Feature Diego Rivera's Murals

Find out more about Diego Rivera's controversial murals.

Diego Rivera's Murals

Diego Rivera, born in 1886, was one of the leaders of the Mexican Mural Movement of the 1920s. A member of the Communist party, he created popular political murals throughout Mexico that often included attacks on the ruling class, the church and capitalism.

Studying in Paris meant Rivera was exposed to different painting styles and movements. Initially his work was heavily influenced by Cubism, and Rivera met the Cubist master, Pablo Picasso in 1914. Only a few years later his style changed. Inspired by the work of Cezanne he began to make Post-Impressionist paintings using simple shapes and vivid colors. His work began to attract more attention and some was exhibited.

After spending some time studying in Italy, where he experimented with frescoes, Rivera returned to Mexico, where he became involved with a government mural program in 1921. The new Secretary of Public Education José Vasconcelos was an advocate of education through public art and he commissioned the creation of murals on several government buildings.

Shortly after Rivera joined the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors and he started to only paint his murals in fresco. Rivera believed that painting murals on the walls of public buildings made art accessible to the everyday man.  His murals focused on telling stories that dealt with Mexican society and referenced the revolution of 1910. It featured large forms, bright colors and recurring images of farmers, laborers, popular Mexican figures and depictions of earth. He rose to international success with his vivid and beautiful compositions, alongside fellow Mexicans David Alfaro Siquieros and José Clemente Orozco.

A member of the Mexican Communist party, Rivera begin to attack capitalism, the established elite and the church in his work. In 1927, he travelled to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation of Mexican Communist party officials. He became increasingly seen as a controversial figure, and in Mexico some of his murals were hidden or removed because of their nature. A mural on the Palace of Fine Arts that included images of Stalin and Mao Tse-tung which was taken down, and a mural he painted at the Hotel del Prado was hidden from view because it included the phrase “God does not exist”.

Rivera also painted murals in the United States at places like the California School of Fine Arts, The American Stock Exchange Luncheon Club and the Detroit Institute of the Arts. He was commissioned to paint a mural at the Rockefeller Center in New York City, titled “Man at the Crossroads”. However, Nelson Rockefeller felt that Rivera’s use of an image of Lenin in the piece would be too contentious. Rivera never finished the work and several months later it was destroyed.

Determined not to have his work censored, Rivera recreated the mural in Mexico on the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The mural, retitled “Man Controller of the Universe” is still on display today.

Between 1929 and 1954, Rivera was married to the famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Together they were heavily involved in political protests and workers groups. Leon Trotsky even spent some living with Rivera and Kahlo, after Rivera had appealed to the Mexican President to give Trotsky political refuge.

In the 1930s, Rivera’s work was a direct influence on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal work programs. Roosevelt was drawn to Rivera’s murals, such as “Detroit Industry”, which featured images from American life on the walls of public buildings. These images also inspired many artists who produced works for the New Deal programs, and many of them continued to deal with the political issues raised by Rivera.

Diego Rivera is considered the greatest of the Mexican muralists, and the art form he helped pioneer has been imitated worldwide.