The Monster in Diego Rivera's Labyrinth

Diego Rivera, Mural de Bellas Artes. Photo by By Escalante-Pasos - Own work (CC BY-SA 4.0 / WikiMedia Commons)

The overwhelming message that emerges from the conversations between Diego Rivera and journalist / sci-fi writer Alfredo Cardona Peña is of the vital, passionate centrality of art for today's world.

Conversations With Diego Rivera: The Monster in His Labyrinth
Alfredo Cardona Peña

New Village Press

Jul 2018


When Diego Rivera was 63 years old, the towering (and scandalous) Mexican painter -- who these days is known as the husband of Frido Kahlo (along with three other women) -- acquiesced to an interview with the journalist and writer Alfredo Cardona Peña. The initial interview turned into a series of interviews, which ran over the course of a year in the Mexican newspaper El Nacional. This turned into a book, which Cardona's younger half brother, Alvaro Cardona-Hine, kindly promised to translate one day into English.

Nearly 50 years later, and at the age of 88, Alvaro finally fulfilled his promise, and The Monster In His Labyrinth: Conversations With Diego Rivera has made it into English.

Diego is here in all of his genius and abominations. The latter were plenty, and the text reflects faithfully his sexist objectification of women; his anti-Semitic asides (more flippant than heartfelt; he was of Jewish descent himself and elsewhere rages against anti-Semitism); his broad, essentializing capacity to paint entire peoples in wide brushstrokes. This nature is unpopular among intellectuals today, and while that is good in some ways, it's also evident that this capacity was integral to Rivera's artistic skill; his ability to pick out common themes that resonated among the poor, angry masses and depict these in his murals and paintings.

Rivera speaks in bombastic phrases, which cannot help but produce contradictory reactions in his listeners today. On the one hand, there's an undeniable attraction, especially today, toward someone who is capable of lecturing with such thundering confidence, apathetic to the reaction of his audience and whether they love or hate him for it (it is perhaps what Donald Trump would be, if he had either intellect or courage in addition to brazen bombast). On the other hand, there's a certain hilarity to his over-the-top outbursts, for instance, condemning the architecture of modern Mexico City as "that infected abortion of an inferiority complex, the congenital boot-licking of the Mexican criollo [white Spanish settlers]… aided by those dandified, audacious and pretentious architects, the accomplices of every thieving or ignorant functionary, every cheating shop owner, every suspicious banker, every stock compiler and exploiter of wartime who has demolished a poor man's shack by blood and fire to erect ugly and uncomfortable housing projects."

Rivera is an outspoken socialist, but unlike other bombastic outspoken socialists, the interviews surprise by revealing a great deal of thought and sense behind his political analysis. His offhand assurances that the revolution is around the corner aside, he offers a superb analysis of the political economy of art and architecture, ranging from the mechanics of the illegal global market in antiquities, to the deleterious shortcomings of city planning and the economics of folk art.

Part of the Rivera mural, El hombre en cruce de caminos (1934) in the Bellas Artes building, Mexico City. (JoePhoto from Boston - Commies! (CC BY 2.0 / WikiMedia Commons)

Rivera has sometimes been portrayed as a hypocrite; someone who claimed communist credentials but loved the life of plenty. There is, however, a profound honesty in his behaviour. He had no compunction about accepting prestigious commissions—and the money that came with them. On the other hand, he was equally blasé about his phases of penury; he sometimes blew through money as fast as he earned it. Most important, he did not let it affect his art. He gleefully produced murals that earned him the wrath of the establishment, and nearly got him killed by a religious mob on at least one occasion. He was fearless in his artistic convictions, and did not allow fear of being blacklisted or ostracized by his wealthy patrons to infect his artistic integrity. In a way, he seems to have turned capitalism's seminal message back on itself: 'there's a sucker born every minute', and even if he offends and enrages one group of wealthy establishment types, there'll always be another willing to buy his paintings.

The interviews range widely in topic matter, and some wander into obscure territory. Let's be honest: some of Rivera's raging speeches are fully incomprehensible. Others require specialized familiarity with artists and art styles. Yet the conversations between Cardona and Rivera were overall broad enough to offer at least something for everyone.

Among the more fascinating of these conversations is a discussion the two had on the importance of children's art. When Cardona asks him whether he finds children's paintings interesting, Rivera replies "You've hit the mother lode, my dear Cardona!" He then launches into a peroration on the vital importance of children's art. He analyzes it in various ways but his most important point is that "children's art [is] an incredibly important hygienic mental and social medium." Insofar as children's art is based on concepts and understandings of the world that are "freer than that of the adult", and free from the prejudices, weighty theories and "psychological traumas" of the adult world, studying children's art can actually heal and re-center the adult, Rivera argues.

"[C]hildren's paintings, fruit of concepts freer than those of adults, can serve to bring back to reason artists gone crazy with concepts and prejudices of their own and others. That's the great value of children's paintings, which we could well call therapeutic for adult artists, and not just for them, but for all human beings…"

A study also deserves to be made of Rivera's relationship with indigeneity. At a time when indigenous culture throughout North America was still denigrated and covered up in embarrassment by settler regimes, Rivera was an outspoken advocate for respecting indigenous culture, which he seems to have considered far superior, in art and aesthetics, to the Spanish and hybrid forms which usurped it. He speaks in praise of "Indian romanticism", but at a time when it was unpopular to do so, and he struggles to produce a notion of indigeneity well before academics wrestled with the notion.

"[W]hat is Indian constitutes the only beauty produced by the location where it is born," he says. "Consequently, it is superior intrinsically and extrinsically to any subsequent product. The half-breed and the white in America are not a happy biological product."

"Everything in America that is valuable and significant is rooted in the Indian world," he continues, arguing that indigenous perspective continued to infuse that which was best about American art and culture. "[I]n these lands all that which isn't by its root and base indigenous… will lack life and is of no value."

Diego Rivera - Detroit Industry Murals (ashleystreet and one more author - originally posted to Flickr as Diego Rivera - Detroit Industry Murals) (CC BY 2.0 / WikiMedia Commons)

Rivera laments that modern Mexican society draws a distinction between its modern manifestation and its indigenous roots, arguing that this is an artificial distinction stemming from "our lack of identity and national unity." It's not that he's arguing for assimilation, but is rather a proud acknowledgement of the Indigenous role in shaping modern Mexican culture. His adoration and respect for Indigenous culture – he collected artwork and visited ruins, fighting for their preservation – can be witnessed as influences in his own artwork as well. He argues passionately for a confident, self-assured Mexican style, one not afraid to stand on its own and not afraid to be rejected by European standards. The fear of being judged and found unworthy by the outside world "bring[s] out in the Indo-Ibero-American petty bourgeoisie an irremediable inferiority complex which we must more accurately call a semi-colonial inferiority complex because it translates into an attitude of anxiousness to appear to be like their foreign masters," he proclaims.

While he was a passionate advocate of socialist revolution, the struggle he waged most intimately was for the recognition and triumph of Mexican art (as much as he argued at other times against worrying what the art critics of other nations thought). This was a struggle he conceived of in often violent, political terms. When fellow Mexican painter David Siqueiros is awarded a prize at the Venice Biennale in 1950, Rivera paints the scene: "[Fr]om the time the dangerous boxes containing Mexican paintings were opened, the professional curiosity of critics and painters leaped onto them, producing a veritable sensation because they had to bow before the quality and content of our work and the force it represented."

Rivera shares in the feeling of triumph as though it were his own: "[I]t is an important victory against purist art… we who belong to and are on the same barricade… should be delighted… It is necessary that the Mexican masses… celebrate in a great public act the triumph of Mexican painting… if our bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie have existed smelling Europe's behind and shaking their tail imitating their style with twenty-five years of delay, now the vital part of Europe gets in tune with what we the artists of the Mexican people created."

The country's representative at that Biennnale concurs in a letter to Rivera, expressed in equally militaristic terms: "Mexican art has gained a decisive battle in its first presentation in Europe."

Cardona deserves credit for his wonderful interview technique. He offers eloquent and beautifully imagined prefaces to some of Rivera's commentary, and deployed a technique that worked well with Rivera, sticking to broad and seemingly simplistic questions. What is art? What is a color? What do you think of children's art?

For all his verbosity and bombast, Rivera had a lifetime of artistic study and practice in which to hone his ideas, and he responds decisively to his interviewer's queries. "Should art be political?" asks Cardona. "Art should be nothing but art," replies Rivera, but then adds Aristotle's adage that in human society "there is not a single activity… that isn't essentially political."

The overwhelming message that emerges from these conversations is of the vital, passionate centrality of art for today's world.

Tlacuilo mesoamericano, Painting : Diego Rivera (mural del Palacio Nacional de México) Photo : El Comandante - Self-photographed (Public Domain / WikiMedia Commons)

"Painting is an essential function of human life," declares Rivera. And it can be used for good or for evil. The powerful, who seek to oppress us, "need the help of the producers of aesthetic emotion, in other words, of artists, since a work of art, thanks to the pleasure it produces, can alleviate and compensate by some measure for the pain of exploitation." [How true is this of not just painting, but of other modern forms of aesthetic pleasure as well!]

But art can also be used in the opposite way – as a weapon in the name of freedom, says Rivera.

"[I]t could be converted into an effective weapon against lying to the people, teaching [the people] to discover, through its contents, the lies power uses to exploit it."

It's in moments like these that Cardona and Rivera hit upon eternal truths, rising above the minutiae of art history to remind us of the essential humanity of the practice.

"The fountain of Rivera's words is located on a plain scorched by passion," writes Cardona in admiration of his subject. "[N]ow I contemplate them satisfied that they haven't lost heat or aggressiveness. Rivera can never be considered a dead volcano."

The volcano continues to rumble.





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