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Mural makeover

Mexico is restoring the murals of Diego Rivera — admirer of Lenin, friend of Trotsky and lover of Frida Kahlo.

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.