and rows of triangles to create a wide variety of effects that reveal the influence of the pre-Columbian textiles and artefacts she collected and studied.

I’ve shown one of the white patterns which she came to title Mountainous earlier, but there are plenty more examples of her wonderful eye for geometric design and colour, an endless play of design and pattern.

TR II (1970) by Anni Albers. Lithograph © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

TR II (1970) by Anni Albers. Lithograph © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

This is an eye-opening exhibition in every sense. A lifetime’s output of beautiful objects, fabrics, rugs, hangings, paintings and prints by a consistently inspired and inspiring artist.

The guide tells me it was designed by PLAID Designs, so major respect to them for having laid all these treasures out in light and airy spaces. In her 1957 article, The Pliable Plane, Anni had imagined a museum where

textile panels instead of rigid ones … provide for the many subdivisions and backgrounds it needs. Such fabric walls could have varying degrees of transparency or be opaque, even light-reflecting…

Well, the curators and designers of this exhibition have come as close to realising Anni’s vision as is possible. There is much more I haven’t mentioned, about her involvement with specific architectural projects, about her innovatory use of hangings as room dividers or sound-proofing music auditoria, and an enormous amount about her wide-ranging experiments with fabrics ancient and modern, and with techniques from ancient Peru to modern America.

But it’s the light and space of the show, in which countless examples of beautiful fabrics and prints hang suspended in their beauty and weightlessness, which make you leave the exhibition walking on air.

The promotional video

And this is one of Simon Barker’s videos showing how a handloom is used.


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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.


Related links

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

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