Painting the town red

Discovering Mexico through the works of its best-known artist, Diego Rivera. Words: Tim Abrahams

have been in Mexico City for exactly two hours and an old man who earns probably one fiftieth of what I do a year is insisting that he pays for me on the bus as I don‘t have the exact change. It‘s strange to be on the receiving end of such a typically Mexican piece of hospitality in the huge urban sprawl that is one of

the most maligned cities in the world. ‘Get out of

it as quickly as possible.’ is all a friend back in the UK who has visited the city will say to me. Mexico City confounds expectations at every turn. and there is no greater example of this than the strange comers where the work of Mexico‘s most famous painter. Diego Rivera. reveals itself.

Take the Palacio Nacional. still the offices of

Mexico‘s Executive. In the comer of this fonnal administrative courtyard sits. at the top of the staircase. a gloriously expansive mural. depicting

a history of Mexico through a massive collage of

portraits. begun by Rivera in 1929 but not finished until 1935. From scenes of the conquistadors attacking natives at the massive works' base through the layers of Mexico's frequently violent history all the way tip to the benevolent yet heroic figure of Marx illuminating the way forward into collective industrial prosperity. this is arguably the best political mural in the world.

The surrounding smaller murals of pre- Columban Mexico. begun much later in 194-1.

44 THE LIST 2—9 Aug 2001

reveal Rivera‘s perhaps conflicting sympathy for Mexico‘s indigenous people. It recalls his earlier Cubist-influenced oil paintings of modern day Mayans and Aztecs such as ‘La Molendera' on

exhibit in the Museo de Arte Modemo. west of

the city centre nestled amidst the Chapultepec Park. Amidst darker. intense pictures like the disturbing personal allegories of Rivera's one time wife Frida Kahlo. Rivera‘s bright homages to the rural tradition explain why Mexicans

Diego Rivera’s most popular work not only chronicled Mexico City’s life, but put it on the

world map

believe he is so important. He celebrates their history rather than merely relating it.

To get a handle on the artistic and social environment Rivera was working in. it‘s best to take a trip down Avenida Lazaro Cardenas as far as the suburb of Coyoacan. Amidst the pleasant bourgeois villas. you‘ll find the beautifully- preserved house and garden that Rivera lived in with Kahlo between 1929 and 195-1. Nearby is the house in which Leon Trotsky took a blow from an ice-pick: the one which. if you believe The Stranglers. made his ears burn. Not only was

Rivera responsible for securing Trotsky"s asylum in Mexico. but his wife Kahlo had an affair with him. and his one-time collaborator. David Siqueiros. took part in the first failed assassination attempt on Trotsky‘s life. The stylish urban villa still bears the pock-marked scars were Siqueiros and his cohorts strafed the building with bullets.

It‘s not just his involvement in the fight between the two wings of international communism that made Rivera such a controversial figure. Murals such as Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda did a good job as well. When the piece was inaugurated in I948. the inclusion of philosopher Ignacio Ramirez‘s slogan. ‘God does not exist‘ provoked several attacks on the painting. Never the best of remarks to make in a fervently Catholic country. it resulted in the mural being kept from public view for eight years. until Rivera one year before his death. changed the slogan. The piece is housed in the Museo Diego Rivera. In another corner of this supposedly uninhabitable city. old men sit outside playing eternal games of chess. outside the most popular work of a man who not only chronicled this city’s life. but put it on the world map.