Monday, November 16

Two Books About Diego Rivera

Today’s Image
Acrylic on Canvas
Byrne Smith Copyright 2008

I noticed recently the number of viewers to the OrbisPlanis is steadily increasing, so I wanted to take moment to thank the regular viewers/readers and let you know I appreciate your continued patronage. I also appreciate your sending the link to the OrbisPlanis to others who may have an interest.

A while back, I mentioned I was reading a biography on Diego Rivera and would blog about it when I finished. Well, I finally finished it. Actually, I received two books about Rivera earlier this year. One is Diego Rivera by Andrea Kettenmann and published by Taschen, and the other is Dreaming With His Eyes Open, a Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham and published by the University of California Press. Today's Image is an acrylic I painted a while back that reminds me of Rivera's homeland in Mexico.

The former is a relatively concise book that summarizes the life and work of Rivera in succinct chronological order. It also contains dozens of colorful images and photos of Rivera’s paintings and murals during his long career. I like being able to view most of Rivera’s important work in a book that is easy to open and thumb through quickly. At the same time, it also includes a lot of information about the work so that you can take your time to study each one if you like.

The other book is an exhaustive biography on the life and times of one of the most complex artists (in my opinion) I have read about. It’s 317 pages of margin-to-margin text, plus a colorful insert of selected works and appendixes with chronology, source notes, and a most complete bibliography. This is one of those biographies that, once you get into it, you feel almost as if you were tagging along unseen through Rivera’s life with him and his colorful, to say the least, family, friends, and acquaintances.

The book takes you from Rivera’s childhood in Mexico to his student painting days in Paris, Moscow, and Spain to his success in Mexico as a muralist and then on to a productive, but turbulent, period in the 1930s in the United States. It ends with his later artistic life in Mexico.

Before reading these books, I had only the briefest knowledge of Rivera as a muralist and the husband of Frida Kahlo, an artist in her own right and whose life is the subject of many books. What I did not know is that he was quite a force not only in art but also as a political figure. I get the impression that he was equally as famous for his mural artwork as he was for his socialist views, many of which are portrayed in his murals. He and Frida Kahlo were members of the Communist party in Mexico and even entertained Leon Trotsky in their famed Casa Azul home in the late 1930s.

There’s way too much detailed information in the book to cover in a blog, but one of threads in the book is Rivera’s famous and infamous infidelities. I lost count of the number of his affairs with many women, even including Kahlo’s sister.

One episode I found interesting was his business dealings with the Rockefeller family and a mural commissioned for the opening of Rockefeller Center in 1933. Without going into all the intriguing details, it was ultimately destroyed before it was unveiled due to Rivera’s adding a portrait of Lenin, which was not in the original design of the mural.

If you like to read biographies about famous artists, as I do, you may want to put these two on your list.



  1. Rivera, on the run from Stalinist hitmen, came to San Francisco in 1940 and painted "Pan American Unity" ( at the Golden Gate International Exposition. Today it resides at City College of SF.
    In the mural he urges the US to get into the war against the Nazis. As far as I know few communists advocated this because the USSR and Germany were still bound by the Non-Aggression Pact.
    A scholar, Carl Nagin, has come up with a different take on the Rockefeller incident, which paints a differrent picture of what happened.

  2. Thanks for your comments, and if nothing else, Rivera's murals have stood the test of time.