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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.

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.”