JIM LEHRER: Living and painting large: Jeffrey Kaye KCET-Los Angeles has the story of artist Diego Rivera.
JEFFREY KAYE: Vivid murals on walls throughout Los Angeles pay tribute to ordinary people of diverse cultures. The displays are a legacy of Mexican muralists, particularly of Diego Rivera, a pioneer of mural art. Rivera's work is the subject of a major retrospective presented by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Curator Lynn Zelevansky says the exhibit, "Art and Revolution," reflects Rivera's role as one of the century's great revolutionary artists, both politically and artistically.
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: Rivera thought that art could change the world; I mean, I think that that's the key-- muralism especially, but his other art as well. And so when he did this work, he did it to communicate real values. They were teaching tools.
JEFFREY KAYE: Zelevansky says Rivera used his art to convey the dignity of everyday life. As a result, many now see Mexico through Rivera's eyes, according to Gregorio Luke, director of the Museum of Latin American Art.
GREGORIO LUKE: When people think of Mexico, when people close their eyes and think of Mexico, most of the time, you imagine a world similar to that described by Diego Rivera in his paintings.
JEFFREY KAYE: So you're saying his art has affected the way we think of Mexico.
GREGORIO LUKE: Yes, of the way Mexicans think of Mexico, and the way people outside perceive Mexico.
JEFFREY KAYE: Born in 1886 in Guanajato in Central Mexico, Rivera is world famous for his murals. But he also produced paintings reflecting the artistic and political storms that shaped the first half of this century. Rivera's personality was as vibrant as his art. He was a devout Marxist, but he courted both revolutionaries and capitalists. He led a turbulent personal life, with multiple marriages and feuds with fellow artists and communists.
JEFFREY KAYE: He was a larger-than-life character, wasn't he?
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: Yes, he was in many ways. He was a huge man, a physically huge man, and he was a great storyteller, a great self-mythologizer, just I think a tremendously charismatic kind of figure.
JEFFREY KAYE: Fancying himself as a revolutionary, Rivera often claimed that he had fought with Emiliano Zapata, a leader of the Mexican revolution. That boast was false. But as an artist in his 20's living in Europe, his work was revolutionary, reflecting associations with painters who were in the forefront of the modern art movement-- among them, Cezanne, Modigliani, and Picasso.
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: He's a young artist and he's trying on all of the different avant-garde styles of the day for size to see what fits him and what works for him. So you see him here trying impressionism on. You see him here working with a Serat-like pointillism.
JEFFREY KAYE: Rivera's paintings also emulated the elongated figures of El Greco, and above all, the cubism of Pablo Picasso.
GREGORIO LUKE: Diego Rivera said that he had never believed in god, but that he had always believed in Picasso.
JEFFREY KAYE: But Rivera's cubist paintings reflected his Mexican perspective. His "Zapatista Landscape" of 1915 alluded to the ongoing Mexican Revolution, which he had sat out in Paris.
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: There's no question that while he was there, he was thinking of Mexico, because what you have in this picture is you have the rifle, you have the serape, you have the belt, and it's all situated in front of a view of the valley of Mexico.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Russian Revolution of 1917 was also on Rivera's mind. His first wife, Russian Artist Angelina Bellof, introduced him to Communists, and Rivera, a child of middle class parents, began what turned out to be a lifelong relationship with the Communist Movement. After returning to Mexico in 1921, Rivera abandoned cubism, calling it elitist. He brought his revolutionary spirit to muralism, painting on public buildings as part of the new government's program to bring art to the masses. His subjects reflected his growing appreciation for Mexico's history and indigenous cultures.
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: This the moment when Rivera becomes one of the great innovators of 20th century art, because what he does is he takes everything that he's learned in Europe from European modernism, and he melds it with the art of ancient Mexico, Mayan and Aztec art, to come up with a new form that will allow him to express social and political ideas on a broad scale.
GREGORIO LUKE: Everything strikes him with great strength -- the colors of Mexico, the vibrancy of the markets, the light of Mexico. Everywhere, he sees a potential masterpiece.
JEFFREY KAYE: In both his murals and his easel paintings, Rivera made ordinary people, peasants and laborers, the heroes of his work.
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: When Rivera goes back to Mexico, one of his major thrusts is going to be this sort of diary of Mexican daily life told from the view of the lower classes, and he has a vision in his art of a kind of utopia that is a multiracial, multicultural utopia, and these figures are the embodiment of that vision.
JEFFREY KAYE: Rivera believed that art had a political mission, to improve the lives of people. Although he advocated the demise of capitalism, Rivera relied on rich patrons for commissions, often painting portraits of wealthy women.
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: And he loved painting them, and often painting with them led to other kinds of relationships with them, and that was the way he lived.
JEFFREY KAYE: As his fame grew, so did the number of female admirers.
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: He was extremely attractive to women, and -
JEFFREY KAYE: You're puzzled.
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: Astoundingly. Yes, I'm puzzled by why this 300-pound, famously dirty man who didn't care to bathe was so attractive to so many gorgeous, sought-after, intelligent, delightful women.
JEFFREY KAYE: Rivera's infidelities strained his five marriages, including his relationship with artist and fellow Communist Frieda Kahlo, whom he married twice. His work for wealthy patrons also strained his relationship with the Communist Party, but Luke says Rivera didn't compromise his art.
GREGORIO LUKE: Diego would always affirm that it didn't matter who sponsored the mural as long as he mural itself was ideologically correct, or at least truthful to his convictions.
JEFFREY KAYE: Actually his first U.S. murals seemed apolitical. One painted for the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco showed his fascination with American industry. A Detroit commission from car maker Edsel Ford honored auto workers. And in 1932, when the Rockefeller family hired Rivera to paint a mural, they expected a work as innocuous as the sketch he gave them.
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: What you get is little hints. If this is socialism and this is capitalism, then the children here are playing tug of war and the children here are playing ring around the rosie. I mean, you get little sort of references like that, but nothing very blatant that you finally get in the Fresco.
JEFFREY KAYE: In the mural, painted for New York City's Rockefeller Center, Rivera included a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, a leader of the Soviet Revolution, surrounded by admiring workers. Nelson Rockefeller demanded that Rivera remove the offending figure, then had the Fresco destroyed after Rivera refused. The controversy over Rivera's decision virtually ended his US mural career.
GREGORIA LUKE: We don t know exactly what motivated him to do so; probably the desire to affirm his independence, the desire to maintain that even though these times he had been expelled from the Communist Party, that he remained true to his ideals, that he was not selling out to the millionaire, even if he was painting in his building and with his money. Probably if this incident had not occurred, Diego Rivera's presence in the US would be much more abundant.
JEFFREY KAYE: Angry, Rivera returned home and created an almost identical mural at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. On one side, John D. & Rockefeller, Jr., martini in hand, is meant to embody the decadence of capitalism. On the o her is Lenin and revolutionary Leon Trotsky, meant to represent the strength of socialism. In 1937, Rivera and Kahlo hosted Trotsky, who had been expelled from the Soviet Union. Trotsky was later assassinated in Mexico. Rivera himself died of cancer in 1957. But the politically inspired message of his art has left an indelible impression, according to Zelevansky.
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: He was giving to the people of Mexico a means, a way, a vision of becoming great.
JEFFREY KAYE: And seeing themselves as great?
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: And seeing themselves as great, that's right.
JEFFREY KAYE: And noble?
LYNN ZELEVANSKY: And noble, absolutely.
JEFFREY KAYE: And that legacy thrives in Southern California's public art. At Stevenson Elementary School in Long Beach, students who recently completed a mural documenting their lives and aspirations paid homage to Rivera.
JEFFREY KAYE: What does he have to say about, or have to do with what you're doing?
STUDENT: Well, because he did a mural just like us, and we want to make a mural like Diego Rivera -
JEFFREY KAYE: You do?
STUDENT: -- because he's a great artist.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Rivera exhibit is on display in Los Angeles through August 16th, before traveling to Houston, then Mexico City.