Diego Rivera, known for his immense mural paintings on public buildings in Mexico, created this smaller, portable mural for his first one-person exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1931. It is based on one of a series of sixteen murals that he painted on the walls of the Palacio de Cortés (Palace of Cortés) in Cuernavaca, located in the southern state of Morelos. In the portable mural, which weighs more than 1,000 pounds and measures approximately six by eight feet, Rivera added the figures of children in the foreground and left out men pulling a cart at gunpoint from the background. Both versions of Sugar Cane show the harsh reality of Mexico’s colonial era when Spanish rulers forced Mexicans into hard labor on sugar plantations.
When Rivera made the portable Sugar Cane, he was at the peak of his powers as an artist and an international celebrity. He wanted to show capitalist North America images of class struggle in Mexico. He also wanted to display the Italian fresco techniques that he had adapted in Mexico. Fresco means “fresh” in Italian. Ground pigments are mixed with water, then quickly applied to fresh plaster spread on a wall before the plaster dries. Mural making requires several stages and the work of many skilled artisans—a collective process that suited Rivera’s socialist ideals.
José Diego María Rivera (Mexican, 1886–1957) was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1886. He was named “Diego” after his freethinking, journalist father, a criollo (a person of European descent born in Spanish colonial America), and “María,” after his mother, who was an obstetrician and a mestizo (part European, part Indian). A precocious child who learned to read at the age of four, he liked to draw so much that his father gave him a special room in which he could draw on anything, even the walls! When Diego was five, the family moved to Mexico City. At the age of twelve, he was allowed to enroll in the Academia de San Carlos (Academy of San Carlos), a prestigious, European-style art school, despite the fact that he was much younger than the other students. After graduating, Rivera traveled on a government scholarship to Spain and France. He remained in Europe for fourteen years, going home for only one brief trip in 1910, when the Mexican Revolution was beginning. During his time abroad he became friends with avant-garde artists Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Jacques Lipchitz and learned all about Modern art. In 1921, Álvaro Obregón was elected president of Mexico. Obregón provided government support for a revival of mural painting designed to give illiterate Mexicans a sense of their national identity. Rivera then decided to return home.
Seeing Mexico again through fresh eyes, Rivera was enchanted by pre-Colombian and folk art. With artists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, he quickly became a leader of the Mexican mural renaissance. He also joined the Mexican Communist Party, with which he had a stormy relationship throughout his life. After funding for murals in Mexico began to fade, he accepted commissions from U.S. businessmen and created controversial murals in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City. Rivera’s personal life was also tumultuous, especially his marriage, divorce, and remarriage to the charismatic artist Frida Kahlo (1907–1954).
Rivera lived during a period of intense social and political change in Mexico and the world. He created an amazing number of large-scale murals in his own country and the United States.
Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art