Approaching mural master Diego Rivera

  The famous painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957) was a pioneer figure in the Mexican mural industry. He was one of the initiators of the mural movement during the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s and was known as the father of Mexican murals. And his wife is the famous Mexican female painter Frida Kahlo. As a mural master, Rivera has well balanced the relationship between content, form and concept, showing superb skills in image characterization, color configuration and spatial processing, and on this basis, he has carried out personalized development. Formed a painting style that blended Cubism, Primitive styles and Pre-Columbian sculpture. The Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted a solo exhibition of Rivera’s murals from November 2011 to May 2012.
  From the end of December 1931 to the end of January 1932, Rivera became the second painter after the famous French painter Henri Matisse to hold a personal theme exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and this is also his second personal retrospective. The exhibition, the number of visitors at that time had broken records, and the response was strong. Due to the large size of the mural itself, and the limitations of the venue, Rivera was invited to New York a month and a half before the opening of the exhibition, and the museum provided him with a studio. With the help of two assistants, Rivera worked around the clock to create five small-scale works that reflected the Mexican Revolution and class differences, using the fresco technique, applying paint to treated wet stucco. After the opening of the exhibition, due to the large number of visitors, Rivera created three additional paintings, adding the image of the working class of New York during the Great Depression to the works, highlighting the phenomenon of social classification. The first of the eight murals on display, “Peasant Leader Zapata”, has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a boutique collection.
  During his stay in Italy in 1920, Rivera carefully studied the works of the Renaissance masters, paying special attention to the materials and techniques of frescoes. He then improved painting materials with modern techniques, using cement and synthetic pigments on the basis of traditional techniques. In order to solve the problem that the frescoes cannot be moved and the site is limited, Rivera created a small independent fresco called “portable fresco”, and painted it on the background of steel plate and stucco.
  Emiliano Zapata was the leader of the Mexican agrarian revolution and a fighter of the bourgeois revolution. “Peasant Leader Zapata” depicts the situation in which Zapata led an armed uprising of peasants with farm implements. In the painting, Zapata drags the white horse’s reel and stands majestically beside the farmer’s corpse. While Mexican and American newspapers at the time had denigrated Zapata as an immoral bandit, Rivera cast him as an immortal hero extolling the victory of the revolution.
  During fresco creation, the stucco surface tends to dry out, so the painter must have a clear composition in mind before applying paint. Rivera sketched on paper and then copied it onto a stucco background. He would pin the sketches next to the artboard to help determine the compositional proportions. After X-ray, the inner frame of the painting is clearly visible. The metal mesh and the sturdy metal frame form the metal skeleton of the fresco, which is strong enough to support multiple layers of cement mortar and paint. Even traces of these horizontal, diagonally intersecting metal mesh lines can be seen in the rough surface of the painting. This structure allows Rivera to move beyond painting on walls, but the paintings are still immobile, the largest weighing more than 450 kilograms.
  The scene of the painting “Sugar Cane” is set in a sugar cane plantation, showing that after the Mexican Revolution, the economic inequalities of race and class are gradually becoming more prominent. In the foreground on the far left of the painting, an Indian peasant woman with braids and a white dress is cutting papayas from a tree, while her daughter is holding a basket and waiting for fruit. Not far away, tanned laborers bowed their heads and straddled their waists, bundling sugar cane away, while the foreman rode horses to supervise the work. In the foreground, there are laborers harvesting sugar cane, while the white farmer is lying on his back in a hammock, bored, and even his dog is lounging on the ground. Through this painting, Rivera attempted to reveal that the class struggle in European industrial society also existed in Mexico, an agricultural country at the time.
  The day after Rivera arrived in New York that year, the New York Herald Tribune reported on his plans to recreate American workers and recreate their work. New York was in the midst of a city-building boom, and an army of surplus labor from the Great Depression kept the supply. Workers in “The Pneumatic Drill” use a pneumatic drill and a hammer to drill holes in the hard foundations of a Manhattan neighborhood. The painting actually depicts Rockefeller Center when it was first built, when Rivera had just arrived in New York. We can learn more about the background of the painting through the archive photos. Rivera tries to make people feel the vibrating power of modern construction tools. The zigzag lines in the painting give movement to the composition, and the foot of the worker on the right appears to be adjusting its position with the vibration of the air hammer.
  The painting “Emancipation of Labor” reproduces the scene of laborers being subjected to brutal corporal punishment. The laborer was beaten to the death, and revolutionary fighters freed him from the pillar. The servitude system established by the Spanish colonists in Mexico continued into the 20th century, and the locals were forced to do hard labor. The murals reveal the social and economic inequalities of the time, which were the root cause of the Mexican Revolution. Rivera uses a diagonal composition, centered on the intersection of the diagonals, to highlight the relationship between the revolutionary fighters and the frail laborers on the ground. The entire painting is divided diagonally, with fallen laborers and standing revolutionary fighters in the foreground.
  The exhibition focuses on important works created during Rivera’s 1931 New York retrospective, along with precious manuscripts such as drawings and sketches related to these works, as well as sketches of murals designed for Rockefeller Center at that time. Artists who have traveled in Russia, Mexico and the United States are inclusive, showing the fusion of art creation and politics in the 1930s with an open mind, a broad vision and a new perspective. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Rivera played a key role in sparking the debate over the social and political value of public art.