Diego Rivera had a prolific career spanning many decades and many countries. Even though you can find his works all over the planet there is no place like Mexico City to experience his world. Mexico City plays a significant role in the fabulous story of Diego Rivera’s life. The Diego Rivera murals in Mexico City are just the beginning because you can see his foray into architecture, where he lived, where he worked, and contemplate the changes that have shaken the community.
Diego Rivera was a storyteller. All his life he would intertwine fact and fiction to let his followers discern some pearls of wisdom. Much of his work was a fantastic representation of the world around him and in Mexico City, you can see the original alongside his interpretation. Those stories were told orally, painted on the walls of majestic buildings, debated in the newspapers, and even printed on the covers of restaurant menus.
On The Trail Of Diego Rivera
Growing up in the 1980’s I saw prints of Diego Rivera’s work in taco shops across Southern California. Without any further context, the paintings Flower Vendor and Flower Festival became cliche vision of life in Mexico. I never thought much about his technical mastery or depth of his stories until I saw the murals in the Palacio Nacional.
I have chased his paintings in Los Angeles and San Francisco but there is nothing like the experience of hunting down a new mural in Mexico City. From the restaurant that you eat at before visiting a mural to the park you stroll through after, in Mexico City, you get to meet the characters in his story.
I recently finished reading the book, The Fabulous Life Of Diego Rivera by Betram Wolfe (1963) and I can not recommend it enough. You have to see Diego Rivera’s works in the context of the day and know what was going on in the world when he painted a specific mural. There was always a ton of drama swirling around and Diego was usually pulling the strings.
I am not done yet either. I still have a bunch of murals that are still on my list but I am checking them off little by little. I recommend you start visiting the Diego Rivera murals in Mexico City by having breakfast at El Cardenal Restaurant Alameda location and then walk across the street to the Diego Rivera Mural Museum and stroll the Alameda Central to the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Everything is very close together and easily walkable.
El Cardenal Restaurant, Alameda Location
Before you start touring Diego Rivera murals in Mexico City have breakfast at El Cardenal Restaurant in the Hilton Reforma. El Cardenal Restaurant Group is one of Mexico City’s most beloved institutions and the Alameda location, inside the Hilton Reforma, tells the tragic story of the mural in the Versailles Restaurant and the Hotel del Prado.
The Hilton Reforma is fairly new building when compared to the rest of Mexico City. From 1946 to 1985 there was another hotel that stood in this exact same place. The Hotel del Prado was one of the best examples of contemporary Mexican architecture and the Versailles Restaurant hired Diego Rivera, at the pinnacle of his fame, to paint a mural in their dining room.
The mural was the only thing salvaged from the collapsed Hotel del Prado building after the infamous 1985 Mexico City earthquake. In 1960 it had been reinforced with steel beams and moved from the Versailles Restaurants to the hotel lobby which certainly saved it from total destruction.
Like everything that Diego did, the mural, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central, was meant to be polemic. A tiny section of the mural has the words, “God does not exist” which caused all sorts of controversy and caused half the mural to be hidden from the public behind a curtain.
El Cardenal Restaurant is inside the hotel that was built where the Hotel del Prado once stood. The restaurant is decorated with photos of Diego Rivera painting Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central along with other old-time photos of parties in the Versailles Restaurant. It is surreal to think about the path this mural has taken.
Diego Rivera Mural Museum
Sueño de Una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (1947)
Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central
After having breakfast in El Cardenal Restaurant you can walk directly across the street to the Alameda Central and the Diego Rivera Mural Museum. The Alameda Central was first conceived in the 16th century and represents centuries of history. The characters depicted in the mural almost certainly passed through the Alameda Central in their own times.
The mural measures 50 feet long by 13 feet tall and took less than three months to paint at Diego’s breakneck pace. This is a medium-sized mural when compared to the overwhelming murals in the Palacio Nacional or even the Pan American Unity mural in San Francisco Community College.
The left side of the mural depicts the Colonial era of Cortez and the Spanish Inquisition and moves through the centuries to the early 20th century on the right-hand side. Front and center are the “Catrina” (iconic Day of the Dead skeleton dressed in 19th-century European fashion), Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and José Guadalupe Posada (creator of the original Calavera Garbancera Day of the Dead skeleton). There are a number of characters sleeping at the bottom of the mural and we are led to believe that the area above them is a nostalgic dream of times long past or what could have been.
I think the most important part of the mural is Diego’s reinterpretation of the Catrina from José Guadalupe Posada’s crude, and some might say, racist, Calavera Garbancera (garbanzo bean skull). This is just my interpretation but Diego Rivera is throwing some shade towards José Guadalupe Posada while rescuing his legacy at the same time.
José Guadalupe Posada had this thing with criticizing the domestic employees of wealthy ladies in Mexico City. He thought the domestic employees who tried to dress in the same European fashions as the rich ladies they attended were leaving their customs behind. Posada’s Calavera Garbancera roughly translates to garbanzo bean skull, however, garbancera has a double meaning of ordinary, vulgar or in poor taste.
Diego Rivera took the skeleton print that José Guadalupe Posada had started and made her elegant and proudly Mexican with the Quetzalcoatl plumed serpent draped around her shoulders like a feather boa. This mural is what catapulted the Catrina to Day of the Dead fame. The Catrina is a modern construct that Diego Rivera baptized with this mural.
If you go to the cemeteries in Michoacan or Oaxaca nobody has their face painted like a Catrina skeleton.
This is where I see Diego Rivera throwing some shade at José Guadalupe Posada. Diego painted José holding hands with the Catrina but scowling off to the side at an Indian girl dressed in a French-style yellow dress. La Revoltosa Chiutlahua (Rebellious girl named Chiutlahua in the yellow dress) is stopped from entering the Alameda Central park by a police officer who does not want her to bother the wealthy people.
Our tour guide said that José Guadalupe Posada was known to frequent houses of ill repute and referred to La Revoltosa Chiutlahua (girl in the yellow dress) as La Malinche (translator, advisor, and mistress to Hernan Cortez, used derogatorily for a sell-out). It looks to me like Diego is painting José being confronted by a girl he would visit at night yet disparage during the day. José Guadalupe Posada does not look happy to see this girl.
Publicly, Diego Rivera paid homage to José Guadalupe Posada saying that we are all students of Guadalupe Posada. Privately, who knows what Diego Rivera really thought about José Guadalupe Posada. Look at the mural yourself and see what you think.
God Does Not Exist
Another cool side note about this mural is the “God Does Not Exist” controversy. Tucked in between Emperor Maximilliano and Benito Juarez is general, politician and notable atheist Ignacio Ramirez with the words, “God does not exist” written on a paper. The archbishop refused to bless the building because of those words. Conservative catholic newspapers relentlessly attacked Diego Rivera and one paper called for the mural to be destroyed.
One night a group of ultra-rightwing students crashed the party and two brothers proceeded to chisel the blasphemous words off of the mural. This rallied the left-wing artists and intellectuals to come out in support of the mural and wrote the words again on the mural in pencil. The mural was damaged again, the restaurant closed, and a curtain finally hung over the offensive section of the mural.
Late in his life, Diego Rivera gave up his atheism and publicly said that he was a Catholic. He invited newspaper photographers to the mural and spent the next six hours painting over the tiny section containing the blasphemous words. All he did was replace the words, “God does not exist” with the name and date of the conference where Ignacio Ramariz spoke the words, “God does not exist”.
There are so many great stories in this mural. Make sure to get the tour. The tour guides are experts on this mural and super excited to tell stories.
After you view the mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central you can walk through the Alameda Central to the Palacio of Bellas Artes for another spectacular Diego Rivera mural with even more drama associated with it.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Man, Controller of the Universe (1934) is a recreation of Man at the Crossroads (1933) which was destroyed in the Rockefeller Center before it was finished.
El Palacio de Bellas Artes is the most important theater in Mexico. It also houses a collection of murals by Mexico’s big three muralists: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros. Construction of the Palacio de Bellas Artes was started under Porfirio Díaz but was put on hold for 25 years because of the Revolution.
The plaque outside the Palace says that Abelardo Rodríguez (born in Guaymas, Sonora and died in La Jolla, California) was president and Eduardo Vasconcelos was the Secretary of Public Education. Rodriguez may have been president but Plutarco Elias Calles was still the Máximo Jefe (the top boss) and he was fervently anticlerical.
Diego Rivera’s mural in the Palacio de Bellas Artes is a remake of a mural that he started but never finished in New York’s Rockefeller Center. The mural in the Rockefeller Center was called Man at the Crossroads and in the Palacio de Bellas Artes is called Man, Controller of the World.
Man at the Crossroads
Salma Hayek’s 2002 movie Frida does a pretty good job describing the events leading up to the Rockefeller Center mural being destroyed but here is my take on it.
Diego would orchestrate conflicts with his patrons to maximize the press coverage. He was a genius storyteller and knew how to captivate the public, especially journalists. It was almost a badge of honor to snub the Rockefellers if he couldn’t tell the story that he wanted to tell. The communists were calling him a sell-out bourgeois for painting for the Rockefellers in the first place.
Meanwhile, Diego was becoming an international superstar. He had been in the United States since 1931 painting murals in San Francisco and Detroit then had a one man show in the New York City Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that was a massive hit.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. was taking the Standard Oil fortune and building the grandest building complex in New York City. John’s wife was on the board of the MoMA and had bought several of Diego’s pieces at the big show. John’s son, Nelson Rockefeller, future Vice President of the United States, was charged with recruiting and managing the Rockefeller Center mural project. They were all well aware of Diego’s politics but they wanted him anyway. The Rockefellers thought that a well-defined contract would leash the wily communist while painting the lobby of one of the most visible buildings in the world.
Egged on by the local papers and recently kicked out of the communist party, Diego went down the contract and renegotiated or broke just about every point other than the theme. Diego interpreted this as the fight between capitalism and socialism for the development of the third world.
Diego’s mural was fighting the cold war on a mural before WWII even started. The mural is set against the great depression not long after WWl, the Russian Revolution, and the Mexican Revolution. The great 19th century empires were falling, and development and poverty were on everyone’s mind. Was Western-style capitalism or Russian-style socialism a better development model for the third world?
The original sketches had been approved by the Rockefellers but as Diego started making progress everyone realized that the mural looked nothing like the sketches. The World-Telegram newspaper ran the headline, “Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity and John D. Jr. Foots the Bill” which only made Diego want to add more communist propaganda.
As Diego started to put faces on his characters, Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin appeared and so did John D. Rockefeller Jr. Everyone talks about Lenin’s face making everybody lose their minds. A mural with Lenin in the Rockefeller Center is going to make renting or selling those units way more difficult.
Secondly, a likeness of John D. Rockefeller Jr. was drawn drinking martinis with what John Jr.’s grandson described as “harlots“. John Jr. took an oath of abstinence from alcohol at a young age and had a puritanical public persona during prohibition. I think that depicting John Jr. in an unfavorable light is what had Nelson shut down the project and eventually destroy the mural.
Nelson Rockefeller did his best to mediate the situation and ask Diego to make changes to the mural. There was zero chance that Diego was going to acquiesce to the Rockefellers with so much publicity on the line. Diego was paid in full for the incomplete mural and was subsequently locked out of the Rockefeller Center. Luckily, one of Diego’s assistants was able to clandestinely photograph the mural’s progress so that it could be recreated later.
Man, Controller of the Universe
Just as the Rockefellers fired Diego from the Rockefeller Center project, Vasconcelos was recruiting muralists to adorn the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Diego had been offered a wall in a very important building to recreate the destroyed Rockefeller Center mural.
When Diego recreated the mural from the Rockefeller Center he had a grudge to pick with John D. Rockefeller Jr. First off, John D. had a puritanical view about alcohol and Diego painted him drinking a cocktail while the unemployed depression-era workers watched from the street outside. Secondly, there is something that resembles the syphilis virus painted next to Rockefeller’s head. It appears that Diego was trying to define Rockefeller’s legacy with these accusations.
The contrast of Russian communism with Western democracy is bleak. The mural contrasts gas masks and bayonets with a Russian May Day worker’s celebration. There is Soviet diversity and inclusion contrasted to New York elitism and unemployment. Diego blamed the first world war on capitalism. Interestingly, Diego spent the entirety of the great war in Europe and even lost a child to cold and hunger that ravaged the continent during the protracted conflict.
Diego believed that capitalist speculation was to blame for the great depression and that only communism could save the world. I find it ironic that when Diego painted Leon Trotsky in this mural in 1934, Trotsky had already been exiled from the Soviet Union for years and would arrive in Mexico a refuge three years later. That bolshevik experiment was turning out to be a disaster under Stalin.
The mural is very moving especially considering the context of scientific discovery of the day. It is even more clear in 2019 that the impact that the human race has had on the planet is the consequence of some poor decisions. Diego was well aware of the brewing trouble in Europe and saw the conflict as a man-made problem.
Mexico’s Palacio de Bellas Artes is a national treasure and the murals by José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros are really special. There is another small Diego Rivera mural called Carnaval de la Vida Mexicana. The mural is painted on small fresco panels that can be moved around. I regret not taking the tour to get the whole story on this mural.
Epopeya del pueblo Mexicano (1929 – 1935)
History of Mexico
I recently returned to the Palacio Nacional after first visiting in 2005. I remembered how overwhelming the murals felt. Mexico is an amazing country with a rich and ancient history. Diego did a spectacular job documenting centuries of history. The mural is incredibly well researched and helped foment a new national identity in an era of Eurocentric leaders.
Two of the mural’s greatest achievements have to do with showing the grandeur of the prehispanic cultures and shifting the anti-mestizo/anti-Indian stigmas of the day.
The first time I visited the murals I was impressed yet overwhelmed. Most recently, with 15 years more to study Mexico, I am still overwhelmed but more excited to identify the characters that I have been reading about.
I highly recommend that you hire a guide to explore this mural. The sheer size of the mural and hundreds of years of history are easily overwhelming. This is a mural you are going to enjoy more and more as you continue to study the history of Mexico.
Cárcamo de Dolores
Agua, el Origen de la Vida
What the hell is a Cárcamo? That is a hard one. I have looked it up a number of times. It is a sump or a trench that is used to move water from one place to another. The Cárcamo de Dolores is the distribution channel where the Lerma Aqueduct reaches Mexico City and is distributed to storage tanks. In the 1900s it was really common to adorn these massive infrastructure projects with art. In this case, Diego Rivera tells the story of water as the origin of life, the building of the Lerma River Aqueduct, and the Aztec beliefs about water.
Mexico City has a tumultuous relationship with water. The last 700 years have seen major changes to the Valley of Mexico and the scarcity of water has dramatically changed the landscape. To this day the city starts to freak out when the water is turned off. The elevation of Mexico City makes pumping water difficult, the size of Mexico City means there is high demand, and a few years with less than average rainfall can make life very uncomfortable in the city. The Cárcamo de Dolores is public art to celebrate the completion of the Lerma Aqueduct which still helps sustain life in Mexico City.
The mural is actually painted in the water distribution channel and water flowed over parts of it for years. Today the distribution channel has been rerouted, the mural has been restored and there is a small museum open to the public (for many years this mural was left in disarray and off-limits to the public).
Water the origin of life is a theory that Diego learned about when visiting Russia and hypothesizes that water is responsible for the creation of the first single-cell organisms on earth and evolution took over after that. Diego meticulously researched what single-cell organisms looked like and which ones were most likely the first forms of life to inhabit the earth. There are scenes of what Diego thought evolution would look like showing the importance of water to build communities and harvest the soil.
Directly in front of the Cárcamo de Dolores museum is the Tlaloc Fountain. Tlaloc was an Aztec god that was in charge of the rain. The importance of rain and water to Mexico City can not be underestimated. There is a direct link from rain to agriculture to corn and to life. The Fuente Tlaloc (Tlaloc Fountain) is so big that it is best seen from the sky looking out the left side of a commercial airline as you are landing at the Mexico City International Airport. If you get stuck on the right side of the plane you can always check out Google Maps Satellite view for context.
The Cárcamo de Dolores is located in a beautiful part of Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park, in the second section near the fair and the Papalote Children’s Museum. I thoroughly enjoyed museum and as always, thought the tour was exceptional. The people who are taking care of these murals are really interested in swapping stories about the fantastic life of Diego Rivera.
Diego Rivera and architect Juan O’Gorman worked together on a number of projects yet the Anahuacalli museum building is special. Diego took the time to put as much depth and symbolism into this building as he would put into a mural. From the stones to the directions and mosaics, everything is painstakingly researched. This building houses Diego Rivera’s personal collection of prehispanic art and was always meant to be a gift to the people of Mexico.
In addition to the collection of prehispanic art, you can see the original sketches of the mural that was pitched to the Rockefellers for the lobby of their big project. Man at the crossroads is sketched out on the roof of the second-floor hall. After viewing the Palacio de Bellas Artes, reading this article and watching Salma Hyak’s 2002 movie Frida, you will get to make up your own mind about that episode of the novela.
La Casa Azul de Frida Kahlo
While there is not a whole lot of Diego Rivera artwork or murals in La Casa Azul. The couple did live here for a while, threw legendary parties, and with the help of architect/partner Juan O’Gorman would build their Mexican dream house.
This is one of the most visited museums in Mexico City so plan ahead. Look the place up on Google Maps and try to avoid peak times when the line can stretch way around the block. The Trotsky Museum is right around the corner and tells a crazy tale of murder and international espionage that intersects with Diego’s own story.
Diego Rivera Murals in Mexico City that I haven’t seen yet
These are the next museums on my list. I am keeping a list so that every time I go to Mexico City, I see a few more murals. I am pretty stoked on the collection of photos that I am putting together. It is so much fun to explore Mexico City looking for these little hidden treasures.
Casa Estudio Diego Rivera
I had dinner at the San Angel Inn but we didn’t arrive until after the Diego Rivera Studio Museum was already closed. I want to go back and take the tour to see what more about his creative process. The building was again built by Juan O’Gorman with some really cool functional architecture and landscaping. The use of cacti as a fence is so beautiful. If you go, the San Angel Inn is right across the street and a step back into another world.
Museo Dolores Olmedo
Dolores Olmedo was a wealthy art collector, friend, and model to Diego Rivera. Her house in Xochimilco (the southern part of Mexico City) and her art collection were converted into a museum with peacocks running around the grounds. She was able to locate and purchase a number of Diego’s early pieces from his time in Europe.
I want to make a day of visiting the chinampas and the museum because they are both in Xochimilco. There are ornately decorated boats called trajineras that used to be party boats. As I understand it Chinampa del Sol Yolcan is the premier heirloom vegetable grower that supplies all the biggest chefs. They have a community agricultural program and to deliver exotic fruits and vegetables to people who like to eat well. Their tour of the chinampa system looks unreal.
Antiguo Colegio San Ildefonso
The 18th-century colonial baroque architecture used to be a Jesuit college, then the national preparatory school and today is a museum with an impressive collection of murals. This was Diego Rivera’s first mural. José Vasconcelos gave Diego this mural to paint in 1922 when Frida Kahlo was a 16-year-old schoolgirl at the National Preparatory School. They wouldn’t get together until much later but their paths crossed while he was painting this mural.
Secretaría de Educación Pública
Diego spent five or six years painting here originally at the behest of the Secretary of Public Education José Vasconcelos and President Alvaro Obregon. There is a section of the mural that was painted in 1928 or 1929 that shows Frida Kahlo arming the peasant soldiers that I really want to see. The Secretary of Education building is only a block away from the National Preparatory school building so you can hit a few murals really quickly.