Every Sunday for the year between 1949 and 1950 — and after finishing his typical breakfast of bananas, pears, apples, and a cup of green tea — Mexican muralist Diego Rivera sat with journalist Alfredo Cardona Peña for an interview. Rivera was an accomplished artist by that point, 63 years old with most of the 30,000 square meters of surfaces he would ultimately coat in frescos of laboring comrades already completed. He had quite a bit to say on that subject, and on almost every subject.
Peña, who wrote for the El Nacional newspaper, was originally tasked with interviewing Rivera during the artist’s 1949 large-scale retrospective at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. But he quickly understood that he had a willing partner, one keen to speak volumes about everything from his earliest childhood memories to prehistoric art, American capitalism, and the future of Mexican muralism. And so Peña asked Rivera if they could continue their conversation, spread out over 52 weeks; the loquacious Rivera agreed.
Simultaneously published in the newspaper as the interviews took place, these dialogues were compiled into a book in 1965. But they have not been available in English until the recent release of Conversations with Diego Rivera: The Monster in His Labyrinth, published by New Village Press and with a translation by Alvaro Cardona-Hine.
“Every word in this book is a footprint of his enormous vocal leaps, footprints he pressed against my ears like someone stepping on wet cement. I have gathered them, heavy, rough, poorly schooled and profound, the footprints of a fat man who doesn’t equivocate,” Peña described in the book’s introduction. “I have respected the raging of this centaur ready for a fight, the invectives out of place, his venting, the tremendous guffaw of his irony. Had I suppressed those aspects, ignitions of his nature, I’d be presenting a false Rivera.”
Rivera’s verbal tirades included his hope that all of Mexico (from municipal buildings to greasy spoons) be plastered with murals, his view that the Mexican government sadly spent more money on soccer equipment than on archaeological excavations of the nation’s cultural heritage, and, notably, his uniquely communist views of art history. Rivera and his wife, painter Frida Kahlo, were known communists, even harboring exiled Soviet party members such as Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. Conversations with Diego Rivera provides rare documentation of his confluence of politically egalitarian views and the arts.
Rivera liberally applied communist theory to prehistoric art, first noting that “works of art appear to almost coincide with the first vestiges of human culture.” But there was a clear reason, in his view, why the conditions of early human existence were so amenable to art-making. “That which characterizes that epoch is the absence of classes,” Rivera told a copiously note-taking Peña. “The men who lived then were free.”
As human society developed, power mongers controlled the arts to suit their interests, Rivera continued. Rulers used artists to propagandize their superiority, and because the pleasure of looking at artworks could “alleviate and compensate by some measure for the pain of exploitation [of the oppressed].”
Rivera uses Mexico as an example. When Spanish colonialists came to Mexico, they ignored the existing ‘popular arts,’ (a term that Rivera notes “barely hides its pejorative connotation”). The superiority of Spanish modes of art, such as oil painting on canvas, were promoted and considered finer than the folk sculptures created by local artisans and found in marketplaces. Rivera equivocated all Mexican art forms, though. “All of it is Mexico and forms part of the same exaltation,” he said. “The only difference among these items isn’t due to the object itself but to its producers: it is a difference of class.”
Those at the bottom of the classist food chain had long been divorced from the fine arts, which is why, Rivera believed, Mexican mural painting caused the stir that it did. Americans and Europeans didn’t take an interest in Mexican muralism’s Los tres grandes — himself, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco — because they used wet plaster fresco technique. “The true novelty of Mexican painting,” Rivera quipped, “was to make the people the heroes of mural painting; it consisted in representing the poor farmer and the industrial worker fighting to obtain land.” Until then, the heroes of murals had been gods, angels, saints, kings, war heroes, and emperors. Here was a movement unapologetically idolizing the proletariat, and capitalists were taking notice.
Rivera’s ideas, as presented in a stream of conscience in Conversations with Diego Rivera, are full of fiery conviction, sometimes persuasive and at other times less so. They shed light onto the views of this gargantuan art historical titan, and also hint at what it would be like to sit in his living room and absorb an earful of the older painter’s verbiage — a task that Peña patiently took on for a full year.
“This isn’t a complete nor a calculated book,” Peña warns readers, “but a moment, a fugacity stolen from oblivion. But I think that, with its limitations and hurried pressure, it enriches the bibliography of the painter.”
Conversations with Diego Rivera: The Monster in His Labyrinth by Alfredo Cardona Peña and translated by Alvaro Cardona-Hine is out from New Village Press.