Артур Рудзицкий
Ukrainian art historian, book historian, publisher, public figure
Liberal Arts
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DIEGO RIVERA: between art and revolution

DIEGO RIVERA: between art and revolution
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Diego Rivera. Painter, sculptor and architect, 1928 / artive.com

 

Diego Rivera’s first acquaintance with artists and writers from Ukraine took place in the early 1910s in Paris, where the young Mexican studied the works of old masters and became involved in contemporary art.

In those years, his friends were Oleksandr Arkhypenko, Maksymilian Voloshyn, and Ilya Ehrenburg from Kyiv, Borys Savinkov from Kharkiv, David Sterenberg from Zhytomyr, Chana Orloff from Kostiantynivka, and others.

Maksymilian Voloshyn left interesting notes about his acquaintance with Rivera in his diary (January 1916):

«Rivera. Huge, heavy. Brow arches with wings. Short, stiff, black hair all over his skull in bunches, capacious, but in some places crumpled and depressed. Beard on the cheeks around the face. The face of Stendhal’s portraits is heavy and imposing. A kind ogre, fierce and gentle; generosity, intelligence, breadth in every gesture».

 

Диего Ривера. Автопортрет, посвященный Ирене Рич, 1941
Diego Rivera. Self-portrait dedicated to Irene Rich, 1941 / artive.com

 

He told about himself:

«All my ancestors and relatives were military men. And I had to be a military man. I invented machines from childhood. Then I played with soldiers. I had 15 thousand paper cut-outs and bronze cannons. And I made all my friends do the same. I drew dispositions and campaign plans. I had a pile like this.

One day my father saw it. He got angry. «Where did you draw this?» «I didn’t draw it, I made it myself». Then he kissed me and said: «Very good». And the next day he took me to the military minister. There was a whole council of old people gathered. I was scared. They were looking at my plans. Then the minister opened the door to the library and said: «You can come here to work as if you were at home».

He was a friend of my father: they played chess every day. But this is what ruined my military career: I was afraid of so many books, I did not imagine war in this way. However, I saw a model of a frigate in the library. It fascinated me, and I wanted to be a sailor, because I thought I wouldn’t have to study so many books. They arranged for me to cancel the age law in order to enter a military school.

I worked only on math, physics, and chemistry. But then I realized that what captivated me was drawing, drawing. When my father asked me before the exam: «Are you satisfied?», I said: «No». He was surprised and said: «Well, do you want to be a sailor?» I answered: «No, I want to be a painter».

He was silent and then said: «If you want — be». And he let me go to Europe. This was not what he expected from me, of course, but he never showed his disappointment…»

By 1917, Rivera was getting closer to the ideas of communism, so he passionately supported the revolution in Russia, but despite an offer to go to revolutionary Moscow, he decided to return to revolutionary Mexico in 1921, where he joined the local Communist Party and began creating murals depicting the work of ordinary people and their struggle against the local latifundists.

It was then that the artist’s first monumental works appeared, which made him famous: «Creation» (1921–1923); «Song of the Earth» (1923–1927), «Political Vision of the Mexican People» (1923–1928).

 

Диего Ривера. Сотворение, 1923
Diego Rivera. Creation, mural, 1923 / artive.com

 

From Mexico, Rivera followed the artistic and political life in the USSR with great interest. When Vladimir Mayakovsky visited Mexico in 1925, Rivera became his personal guide. In his book My Discovery of America (1925–1926), the Soviet poet recalled their meeting:

«Diego de Rivera met me at the train station. That is why painting was the first thing I got acquainted with in Mexico City. I had only heard before that Diego was one of the founders of the Mexican Communist Party, that Diego was the greatest Mexican artist, that Diego hit a coin on the fly with a Colt…»

In July 1927, the famous artist and political activist Diego Rivera received an official invitation to visit Moscow to participate in the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the revolution.

The Soviet government initially took care of the famous Mexican communist muralist: he gave a presentation on contemporary Mexican art at the Communist Academy, the People’s Commissar for Education Anatoly Lunacharsky signed a contract with the artist to create a mural for the Red Army Club, and negotiations were underway for other government orders.

None of these projects were realized, although official agreements allowed the artist to stay in the USSR for several months. All this time, Rivera made many sketches and sketches for future monumental projects, gave public lectures, met with colleagues, writers, directors, visited museums and theaters, and participated in discussions.

The visit of the Mexican artist was covered in detail in the Soviet press. Soviet art critics praised the work of Diego Rivera. In particular, the most famous art critic Yakov Tugendhold, in his essays for «Pravda» and the magazine «Krasnaya Niva», accompanied by reproductions of the master’s works, included Rivera, along with Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Käthe Kolwitz, and Béla Witts, in the «galaxy of red artists», «first-class talents» of international art.

It should be noted here that Yakiv Tugendhold was friends with the Boichukist artists: he met with them on several occasions and wrote enthusiastically about their work (for example, the article «Art of the Peoples of the USSR» in the journal «Print and Revolution» in December 1927).

And the famous Hungarian artist Bela Witz, mentioned by Tugendhold, an outstanding poster artist, graphic artist, and author of monumental murals, was connected with Ukrainian muralists by his ideas and work. Witz had a particularly close relationship with Oksana Pavlenko, a student of Mykhailo Boichuk and the ex-wife of Vasyl Sedliar, who lived in Moscow since the 1920s.

 

Василий Теофанович Седляр — украинский художник-монументалист, график, художественный критик, педагог эпохи Расстрелянного возрождения, принадлежал к творческой группе бойчукистов. Жертва сталинского террора
Vasyl Sedliar was a Ukrainian monumentalist, graphic artist, art critic, and teacher of the Executed Renaissance, and a member of the Boychukist artistic group. Victim of Stalin’s terror / wikipedia.org

 

When Vasyl Sedliar learned from his friends and the press that the famous muralist Diego Rivera had arrived in Moscow, he immediately went there to meet him personally. After all, the Mexican artist, like the Boychukists, searched for the origins of national art by studying Italian frescoes and Byzantine icons.

Here is what Sedliar wrote to Oksana Pavlenko on January 7, 1928: «Today, when I was at Tugendhold’s, I met — who would you think — with Diego de Rivera himself! He is a handsome man — healthy, plump. He was happy too».

The result of this meeting was Vasyl Sedliar’s article «Diego de Rivera» in the journal «Krytyka» (No. 7 of 1928), to which I would like to return at the end of this publication.

 

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It is important to note that Sedliar was strongly influenced by Rivera’s ideas and compositions in his work: in particular, in his work «By the Tractor» (1931), the author gives a paraphrase of some fragments of Rivera’s mural «The Artist, Sculptor, and Architect» (1923–1928).

The same can be seen in Vasyl Sedliar’s illustrations for a separate edition of Mayakovsky’s poem «We Will Take New Rifles» (1931) — one can recall Rivera’s Moscow sketches of the 1927 parade, which the Mexican artist probably showed Sedliar, as well as the famous poster by Bela Witz «Red Soldiers, Forward!» (1919).

In mid-1929, Vasyl Sedliar hoped to invite Diego Rivera to Kyiv, as he informed Oksana Pavlenko in a letter, but unfortunately, this intention did not materialize.

 

Диего Ривера. Человек на распутье, фреска, 1934
Diego Rivera. Man at the Crossroads, mural, 1934 / artive.com

 

Rivera’s arrival in the USSR at the end of 1927 coincided with the culmination of the persecution of Lev Trotsky: in Moscow, the artist witnessed the suppression of an opposition demonstration, which turned him into a Trotskyism supporter; he even became a member of the October Art Association, later accused of Trotskyism.

In addition, by joining the heated debate about the fate of proletarian art that was taking place in artistic circles at the time, Diego Rivera actually provoked his conflict with the Soviet authorities, which instantly affected his life in the USSR. In Moscow, the Mexican communist faced the harsh reality of Soviet society, which in many ways contradicted his idealistic expectations.

The strengthening authoritarianism of Stalin’s government and the growth of conservative tendencies in Soviet art and culture of that period were signs of the artistic atmosphere in the USSR in the late 1920s. Needless to say, Rivera’s planned works on creating murals in state institutions were constantly postponed for far-fetched reasons?

In May 1928, Diego Rivera was forced to leave the Land of the Soviets, and the situation changed dramatically: in 1929, he was expelled from the Mexican Communist Party, and the Comintern’s press condemned him, exposing the artist’s «Trotskyist sympathies».

The muralist is accused of nationalism and opportunism, which explain the «timely» expulsion of the artist from the Communist Party, and the «bankrupt talent» of the Mexican is also sharply negatively assessed.

Rivera, for his part, ruthlessly criticized the totalitarianism of socialist realism, which became the dominant trend in Soviet art.

He wrote that artists had to give people «art of high aesthetic quality, which would contain all the technical achievements of modern art, but art that is simple, clear, transparent like crystal, hard like iron, welded like concrete…»

The muralist noted his expulsion from the Communist Party, but called himself a «partisan» who «takes ammunition from the hands of the bourgeoisie». «My weapons are walls, paints, and the money I need to feed myself and keep working».

 

Диего Ривера. Новая школа, фреска, 1923
Diego Rivera. New School, mural, 1923 / artive.com

 

Interestingly, after Diego Rivera’s expulsion from the Mexican Communist Party and his declaration of solidarity with the «international line of opposition defined and led by comrade Leon Trotsky», communists in the United States welcomed his work.

Professor Bertram Wolf published an article titled «Art and Revolution in Mexico», in which he called Rivera «Mexico’s greatest artist».

 

VASYL SEDLIAR ABOUT DIEGO RIVERA

 

 From the article «Diego de Rivera» in the magazine «Krytyka» (№7, 1928)

«Starting in 1924, we began to hear rumors about the new art of Mexico, about its founder Diego de Rivera. Some prints from his works were published in magazines. Mayakovsky learned something new about Rivera after his trip to America. He had a chance to visit de Rivera and examine his murals.

This new Mexican art was interesting for its new stylistic features and revolutionary themes. That’s why it was so interesting and joyful to see comrade de Rivera in Moscow, to learn from him about his work and his artistic goals.

It would be possible to cover the work of the outstanding Mexican revolutionary artist Diego de Rivera in detail only in an article of considerable length, so we will focus only on the main points.

Some biographical information. He was born in Mexico, in Guanajuato. When he was eight years old, his father moved to the capital, Mexico City. At school, Rivera showed great talent for drawing. His abilities were noticed and he was sent to an art school.

Afterwards, he went to Spain, traveled around, studied painting, everyday life, and then went to Italy, where he worked for three years and studied art, mostly Italian primitives, monumental painting, frescoes, and mosaics. From Italy, he moved to Paris and lived there for several years, all the while studying the paintings of the best French masters, such as Renoir, Cezanne, and Picasso.

But, using the achievements of modern painting and the early Middle Ages, Diego de Rivera remained with his own special understanding of form and worldview. During his stay in France, his basic views on life in general and on art were formed.

A sense of deep hatred for the capitalist world, for bourgeois art, for artistic Paris, saturated with venality, with its cult of individuality as a guarantee of the diversity of goods in the art market, grew in him. Diego de Rivera deeply reflects on the fate of the artist, on his role in society, on the prospects for the development of art as a broad cultural process that should be connected with the masses of workers, and not satisfy the sophisticated tastes of individual representatives of the bourgeoisie.

During the imperialist war, he returned to Mexico; there he was greeted with special joy and proved himself to be a master of great power and scope. Circumstances developed in such a way as to allow comrade Rivera to work a lot…

…Public buildings, schools, etc. were covered with murals (it is interesting to recall how in the first years of October, both in Ukraine and the USSR, art went «outdoors»). Painting took on an extraordinary scale, and the walls of the Ministry of Education building were covered with murals by Diego de Rivera and his companions. The master’s dreams of the great, social purpose of art, of collective creativity, which he had nurtured in Europe, were realized.

Under his leadership, the artists formed a production team, a commune. Rivera synthesized their various trends into special stylistic monumental forms.  The purpose of things, their connection with architecture, caused the need for fresco painting, whose techniques Rivera studied thoroughly in Italy.

These frescoes reflected the life of Mexican workers and peasants, labor in factories, mines, work in the field, rallies, meetings, demonstrations, and portraits of the leaders of the Mexican revolution.

It is characteristic that fascist nationalist circles were hostile to Diego de Rivera’s works, and the works of one of his comrades (murals on the walls of a school) were vandalized and completely destroyed. The same fate threatened de Rivera’s own work, and he had to defend it with guns in his hands.

It is interesting to pay attention to how Diego de Rivera solved the problem of forms in his painting intended for mass consumption. Armed with all the formal understanding of contemporary European painting, Diego de Rivera combines it with the local traditions of folk art in an extremely characteristic way, using the high achievements of the technique and forms of monumental painting of medieval Europe. It is interesting how decisively Diego de Rivera breaks with easel painting, completely devoting himself to painting associated with architecture; his desire for collective forms of creative cooperation between artists is also extremely characteristic…

…Characteristic is the similarity in Diego de Rivera’s works to the works of our Ukrainian artists (the school of prof. Boychuk), which in some moments reaches complete identity. The most interesting thing is that these movements in art were manifested by artists who did not know about each other, were separated by war and the ocean, but were united by similar socio-economic conditions that made their common problems equally relevant.

From this point of view, it is equally interesting to recall the work of the Hungarian artist, a prominent communist revolutionary Béla Uitz, whose works share the same features that united Mexican, Ukrainian and Hungarian artists».

 


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