Eighty-four years ago today artist Diego Rivera was polishing both a speech and a pistol. He was making sure everything was ready for the Communist party meeting two days later where he would expel a prominent party member. It was all part of the theatrics that Rivera loved.
Writer Hayden Herrera describes the events at that Thursday, October 3rd meeting -- yes, 1929’s calendar was the same as this year’s. “Diego arrived, sat down, and took out a large pistol, and put it on the table. He then put a handkerchief over the pistol and said: ‘I Diego Rivera, secretary general of the Mexican Communist party, accuse the painter Diego Rivera of collaborating with the petit-bourgeois government of Mexico and of having accepted a commission to paint the stairway of the National Palace of Mexico. This contradicts the politics of the Comintern and therefore the painter Diego Rivera should be expelled from the Communist party by the secretary general of the Communist party, Diego Rivera.’” Having proclaimed himself expelled he stood up, removed the handkerchief, picked up the pistol and . . . smashed it! It was made of clay.
Recalcitrant Diego Rivera went even further. In December of that same year he accepted the commission to paint the walls of the Cortez Palace terrace with the history of Cuernavaca from the conquest to the Revolution of 1910. It was a gift of Dwight Morrow and his wife Elizabeth to the city they enjoyed so much while he was U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Planning to be away for most of the following year the Morrows even lent the Riveras their weekend home in Cuernavaca.
In the National Palace in Mexico City Rivera painted the leaders of the Mexican Independence movement in a crowd. But the Cortez Palace in Cuernavaca was the headquarters of all three branches of the government of the state of Morelos. There was no way around it--he had to paint a prominent portrait of independence fighter José María Morelos.
There are statues of José María Morelos all over Mexico. He is easy to identify, Morelos always wore a bandana tied over his head. He had bandanas for every occasion – silk bandanas, embroidered bandanas, simple cloth bandanas. Like ten percent of the population at the time, Morelos was Afro-Mexican. It seems he wore the bandana to cover his Afro-textured hair.
Most artists are reluctant to depict Morelos accurately. We come across his portrait every day on the fifty-peso bill, but we’d be hard-pressed to think the person portrayed on that bill had any African ancestry.
When it came to painting Morelos into his mural, Rivera resorted to more theatrics. Before applying color to the portrait of Morelos he invited the governor, his cabinet, and the press to view the mural and listen to the artist himself describe the scenes.
On the scheduled day Diego described the portion of the mural he had painted so far and what the rest, which was only outlined, would contain. Then, pointing to a pillar in the center of the long wall, he said, “I’ve reserved this important spot for a portrait of José María Morelos, a man of universal stature!” Rivera’s well-rehearsed friends started to applaud. The governor joined in. Before the applause died down Rivera bellowed “His face could be anyone’s!” His friends cheered and stood up. The governor did too. Rivera wrapped up his talk and sent his audience home. He had gotten what he wanted from them. If Morelos’ face could be anyone’s, why not have it be that of the artist himself? And if a self-portrait of the artist, then it should be the artist’s skin color. It was only Morelos’s hands that were accurately painted.
The rest of the year-long project transpired smoothly until close to the end. While Diego painted his wife Frida Kahlo was a daily visitor. She was always generous with praise of content and historical accuracy. That was except in the very last scene he painted. In it Emiliano Zapata dressed in white peasant’s clothing holds his white horse by the bridle. Frida reportedly shrieked when she saw it. “Diego, what are you doing? Zapata had a black horse. His horse was legendary. There are songs and poems about Zapata and his black horse.”
Rivera replied: “I like white better than black and, besides, a white horse will go better with his white pants and white shirt.”
It became a heated argument that also involved the horse’s heavy legs. Diego came down from the scaffolding, tossed his palette down the hallway, and as he kicked over the scaffolding shouted, “Frida, you paint the horse! But it must be white.”
The horse remained white, but Frida drew the horse’s legs the way she thought they should be. Diego would later tell his friends, “I had to correct that white horse of Zapata’s according to Frida’s wishes.’” Good that he did because it has become the best-known scene in the Cortez Palace series of murals.