Diego Rivera was fascinated with victims of oppression. Deeply affected by the revolution that occurred in his native Mexico, his art glorified everyday workers and exalted the revolutionaries and heroes who fought for the downtrodden.
The exhibition “Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art” showcases this intense fascination and the many artistic forms it took. The exhibition, currently running at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), displays murals that Rivera painted for an exhibition at MoMA nearly eighty years ago.
Murals, by definition, exist on walls of a larger structure and thus can’t be transported from museum to museum. Because of this lack of portability, the exhibition is small. Its size, which may seem to some frequent art connoisseurs a drawback, actually makes the exhibition easier to digest for those who get bogged down by the vastness of typical MoMA exhibitions.
Plus, what the exhibition lacks in length, it makes up for in scope. In addition to the murals, the exhibition displays sketches from the icon’s notebooks, preliminary drawings that show the artist’s mind at work in its less polished state, and sections that explain how his massive artwork was transported.
In one part of the explanations, the back of one of his murals is on display to reveal the size of the bricks that make it up and the metal framework that holds the structure together. There is even an x-ray photograph that gives a closer look into the mural’s physical structure.
The murals themselves focus on revolutionary power struggles and class conflict, mainly within the context of the Mexican Revolution, in which landless peasants rose against wealthy landowners. These suffering farmers joined their afflicted brothers and formed armies that were headed by leaders such as Emiliano Zapata, who is depicted in Rivera’s “Agrarian Leader Zapata” (1931). In the mural, the humbly dressed Zapata has just slain a landowner and leads a group of peasants who stay close to his side. The brown of the landowner’s outfit blends with the soil on which he lies dead to make his corpse an easy detail to miss at first glance, but there seems to be a message in that. The imperceptibility of his body means that he’s no longer in charge – his power is a thing of the past.
“The Uprising” makes a similarly pro-revolutionary statement. In the foreground of the mural, a military officer attempts to kill a defenseless worker. A woman, holding a crying baby in one arm, saves him by tightly gripping the soldier’s arm as he tries to fatally strike the worker with his sword. In the background, soldiers are brutally beating a crowd of revolting peasants with the barrels of their rifles. What lends the mural its power is the close attention Rivera pays to the faces of his subjects. The angry face of the woman emanates defiance and contempt for the officer, while her crying baby’s face, tilted upward, exudes helplessness in the midst of the horrors that surround it. Rivera chose to keep the officer’s face expressionless, perhaps to add to his inhumanity as he attempts to murder an innocent man.
One of the most striking murals at the exhibit is “Indian Warrior,” in which Rivera looks back in Mexican history to a scene from a battle between the Aztecs and the invading Spanish conquistadors. An Aztec warrior, dressed in a full-body jaguar skin, stabs a fallen Spaniard in the throat with a knife carved from stone. Rivera deftly emphasizes the warrior’s “primitive” aspects – the crudeness of his knife in contrast to the conquistador’s smooth armor and the frightening features of his jaguar mask. Despite the warrior’s vicious aura, Rivera glorifies him for resisting the tyranny of the Spanish, much as he would glorify Zapata.
The exhibition, with all of its murals concerning Mexico, does not ignore that Rivera was a cosmopolitan man. The exhibition features much artwork from his travels to the US and the USSR. In two of the murals which are on display at the exhibition, Rivera takes the same theme of workers and class struggle but changes the scene to Depression- Era New York. His New York murals are a literal representation of his concept of workers being the backbone of civilization’s achievements. In “Electric Power” and “Frozen Assets,” workers in underground factories occupy by the bottom half of the space, while the skyline of 1930s New York lies on the top. Rivera’s message is clear: the city is built upon the workers who power it.
The exhibition does a good job not only of illuminating Rivera’s fascination with workers, but also his interest with industrialization. The drawings from his New York trip, which are on display at the exhibition, are mostly of construction sites. Horizontal beams occupy the most of the surface, while cranes and other industrial machinery, as well as the workers operating them, can be seen in the back.
Much of Rivera’s art captures the spirit of those he was depicting. His murals on the Mexican Revolution are filled with a feeling of upheaval, while his New York murals capture the solidarity of workers as they power their city. If Rivera’s goal was to immortalize his subjects, then MoMA has certainly done its part by presenting his work comprehensively and accessibly.