Diego Rivera, the man, is not nearly as well known as Diego Rivera, the magnificant muralist. Pete Hamill's biography will change all that. I have been a fan of Hamill's journalistic writing since 1970, so I was surprised at first when I saw that he had authored this book. Then I learned in the introduction that Hamill had studied painting in Mexico City as a young man, before giving it up for writing. So he has a unique perspective to share with us.
Diego Rivera's art soars above his own life. He was very self-centered and almost always did what was best for him and his art career. To cover up for his lapses, he loved to tell stories to make himself seem very grand. For example, although he was out of Mexico for almost the entire 10 years of the Revolution (where 10 percent of the population died), he claimed to have fought in it.
Perhaps his least desirable quality was the way he treated women. It seems like he was attracted to hurting those he loved, and was always looking for the newest conquest. Although he was a physically unattractive man for most of his life (usually weighing over 300 pounds), he had a series of beautiful women as his wives and lovers, including famous motion picture actresses.
He was an important man in the Mexican Communist party, and later brought Trotsky to Mexico. Later, the shifts in doctrine involving Stalin led Rivera to be ousted from the party. No idealogue, he paid attention to the party about as well as he did to his wives. Yet near the end of his life, he begged his way back into the party.
Throughout his Communistic associations, he was delighted to work for wealthy capitalists . . . another indication that his career came first.
Near his death, he resumed his original Catholic faith, amazing almost everyone who knew him.
Although we think of him as the ultimate Mexican artist, he was classically trained in the Spanish style in Mexico and spent almost all of his early career in Europe. It was only the ending of the Revolution and the prospect of large mural commissions that lured him and other leading Mexican artists back to Mexico. Like the other artists, he had to learn how to paint murals.
Throughout the book, you will find your main reward -- gorgeous color reproductions of Rivera's most vivid work, along with beautiful black and white sketches, and photographs of Rivera at work and play.
The book's main weakness is that Hamill is no art historian. His discussions of the art are short and unimaginative. But he has strong opinions and does tell you what he likes (that which is reproduced -- new themes, new symbols and relatively less finished details) and that which he does not (that which is not reproduced here and Rivera's developments of earlier themes). So you will have to look at the work and figure out what you think about it without too much help from Hamill beyond describing the imagery. I especially encourage you to consider Rivera's cubist works. The book makes an interesting case for Picasso having lifted key ideas for some of his best work from Rivera.
Hamill does a fine job of giving a sense of the relentless pressure for revolution, the early optimism about the Revolution, and the descent into business as usual. I enjoyed learning more about the Mexican Revolution, as a result.
I was also glad to learn where Rivera's murals are so that I can see them in person. That's a great reason to visit Mexico!
Overcome your stalled thinking that great work makes a great person. Creating a good person may be more difficult than making great art. What do you think?