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"Engrossing as a novel … throws a clear white light on one of the most spectacular artists of our time." — Chicago Sunday Tribune
This remarkable autobiography began with a newspaper interview the artist gave journalist Gladys March in 1944. From then until the artist's death in 1957, she spent several months each year with Rivera, eventually filling 2,000 pages with his recollections and interpretations of his art and life. Written in the first person, this book is a richly ...
"Engrossing as a novel … throws a clear white light on one of the most spectacular artists of our time." — Chicago Sunday Tribune
This remarkable autobiography began with a newspaper interview the artist gave journalist Gladys March in 1944. From then until the artist's death in 1957, she spent several months each year with Rivera, eventually filling 2,000 pages with his recollections and interpretations of his art and life. Written in the first person, this book is a richly revealing document of the painter who revolutionized modern mural painting, was a principal figure in launching the "Mexican Renaissance," and is ranked among the most influential artists of the twentieth century.
As the colorful narrative unfolds, Diego Rivera seems always to be in the midst of political, artistic, and romantic turmoil. As the reviewer for The New Republic observed, "Rivera reveals a keen appreciation of this prowess in art, sex, and politics, and the record seems to be complete on the series of spectacular rows he got into over all three."
The book details his bold confrontations with dictators and presidents, the battles that erupted over his murals in Rockefeller Center and the Hotel del Prado, his tempestuous marriages to Lupe Marin and artist Frida Kahlo, and much, much more. "There is no lack of exciting material. A lover at nine, a cannibal at 18, by his own account, Rivera was prodigiously productive of art and controversy." — San Francisco Chronicle. 21 halftones.
THE MOUNTAINS OF GUANAJUATO rise seven thousand feet into the clear Mexican air. At their base is a bowl-shaped hollow which, even a small way up the slopes, appears to be strewn with tiles of many colors. The mountains are rugged and lowering, but they hold rich veins of silver. In the year 1550, a mule driver named Juan Rayas discovered the first of Guanajuato's silver mines. Four years later a group of Spaniards settled in a curve of the bowl and thus founded the town. From that time to this, the people of Guanajuato have taken silver from the rocks.
The town is in central Mexico; its houses are flat-roofed, the windows are shadowed and deep, and there is a somnolent air about the afternoons. Even in my childhood the silver-rush days were already only a memory, for most of the veins near the surface of the ground had been emptied. It was other places in Mexico that were luring the fortune hunters and adventurers.
The house of my parents, Diego and Maria Barrientos Rivera, was located at 80 Pocitos Street, in the heart of Guanajuato. It was like a small marble palace in which the queen, my mother, was also diminutive, almost childlike, with large innocent eyes—but adult in her extreme nervousness.
There was mixed blood on both sides of my family. My maternal grandmother, Nemesis Rodríguez Valpuesta, was of an Indian and Spanish mixture. The family of my maternal grandfather, Juan Barrientos, a mine operator, had come from the port of Alvarado, celebrated all over Mexico for its excellent fish, its opulent fruit, and the gaiety and vigor of its Negroid people. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to suppose that my mother passed on to me the traits of three races: white, red, and black.
My father's mother, Grandmother Ynez Acosta, was descended from a Portuguese-Jewish family which traced its ancestry to the rationalist philosopher Uriel Acosta. At fifteen she had married my paternal grandfather, Don Anastasio de Rivera. Don Anastasio was then sixty, a veteran officer of the Spanish army, and the son of an Italian who had also served as an officer in the military forces of Spain. While still in the Spanish army, my paternal great-grandfather had been sent on a diplomatic mission to Russia at the end of the eighteenth century. There my grandfather had been born. No one in Spain knew who my grandfather's mother had been. As my grandfather told my father, many could present themselves as the son of an unknown father, but only he, Don Anastasio, enjoyed the distinction of being the son of an unknown mother. The explanation was that my Italian great-grandfather had married in Russia, his wife died in childbirth, and he brought his son back with him to Spain. It was through Don Anastasio that I could claim the title to Spanish nobility which I afterwards transferred to a relative.
Don Anastasio did not marry till after he had come to Mexico, and at an age when most men are considered old. He was, however, a man of fabulous vigor. At sixty-five he joined Juárez in the war against the French and the Church. When he settled down again, he quickly amassed a large fortune. To his wife, he presented a brood of nine children. He was seventy-two when a twenty-year-old girl, jealous of the attention he still bestowed on my grandmother, gave him poison to drink, and so he died.
Through the long years that followed, in which my Grandmother Ynez raised and supported her children, she never forgot my grandfather, Don Anastasio, with whom she continued to be madly in love. She would tell us that no young man of twenty could have served her as a lover better than he had.
Hearing this over and over again from my grandmother, my naturally fearful mother came to suspect that my father had inherited this terrible virility. And not without reason. My father was a powerfully built man, tall, black-bearded, handsome, and charming. He was fifteen years her senior, but in speaking of his age, my mother would give him additional years in the hope of making him seem less attractive to other women.CHAPTER 2
TALE OF A GOAT AND A MOUSE
To THESE PARENTS, a twin brother and I were born on the night of December 8, 1886. I, the older, was named Diego after my father, and my brother, arriving a few minutes later, was named Carlos. My whole name actually is Diego Maria de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez.
The coming of Carlos and me brought great joy to my parents. At twenty-two, my mother had already had four pregnancies, of which the first three had ended in stillbirths. After each child was born dead, my father had gone out and bought my mother a doll to console her. Now he did not buy a doll but cried with delight.
However, when he was only a year and a half, my twin brother Carlos died. My mother developed a terrible neurosis, installed herself beside his tomb, and refused to leave. My father, then a municipal councillor, was obliged to rent a room in the home of the caretaker of the cemetery in order to be with her at night. The doctor warned my father that, unless my mother's mind was distracted by some kind of work, she would become a lunatic.
The family explained her case to my mother and urged her to study for a career. She agreed, chose obstetrics, and began her studies at once. To everyone's delight, the cure succeeded. My mother's melancholia passed. In school, she proved to be a brilliant student and received her diploma in half the regular time.
At two years old, according to photographs and the tales of my father and mother, I was thin and had rickets. My health was so poor that the doctor advised that I be sent to the country to live a healthy, outdoor life, lest I die like my brother.
For this reason, my father gave me to Antonia, my Indian nurse. Antonia, whom I have since loved more than my own mother, took me to live with her in the mountains of Sierra.
I can still recall Antonia vividly. A tall, quiet woman in her middle twenties, she had wonderful shoulders, and walked with elegant erectness on magnificently sculptured legs, her head held high as if balancing a load. Visually she was an artist's ideal of the classic Indian woman, and I have painted her many times from memory in her long red robe and blue shawl.
Antonia's house was a primitive shack in the middle of a wood. Here she practiced medicine with herbs and magic rites, for she was something of a witch doctor. She gave me complete freedom to roam in the forest. For my nourishment, she bought me a female goat, big, clean, and beautiful, so that I would have milk fresh from its udders.
From sunrise to sunset, I was in the forest, sometimes far from the house, with my goat who watched me as a mother does a child. All the animals in the forest became my friends, even dangerous and poisonous ones. Thanks to my goat-mother and my Indian nurse, I have always enjoyed the trust of animals—precious gift. I still love animals infinitely more than human beings.
I had left my home for Antonia's when I was two years old, and I returned when I was four. Now I was no longer scrawny, but robust and fat. But my body was out of proportion in two respects: my feet were too small for my legs, and my forehead was too high and wide for my face. However, my two years with Antonia had saved me from any early deformation of the mind; until then I had been growing up as the animals, free from human dirt. Many years later, I wondered whether my father had not planned it so, that I might escape the prejudices and lies of adults.
Not long after my return from the mountains, I had my first encounter with adult duplicity. I was five. My mother was pregnant, and she wanted to fool me about the approaching birth. She told me the child would be delivered to her in a box which the train was carrying from afar. That day I waited at the depot and watched all the trains, but no box arrived for my mother. I was furious when I returned home and found that my sister Maria had been born during my absence.
In angry frustration, I caught a pregnant mouse and opened her belly with a pair of scissors. I wanted to see whether there were small mice inside her. When I found the mouse foetuses, I stomped into my mother's room and threw them directly in her face, screaming, "You liar—liar." My mother became hysterical. She cried out that in giving birth to me she had whelped a monster. My father also scolded me. He told me of the pain I had caused the mouse in cutting her up alive. He asked if my curiosity was so strong that I could be indifferent to the sufferings of other creatures. To this day, I can recall the intensity of my reaction. I felt low, unworthy, cruel, as if I were dominated by an invisible evil force. My father even started to console me.
From that time on, I developed a keen desire to know about the origins of life. I began to teach myself to read, asking everyone I could, night and day, to help me learn the letters of the alphabet. Later, when I could make out a few words, I practiced reading my mother's obstetrics books and any other books I could borrow from our doctor.CHAPTER 3
THE THREE OLD GENTLEMEN WELCOME THE NEW ICONOCLAST
BESIDES MY MOTHER AND FATHER, my sister and myself, two female relations of my mother lived in the house on Pocitos Street. These two boarders, my Aunt Cesaria and my great-aunt Vicenta, were very religious. My father, who was a liberal and anticlerical, had worked out a truce with them. He did not interfere with their observances and even permitted them to display the religious pictures and images which figure so much in Catholic worship. Around my soul, however, he drew a line; that was off limits to the pious ones. Until I was six years old, I had never been inside a house of worship.
One day, without my father's knowledge, my great-aunt Vicenta risked taking me to the Church of San Diego. She thought I should pray to the Virgin Mary there for my mother's success in her diploma examinations which she was taking that morning.
On entering the Church, my revulsion was so great that I still get a sick feeling in my stomach when I recall it. I remember examining the wooden boxes with their slots on top for the coins, then the man at the door in his long, dirty smock, collecting more money in a tin plate. There were paintings all around of women and men sitting or walking on clouds with little winged boys flying above them.
In my own house, I had inspected my aunts' images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. I had scratched them and discovered that they were made of wood. I had put sticks into their glass eyes and through their ears to discover whether they could see, hear, or feel anything—always, of course, with negative results.
In the church, my great-aunt Vicenta took her place among the crowd of old men and women, some of whom were kneeling. She whispered to me to beg the Virgin of Guanajuato to help my mother. I had a funny feeling then which I remember vividly. It was a mixture of indignation and an impulse to laugh at the people around me. I did not laugh, but I gave vent to my feelings by scornfully calling them idiots. My poor aunt and some other old ladies who had heard me tried to explain to me that they were not idiots, that I was only a boy and did not understand such things. My aunt had to be cautious with me because our visit to the church was a secret from my father who had forbidden my ever being taken there.
I said nothing more for the moment but sat quietly, looking at everything around me. I observed the carving on the altar and the images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, pictured as they were supposed to appear in heaven. Suddenly rage possessed me, and I ran from my aunt and climbed up the steps of the altar. Then at the top of my voice, I began to address the astonished worshipers. I remember the words because each one had a strange sound, each one left a burning imprint in my head.
"Stupid people! You reek of dirt and stupidity! You are so crazy that you believe that if I were to ask the portrait of my father, hanging in my house, for one peso, the portrait would actually give me one peso. You are utter idiots. In order to get pesos, I have to ask someone who has pesos to spare and is willing to give some to me.
"You talk of heaven, pointing with your fingers over your head. What heaven is there? There is only air, clouds which give rain, lightning which makes a loud sound and breaks the tree branches, and birds flying. There are no boys with wings nor any ladies or gentlemen sitting on clouds.
"Clouds are water vapor which goes up when the heat of the sun's rays strikes the rivers and lakes. You can see this vapor from the Guanajuato mountains. It turns to water which falls in drops, and so we have rain.
"At the entrance to this place, I saw boxes to collect money, and a man asking for more money. I also know the priest who comes often to our house to drink my aunt's good chocolate and glasses of liquor. With the money he collects for the church, he pays the painters and sculptors to paint all these lies and puppets. He does this to get more money to make stupid people like you believe that these are truths and to make you fear the Virgin Mary and God.
"In order to have the priest appease these idols to spare you because you are cruel, dirty, and bad people, you give this money to the priest. Does that fear stop the beggars, the poor people, and the jobless miners from sneaking into the houses of the rich people, the grocery stores, the clothing stores of the gabachos, and the haciendas of the gringos, and taking from them a little of what they need?"
At this point some terrified ladies began to scream. They made the sign of the cross in my direction, shouting, "This child is Satan! Satan has appeared in this child!"
The man with the long smock came over to me with a big brass cup full of water which he threw over me, all the while making the sign of the cross. By now my fury had passed, and I was full of mischievous fun. No longer preaching, I began taunting the worshipers with the worst insults and profanities I had learned up to that time.
Suddenly the priest came out, dressed in an impressive robe crusted over with gold embroidery. In his left hand, he held a big book from which he read loudly while looking at me foolishly. I retreated to the small altar at the right, calculating eventually to take a candlestick and throw it at him.
With my back to the wall so that I could not be attacked from the rear and with my hands clenched, I faced the priest. "What about you, you old fool?" I said. "If there really is a Holy Virgin or anyone up in the air, tell them to send lightning to strike me down or let the stones of the vault fall on my head. If you are unable to do that, Mr. Priest, you're nothing but a puppet taking money from stupid old women. You're no better than the clown in the circus coaxing coins from the public. If God doesn't stop me, then there must be no God."
The priest read on more loudly than before, making funny signs in the air. Nothing happened. The atmosphere was so charged with hatred against me that I looked up to the dome to see if stones were really starting to fall.
Then I took two steps toward the priest and shouted, "You see that your God, your Virgin, and your saints mean no more to me than your old book and your signs." Then I grabbed the candlestick in my hands.
"Get out of here!" I shouted.
Whether he was trying to prevent a scandal or simply didn't know how to cope with a boy like me, I can't tell; but the priest closed his book, covered his head, and ran out. At that moment, I wouldn't have changed places with anyone in the world. I took the center of the altar and, gesticulating with my fists, I shouted, "You see, there is no God! You're all stupid cows!"
Many rough-looking men had joined the old people, but when I said, "There is no God," they put their hands over their eyes and ears and ran away. They pushed each other in their panic to get out of the church, crying as they ran, "The devil is here!"
My great-aunt, melting in tears, gathered me in her arms to carry me out of the profaned church of San Diego. When we reached the street, I expected to be pelted with stones, but the people were too busy shutting their windows and doors against the devil. The streets were as empty as if a herd of wild bulls had stampeded into town.
My great-aunt ran with me through the streets and up into the mountains. She didn't bring me home until late in the afternoon.
Excerpted from My Art, My Life by Diego Rivera, Gladys March. Copyright © 1991 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 9, 2014
My Art, My Life: an autobiography by Diego Rivera has been underestimated in Art history. There is one reviewer who claims that there is fantasy in the book, when he talks about cannibalism, witchcraft, offensive treatment of religion etc. but I don't see why those details of his biography may not be true.
According to Rivera's biography, he was raised by a woman from a primitive culture ( as his mother had lost her emotional stability after the death on one of her children. Being raised according to a primitive culture may explained some of his irrational way of looking at reality.
That he was a member of the Communist party was no secret, just like Picasso, Diego Rivera's mentor in Paris, was also a member of the communist party.
The book reveals an important dimension of the artist that has been ignore by art historians, and that is the fact that Diego Rivera was already a famous, well known cubist painter during the Cubist craze.
The book explains how Rivera turned his back on his Cubist success when he embraced Communism and from that ideology, he developed his vision as a muralist, art for the people, instead of art for the elite groups.
Ironically, it was some of the richest americans who supported his communist art, among them Henry Ford and Rockefeller.
Rivera's involvement with the Communist party explains his treatment of religion and the church, it goes without saying.
The Mural revolution, ironically aimed at breaking walls between social classes and races, predating the Civil right movement in the USA. This explains the artist's relationship with world leaders.
, artists and women, his adventures in Europe, the United States and Mexico. For a book that small in size, the great source of Art history in it is an inspired work of art in itself.
Posted December 8, 2003
My Art, My Life: An Autobiography written by Diego River and Gladys March is really a moving novel. The book was actually the result of a newspaper interview that grew into a series of interviews over many years. Beginning in 1944 and continuing until Rivera¿s death in 1957 Gladys March spent a whole lot of time each year collecting over 2000 pages of notes that eventually formed the basis of this book. Although the book is an autobiography it is actually both factual and fantasy. He talks about his experiment in cannibalism, witchcraft, his offensive treatment of religion and the church, the communist party, his relationships with world leaders, artists and women, his adventures in Europe, the United States and Mexico, his troubles and ills, and in general the things that made his life as large as his physical presence.
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