On this day: Diego Rivera dies

November 24 1957: a portrait of an artist

By Jennifer Lipman, November 24, 2010

Born in 1886, the Mexican painter and muralist is perhaps now remembered most for his tempestuous marriage to Frida Kahlo and his passionate support of communism.

A precocious artistic talent, he was sent to a specialist academy in Mexico City at just ten-years-old, and later studied in Madrid and France, where he mixed with an elite circle that included Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Amedeo Modigliani.

His mother was a Converso, a Jews whose ancestors had been forced to convert to Catholicism. Although he was not raised as a Jew and later declared himself an atheist, in 1936 he provided illustrations for a book by Yiddish poet Isaac Berliner.

A year before, he wrote: "My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work."

In Europe for the beginning of the Cubist movement, his art developed into a post-impressionist style, involving blocks of startling colour and stark outlines. By the 1920s his work became more overtly political, and in 1922 he joined the Mexican Communist Party, growing ever more radical throughout the decade.

He married the fiery painter Kahlo, daughter of a German Jew, in 1929. She was 20 years younger than him and their relationship was anything but conventional, involving a divorce and remarriage in 1940. The Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, lived with the couple for months while he was in exile.

He painted work for buildings across Europe and America and his work is displayed all around the world. In 2002 he was immortalised by Alfred Molina in the film Frida.

What the JC said: There is evidence that Kahlo herself and Rivera, who was of Marrano ancestry, were interested in their Jewish background. When they were staying in a hotel that barred Jews, both declared themselves to have Jewish blood and threatened to leave unless the rules were changed.

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    Last updated: 9:27am, November 24 2010