My favorite scene in Diego Rivera is when the great painter of the title (1886-1957) has come into his own. He had been a child prodigy, had always shown promise, but remained his own worst critic. Sex was his drug. Political activism was his passion. Rivera lived life large and that often got in the way of his art. But, nearing the end of his life, his skill and ambition all came together for him, and he got to do his greatest work, "The History of Mexico" - his Sistine Chapel, on the walls leading into the National Palace in Mexico City. You can see it today in all its glory. The book reaches its crescendo with a centerfold tribute to this iconic landmark mural, an homage to Mexican history and culture. It is a most beautiful moment in a book made up of so many exquisite moments, which is just how it needs to be in any great graphic novel. I’ll go so far as to say that this book is a perfect model for what to expect from a successful graphic novel.
This book is part of a genre all to itself, the artist graphic biography. In recent years, we’ve seen a significant uptick in graphic novels about artists, particularly painters. Warhol stands out with the most books - I can think of at least half a dozen titles. And while he’s not classified as a traditional painter, he’s most assuredly a painter, not to mention one of the most significant artists of the last century. Anyway, looking back at some titles in this category, there are impressive tributes to many of the all-time greats: Cézanne; Picasso; Van Gogh; Rembrandt. Wait long enough and your favorite artist will likely be next. I love this category. I suppose the only kind of book I’d encourage you to avoid is any overly simplified treatment with the main character depicted as a bobble-headed smurf strolling through a timeline of lifetime achievements. Clearly, those type of books are for little kids but I doubt that even little kids like them. The best graphic novels about artists are odd and complex and manage to evoke something about the quirky, weird and otherworldly nature of the creative process.
As I began to say, these artist graphic novels, and the art form in general, aspires to the peak of perfection when it is a collection of exquisite moments, as opposed to any straightforward chronology. My pet peeve is when a critic, unsure about an uneven narrative, simply labels it as “disjointed.” That’s the classic easy way out for college freshmen on up. It’s an empty critique. A graphic novel is not a neat and to-the-point textbook. It’s a journey which can include jump cuts, detours and side trips. Look at Nick Bertozzi’s Becoming Andy Warhol to get a sense of an offbeat tone, one moment jump cutting to the next, all in the service of shedding light on how Warhol was able to reach a new level with his art. Look at Typex’s Rembrandt. Again, this is no textbook treatment with an obvious path. In fact, it is quite a heady mix with many detours, one of the most beautiful of the genre, comparable to Typex’s own treatment of Warhol. Look at Paolo Parisi’s Basquiat, a psychedelic book that would make any moronic naysayer’s head spin. Once again, we’re talking about taking the artist’s life and work and throwing it onto a canvas, moving things around until something compelling comes into focus.
And so it goes with Diego Rivera, a narrative that slams one moment upon the stage followed by another in rapid succession with a strong vision holding it together to the end. Who knew, but a great artist checks off all the boxes to the making of a great graphic novel. This book is very much a hero’s journey, an ode to art, and a vehicle to say something greater about the human condition. In essence, writer Francisco de la Mora and artist José Luis Pescador have concocted a rocket ship all their own to Mars and beyond fueled by the outrageous genius of Diego Rivera. We shift around a bit in time, as we ought to any good story. Things can seem a little messy (even disjointed!) but all is guided by the determined vision from this creative team. What this book does first, in order to move everything else forward, is to establish Rivera’s roots, his deep connection to his own father’s political activism which led to Rivera’s radical views. Coupled with that is Rivera’s relentless rebellion. With that established early on, the rest of the book keeps building up momentum, hitting one moment after another. In the process, a careful student will pick up several nuggets of wisdom on the creation of art, historical insights, and an honest and earthy look at Rivera, the man and the tortured soul.
The main thing any painter wants is an excuse to paint. The main thing any comics artist wants, if it’s going to be the next graphic novel project, is an excuse to undertake such a beast. This book fully demonstrates what happens when the stars align properly, and ambition meets the right goal. This book, page for page, is gorgeous. De la Mora and Pescador are like two jazz greats riffing up a storm with Diego depicted as a child prodigy for all it’s worth; Diego depicted as a radical for all it’s worth; and Diego depicted as the perpetual bad boy for all it’s worth. Pescador never seems to tire depicting Diego in all manner of activity: meeting his ravenous artistic and carnal desires while getting a good dose of his own comeuppance—if only by way of showing him warts and all.
The Diego Rivera in this book is a brat who never quite grows up. He was unfaithful to his lovers, a deadbeat dad - and he could certainly be an all-around jerk. Throughout the book, he is depicted as arrogant and smug, while also haunted by his own ambition. He was a virtuoso at home with all styles, from Realism to Cubism. Because of his talent, hard work and an outsized ego, he rose in prominence. There’s always a bit of luck to factor in as well. Had Rivera never ventured out of Mexico, it’s possible he would have found all the answers he was looking for, but he was determined to leave for Europe where he could learn from and compete with the most famous artists of the day, particularly Cézanne and Picasso. Rivera’s politics would lead him to Lenin, Stalin, and even a little too close to Trotsky. One of the book's most intriguing scenes depicts Rivera’s near-death escape as he flees the chaos which finally led to Trotsky’s assassination. To add a touch of glamour, Hollywood actress Paulette Goddard is involved in helping save Rivera’s life. And, to think, it’s only in the final act of this story that we see Frida Kahlo. Perhaps this is where some of that luck comes into play since Rivera would find his way back to Mexico only through her. Only then, once back in Mexico, did Rivera create that final masterpiece, his mural that seems to say it all, and that would cement his reputation, secure his place in history. He was still a brat, in many ways, but he also had managed to grow just enough.
With Frida Kahlo, Rivera had undoubtedly met his match. It’s only Kahlo who is depicted as a fully realized counterpart to him. She exists on a higher plane but that doesn’t stop Rivera from sleeping with Kahlo’s sister. One page in the book fully encapsulates the dysfunction: Kahlo is assisted to her bed by her sister, Cristina. Within a few panels, we see Rivera and Cristina together, followed by Kahlo sensing something wrong and leaving the home, and ending with a nude Diego and Cristina viewing Kahlo’s departure from a bedroom window. Rivera consoles Cristina: “Don’t cry, woman. She’ll be back.” This is par for the course in Rivera’s disordered life. And even with coming in late to the narrative, and Rivera’s pathetic behavior, Kahlo’s presence inspires a sense of dignity through the redemptive power of art. Rivera was at least smart enough, and maybe somehow sensitive enough, to recognize that.