Mural makeover

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Diego Rivera's murals are to Mexico what the Michelangelo frescoes are to Rome.

The walls of Mexico City's National Palace are filled with the artist’s vision of the pre-Hispanic indigenous Mexico of the Aztecs, the Conquest and battle for independence, and a Marxist utopia of the 20th Century.

And now, with the upcoming 2010 bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the centennial of the start of the decade-long Mexican Revolution, the government is restoring some of Rivera’s major works and making them more accessible to Mexicans and visitors alike.

Mexicans have always been in love with their famous painter and muralist, admirer of Lenin, friend of Trotsky and husband — twice — of Frida Kahlo.

For decades, however, especially during the 1920s and 1930s, conservatives in Mexico attacked leftist artists and intellectuals, including Rivera, not only for his politics but also for his emphasis on the indigenous and mestizo character of Mexico. Though most of the country was made up of Indians or people of mixed blood, conservatives had always looked to the whites of Spain for their political and moral inspiration. 

In 1929, the year he married Kahlo, Rivera was appointed to to a position at the Ministry of Education. With two other muralists, he created the Commission of Mural Painting. But a controversy erupted over one of his murals that included the slogan "God does not exist." The mural was kept from public view for nine years. Only toward the end of the 20th century, after the Cold War had ended, did it seem that Rivera's politics had become irrelevant.

Rivera was born in the city of Guanajuato in central Mexico in 1886, during the “Porfiriato,” the nearly uninterrupted 35-year rule of dictator Porfirio Diaz. The misery, poverty, violence and corruption that characterized that era led to the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1921, and to the communist leanings of many intellectuals, political leaders and artists, Rivera among them.

A restoration expert works on a Rivera mural.
(Courtesy National Institute of Fine Arts)

As a young artist, in 1907 Rivera received a grant to study in Europe, where he remained until 1921. In Europe, he witnessed the effects of World War I and returned home a member of the Cubist art movement. In Mexico, he combined his intellectual awareness of politics and social change with a growing appreciation for the indigenous roots of his native land.

In 1922, Rivera joined the Mexican Communist Party and later traveled to the Soviet Union. He was critical of Stalin and became a friend of Trotsky, helping to convince Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas to grant Trotsky asylum. (Trotsky lived for a time with Rivera and Kahlo. He was attacked on Aug. 20, 1940, by an agent of Stalin and died the next day).

American radicals loved Rivera’s art, but his political activism didn’t always go over well with American conservatives. He traveled to the United States in 1930 where, in San Francisco, he painted murals for the Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Arts. In 1932, he had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he had attracted the attention of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller and a major patron of the arts.

When she convinced her husband to commission Rivera to paint a mural for the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center, Rivera included a figure of Lenin in the work. When challenged, he refused to expunge Lenin from the work and his commission was canceled. The mural was covered and later destroyed by a group of workers. Rivera recreated the work in Mexico City, and included a figure of Rockefeller along with Marx.

Today Rivera’s works hang in galleries and museums around the world, from the Art Institute of Chicago and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

INBA, Mexico’s National Institute of Fine Arts, which oversees national museums in Mexico, is in charge of restoring many of Rivera’s works. The work began in June, and professional restorers are “in-painting,” or repainting the works that are most in need of conservation. Restorers use special brushstrokes and different paints so that art historians can later tell what was restored and what was original.

Murals have been a central part Mexico's art scene since the 1920s, when the government of President Alvaro Obregon commissioned Rivera and his fellow muralists David Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco to paint frescoes in and on public buildings to bring art to the people. It was the beginning of what came to be known as the Mexican Mural Renaissance, celebrating Mexican heritage from pre-Hispanic days through the Revolution.

“Few people in the world know more about restoring and conserving murals than the Mexicans,” said James Oles, a curator and Mexican art historian who teaches at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and lives most of the year in Mexico City.

The National Palace, already a major tourist draw for visitors to Mexico City’s historic central district, will remain open during the restoration and repair work, said Miguel Angel Fernandez, a conservator overseeing the project.

A restoration expert works on a Rivera mural.
(Courtesy National Institute of Fine Arts)

INBA officials say they will build a new Bicentennial Gallery inside the National Palace, with a major new exhibit to be inaugurated in July 2010. The 4,500-square meter exhibition will be titled “Mexico 200 Years: The Construction of the Fatherland.” Its 500 works, including many of Rivera’s, will be displayed for one year and entrance will be free. Officials expect 2 million visitors during that time.

In Guanajuato, the house where Rivera was born is a museum and it too is undergoing expansion and renovation. There are 175 Rivera works on display there, including oils, watercolors, a self-portrait and a portrait of his friend and fellow painter Siquieros. A nude lithograph of his lover and wife, Frida Kahlo, also hangs in the museum.

During the Cold War era, Siquieros suffered more than Rivera because he was an enthusiastic follower of Stalin, according to Oles. “Rivera was a Trotskyite, and thus less problematic,” he said. “Mexicans aren’t as sensitive to one’s politics as Americans are, not as puritanical by any means.”