I am not merely an “artist” but a man performing his biological function of producing paintings, just as a tree produces flowers and fruit.
--DIEGO RIVERA, 1933
The primary challenge facing the biographer of an artist is how to negotiate the artificial border between the subject’s life and work. This permeable membrane--if the biography is to entertain as well as to inform--must be passed through at just the right moments in the narrative. The reader should come away understanding that the process of making art is incessant, regardless of whatever else the artist seems to be doing in his or her daily routine. Because works of art in and of themselves are not mere signposts or illustrations along the road of events, the well-made biography of an artist should contain an undercurrent of mental obsession.
The smooth narrative and scholarly underpinning of Patrick Marnham’s new biography of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957) measure up well against these admittedly thorny ideals. Reading “Dreaming With His Eyes Open” feels like a rickety roller coaster ride where there has absolutely never been an accident. Your ever-present sense of risk is palpable but always balanced by a thread of reassurance.
The charismatic, Rabelaisian hero of our story, never distant from center stage throughout the narrative, was born in a house full of books in the small town of Guanajuato, northwest of Mexico City; his family moved to the metropolis when Diego was a boy of 7, and he was schooled at the Academy of San Carlos. At 18, Diego was awarded his first medal for artistic accomplishment “in a competition for the drawing of clothed figures.”
For 14 crucial years (from 1907 to 1921, with the exception of one return trip to Mexico), initially funded by a scholarship from the governor of Veracruz to study art in Madrid, Rivera lived and travailed restlessly in Europe. Herein lies the revelatory heart of Marnham’s book, the saga of the making of a sensibility far away from revolutionary strife, “the carnival of bloodshed” consuming his motherland. In exile and in search of a style of his own, Rivera literally painted his way through every phase toward modernism--from homages to the Flemish school, El Greco and Goya, to plein-air landscapes, to symbolist easel portraiture, to fauvism and Impressionism and imitation Cezannes, to Dada, to futurism, exploring with Gino Severini “the representation of the secrets of the Fourth Dimension, of time movement in three-dimensional work” and to more than 200 Cubist canvases.
In Montparnasse, Rivera became a habitue of cafe society. He met Cocteau and Mondrian and Apollinaire and entered into the studio sanctuary of the renowned Picasso “feeling like a good Christian who expects to meet our Lord.”
The transformative moment into the familiar Diego Rivera--the expansive gestures, the vibrant wall paintings, the valorizer of Mexican history--came in 1919, when he met the artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, a compatriot who had actually seen combat during the Mexican Revolution. It was Siqueiros who articulated Rivera’s most important turn toward “a collective period” in making art, within which the role of the painter was “to decorate the buildings thrown up by the genius of the people.” Art should be public, declared Siqueiros; art should be propaganda.
During a year and a half in Italy--Siena, Arezzo, Perugia, Assisi, Rome--Rivera forced himself to be an inhabitant of the Renaissance. He became one with Masaccio and Uccello, Giotto and Cavallini and Raphael. He willed himself, in Marnham’s words, into “the greatest fresco artist of the century . . . [and] returned to Mexico from Italy [in July of 1921] loaded with new sensations, loaded with new ideas, boiling over with new myths.”
We encounter the larger-than-life 300-pound shambling artist perched upon a scaffold, sombrero shading his massive brow, pistol stuck into his belt, wielding a paintbrush upon the surface of the freshly plastered walls of the Palacio Nacional. Marnham has built a meticulous case for the portrait of the artist, dominating his anonymous “team” of assistants, supreme exemplar of personal ethos merged with political action.
In the wake of a revolution during which he managed to be absent, employing an aesthetic tradition learned overseas, Rivera became intoxicated with his own vision of Mexicanidad, his response to the clarion call by the writer Ignacio Ramirez before the Mexican Congress six decades earlier: “Whence do we come? Where are we going? This is the double problem whose solution individuals and societies [of Mexico] must seek. . . . Like our fathers, we were born struggling for freedom.”
Rivera traveled to the southeastern regions of Tehuantepec to admire the Indian people and sketch the brown tones of their skin against the plain white of their daily costumes. He walked among the ruins of Chichen Itza. He embarked upon an omnivorous collection of pre-Colombian artifacts, numbering more than 60,000 stone pieces at his death, craving tangible ownership of “the ghosts of dead Aztecs.”
Rivera was consumed for the rest of his life with the egocentric mission to paint a portrait of his patria from primordial times through the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, the Conquest and the colonial era, over the complete span of its long and troubled history; thereby defining Mexico on the walls of its civil structures for once and for all time--"impelled,” Rivera announced with characteristically presumptuous fervor in a 1923 interview, “by a deep force: the aspiration of the masses, which shake the surface of the country as does an earthquake.”
Marnham skillfully interweaves the artist’s on-again, off-again connection to Marxism, showing us where Rivera found his Populist rhetoric. In the end, no general political affiliation could supersede the artist’s overriding need to wage a banner-waving nationalistic crusade. He left behind a lasting and specific individual ideology on the vast walls of the National Palace, the Hotel del Prado and the Palace of Fine Arts.
Rivera’s succession of wives and mistresses (culminating in his attenuated, perversely symbiotic relationship with Frida Kahlo) served to satiate his depthless sexual appetites, his unending need to be nurtured. In harsh counterpoint to the primary (and uncomplaining) mistress of art, the women of Diego Rivera’s life existed to have the blood sucked out of them.
However, Frida’s purpose in driving Rivera’s “biological function” was more complicated, as Marnham explains with great sophistication in the compelling denouement of his book, because she was such a talented and unique artist in her own right. Frida was narcissistic, suicidal, a cross dresser and crippled since adolescence. Their competition in art and sex pulled “the elephant and the dove” hungrily together and drove them viciously apart. Frida found an audience for her fiercely symbolic paintings and pursued a succession of affairs with both men and women, even as she scribbled a confessional poem in her diary which began, “Diego my child . . . Diego my mother, Diego my father . . . Diego = Me.”
And for Rivera’s part, even as he seduced Frida’s sister, the painter confessed to a close friend that "[Frida] crystallizes in herself . . . everything that there is in the world, and that gives any sense to me of why I live and struggle.” When she died and her ashes were retrieved from the crematory oven, Rivera--unflinchingly the main protagonist in his own melodrama--scooped up a gritty handful, and ate them. “He was free,” Marnham observes at the conclusion of this remarkable biography, “but he painted no more frescoes.”