Review by Graham Johnstone
The cover of this biography has Diego Rivera partially eclipsed by his wife and fellow painter Frida Kahlo, as he perhaps has been in the public imagination. However, her achievements shouldn’t devalue his because Rivera’s life was as monumental as his murals.
Mexican duo Francisco de la Mora and José Luis Pescador, are well placed to represent a national hero. However, their welcome warts-and-all approach is signalled by an opening quote from Frida, claiming that of the two “great accidents” in her life “Diego was by far the worst”. Though factual, the book reads as a picaresque adventure, with the dissolute Diego roaming from country to country struggling to reconcile painting, politics, and people.
Writer de la Mora hooks the reader with Diego’s deathbed visions of Frida, before rewinding to progress through key moments. The ‘Childhood’ section here proves worthwhile, with the over-zealous activist father being run out of town, offering a model for his son. This restlessness propels Diego’s travels between Mexico and Europe’s great cities, and his fallouts with both American Capitalism, and Soviet Communism. So many great scenes are brought to life, with highlights including his mural commission for the billionaire-sponsored Rockefeller Center, and his visit to satirical illustrator/printmaker J.G. Posada, rendered in appropriate ‘woodcut’ style. Such a full life requires balancing completeness with brevity. The inclusion of Picasso and Trotsky is more than spotter-pleasing, as they illuminate Rivera’s artistic and political development… as well as his tendency to lose allies. A notable omission, though, is the Italian visit as seeing epic cathedral paintings apparently inspired Rivera’s monumental murals. Graphic biographies of painters justifiably claim artistic licence in bringing the facts to life, and this uses some narration by Diego. It offers welcome insights, notably a sharp critique of his youthful pretensions, but raises the question of whether this is quoted from sources, or a fictionalised distillation – either is justified, but an end-note would have clarified. A cast list for the various artists, referred to only by first names would also be helpful. However, these are minor quibbles with a strong biography.
José Luis Pescador is an impressive illustrator. He conjures convincing locales, from cityscape to countryside, to studio and print-works, then populates these with characters poised between realism and caricature. Notably, he captures Diego’s well-fed and wild-eyed look, from childhood to old age. Figures leap off the page, or merge into the background as required. Pescador composes all this into stylish, often intricate, pages, spreads (pictured), and a four-page pullout.
So how well does the book illuminate Rivera’s art? His artistic ambition is powerfully conveyed by hours in the Paris rain staring into a window display of paintings by his hero Cézanne. Pescador delivers some appealing pages of Diego painting. His Cubist period offers some highlights: painter, model, and panel borders writhing over one page, and a ‘time-lapse’ of Diego at work and at play. The murals in progress reveal the practicalities of scaffolding and teamwork, however there’s little insight into the development of these monumental images. Too often the ideas are carried by the text without any visualisation of Rivera’s work to relate them to.
Pescador’s use of hand painted colour suits the subject, and mostly appeals. Occasionally though, all the colours, marks and textures, make his already busy pages exhausting. Some digital addition of masks and over-tints might have added coherence. Pescador can’t match Rivera’s absolute clarity, but few will come closer.
In a modest 160 pages de la Mora delivers a rich and engaging account of a storied life. The occasional over-rendering is far outweighed by Pescador’s visual imagination and artistry.