Profile explores muralist

Sunday, March 14, 1999

Dreaming with His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera
by Patrick Marnham. Knopf. 350 pages. $35.

     In New York City in April 1933, Diego Rivera was painting a heroic image of Lenin on the side of the RCA building. The Rockefellers, who owned the building and had hired the Mexican artist to paint the mural in which the Russian Marxist appeared, were somewhat surprised. Rivera was taken off the job, demonstrators gathered in the streets daily to protest his removal, and in the end the mural was destroyed, on a cold night in February 1934.
     The full story is much more complicated than a brief summary can convey, and one of the strengths of Patrick Marnham's biography is its willingness to investigate the vague areas of Rivera's life, to verify or refute other accounts of what happened - including Rivera's own. Where other biographers have more readily accepted Rivera's versions as accurate, Marnham tells us, for instance, that Rivera did not play a role in the Mexican revolution of the early 1900s despite the painter's claims to the contrary.
     Investigating the degrees of truth and invention in the myths surrounding Rivera requires a narrative approach that may feel digressive but can't help itself for being so. If frustrating in terms of storytelling (one wants the story to continue), exploring hypothetical and conflicting accounts helps the biography achieve a balanced, more accurate portrait of the artist-revolutionary.
     In any case, for readers interested in 20th-century art and radicalism, Rivera's life holds more than enough fascination. In Paris in the teens, he was friends with and later critical of Picasso; in Mexico in the '30s, he helped hide and later had a falling out with Trotsky. Indeed, Rivera's many marriages and extramarital affairs make "Melrose Place" look rather tame by comparison.
     Whether painting murals for capitalists or for Communists, cheating on or working with Frida Kahlo (his third wife and an accomplished artist in her own right), Rivera led a life full of turbulence, inspiration and interest. Marnham does a fine job in gathering the clamorous details, and the result is a biography worthy of its subject.
     (Phil Nel is an adjunct professor of English at the College of Charleston.)




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