From 24 June to 17 September 2023, the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) opened the exhibition: Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution. Iconic works by two of the most influential and loved artists of the twentieth century – Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera – feature in this Australian exclusive exhibition, alongside works by key Mexican contemporaries. Let’s go and explore!
Besides, the Philadelphia Museum of Art also has an another one: Diego Rivera: Frescoes. In this installation are two of five portable murals that Diego Rivera created in New York for display in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1931.
Diego Rivera fictionalised his life so much, that even his birth date is a myth. His mother María, his aunt Cesárea and the town hall records list his arrival at 7:30 on the evening of December 8th, 1886. That is the very auspicious day of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. However, in the Guanauato ecclesiastical registry, baptism documentation states that little Diego María Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez actually showed up on December 13th.
Rivera’s own description of his natal day many decades later recreates a grand melodrama. His mother had already laboured through three pregnancies that ended in stillbirths. Expecting twins, she pushed out Diego and began to haemorrhage. Diego was scrawny and lethargic and not expected to live, so Doctor Arizmendi, a family friend, tossed him into a nearby dung bucket and went for the second child. Diego’s twin brother arrived and seemed to be the last straw for petite and frail María, who lapsed into a coma.
In despair, Don Diego Rivera sobbed over his lifeless wife. Preparations had to be made to deal with her corpse. Ancient Matha, who had been attending Doña María, watched her being laid out and bent to kiss her cold forehead. The crone suddenly stepped back. María’s “corpse” was breathing! The doctor immediately lit a match and held it under María’s heel. Taking it away, he saw a blister had formed. Doña María was alive. Some squawks came from the dung bucket showing little Diego too had a few kicks in him, and he was retrieved.
Doña María eventually recovered and went on to study obstetrics, becoming a professional midwife. Diego’s twin brother, Carlos, died a year and a half later while the puny Diego, suffering from rickets and a weak constitution, became the ward of his Tarascan Indian nurse, Antonia, who lived in the Sierra Mountains. There, according to Diego, she gave him herbal medicine and practised sacred rites while he drank goat’s milk fresh from the udders and lived wild in the woods with all manner of creatures.
Whatever the truth concerning his birth and early childhood, Diego inherited a crisp analytical intellect through a convoluted blending of bloodlines, having Mexican, Spanish, Indian, African, Italian, Jewish, Russian and Portuguese descent. His father, Don Diego, taught him to read “…according to the Froebel method”.
Friedrich Froebel is considered to be the “father of the modern kindergarten”. This German educator coined the word Kindergarten (“children’s garden”) in 1839. He opposed the concept of treating children as miniature adults and insisted on their right to enjoy childhood, to have free play, arts, crafts, music and writing. Pointing out the moral in a story did not allow children to draw their own conclusions from what they had read. It is interesting that later non-objective, free-thinking European artists such as Braque, Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian were likely as not also educated in Froebel-based kindergartens.
Diego Rivera was born into a Mexico that consisted of a class-tiered society dependent on blood lines and political affiliations. The period was called the Porfiriato after the administration of autocratic President Don Porfirio Díaz. The elder Rivera was a educated man, a school teacher and a political liberal who was known as a trouble-maker to the political party in office. He was also a crillolo, a Mexican citizen of privileged “pure” European descent. His military service with the Mexican Army that had disposed of French rule under Maximilian also accorded him a somewhat bullet-proof position among Díaz’ “loyal” opposition.
The revered President Benito Juárez had freed Mexico from French rule with Díaz fighting at his side. When Juárez died, Díaz seized rule from the ineffective chosen leader Sebastián Lerdo in 1876. The peasant land reforms of Juárez were shelved over time, and Díaz shifted loyalties to rich foreign investors and conservative wealthy Mexican families. He modernised Mexico with electric light, railways and trade agreements, and balanced the Mexican budget to great international acclaim. At the top tier of Mexican social life, the wealthy embraced French customs, food, entertainment and language. The Mexican peons, the farmers on the lowest tier, were left to starve and scrape a living.
To improve his lot financially, young Diego’s father invested in recovering ore from the played-out silver mines that surrounded Guanajuato. Once a booming industry, the silver veins had vanished and no amount of resuscitation could bring them back. The Rivera family went into debt. Diego’s mother, María, sold the family furniture so they could move to a squalid apartment in Mexico City and start again. María was a mestiza, small and frail, but shared her European blood with Indian forebears. She also had a home-taught education, which allowed her to pursue her medical studies and became a professional midwife.
Through all this strife, young Diego was the pampered son. He could read by the age of four and had begun drawing on the walls. Moving to Mexico City opened up a world of wonders to him. The city rose on a high plateau atop an ancient lake-bed at the foot of twin snow-capped volcanoes, Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. After the dusty rural roads and flat-roofed houses of Guanauato, the paved thoroughfares of the capital with its elegant French architecture and the Paseo de Reforma rivalling the best of Europe’s boulevards, Diego was overwhelmed.
Some of the featured artworks:
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