Diego Rivera (1186-1957) is considered one of the greatest Mexican painters of the twentieth century. Among his many artistic contributions, Rivera is credited with the reintroduction of fresco painting and his works helped establish the Mexican Mural Movement. Between 1922 and 1953, Rivera painted murals in Mexico City, Chapingo, Cuernavaca, San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City. Rivera’s political views and tempestuous romance with the painter Frieda Kahlo were a continuous source of public intrigue.
Rivera’s artwork, while sometimes controversial, was intended to portray the struggles of the working class. Rivera believed:
An artist is above all a human being, profoundly human to the core. If the artist can’t feel everything that humanity feels, if the artist isn’t capable of loving until he forgets himself and sacrifices himself if necessary, if he won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist.
In 1932, Rivera was commissioned by Henry Ford to paint a tribute to the American worker on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Between 1932 and 1933, Rivera completed a series of twenty-seven fresco panels entitled Detroit Industry on the walls of an inner court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The piece depicts industrial life in the United States, concentrating on the car plant workers of Detroit. The work later drew public criticism for its Socialist overtones, but was defended on the grounds of its artistic merit by Ford’s son, Edelson Ford. Rivera considered the Detroit mural his greatest artistic achievement.
In November 1933, Rivera was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to paint a mural for the lobby of the RCA building in Rockefeller Center. The work entitled, “Man at the Crossroads,” was intended to depict the social, political and industrial possibilities of the Twentieth Century. However, Rockefeller expressed his concern when Rivera included a scene depicting Vladimir Lenin leading a May Day worker demonstration. Rockefeller asked the painter to remove Lenin’s face and substitute it with some unknown man. When Rivera refused Rockefeller’s request, he was ordered to halt the project. Determined to complete a version of his progressive motif, Rivera had his assistants take pictures of the mural, and a second work entitled, Man, Controller of the Universe, was re-created at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. The original Rockefeller Center mural was destroyed in February 1934.