Diego Rivera: honoring a big Communist with a Google doodle

President Obama, Occupy protesters, and even the Muppets have been accused of communist leanings.  But Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was the real thing.

Frida Kahlo Museum/AP
This undated photo released by the Frida Kahlo Museum on June 27, 2007, shows a painted lipstick kiss on a photo of Kahlo's husband, Mexican artist Diego Rivera.

From President Obama to “Occupy” protesters to the Muppets: The accusations of communism abounding is shrill.

What would they call Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, a true Communist, if he were still alive?

Today Mr. Rivera, a one-time member of the Mexican Communist Party who roiled with his portrayal of Vladimir Lenin and jockeyed the Mexican government for asylum for Leon Trotsky, is being commemorated with a special version of Google's logo to celebrate the 125th anniversary of his birthday.

The logo honors his life’s work, a tribute to the class struggles of his era. It features the artist on his scaffolding, painting a blazing sun on the left, while the portrayals of indigenous campesinos and an industrial worker amid skyscrapers, the themes he visited often, are depicted to the right (along with a Mexican flag). But in many ways his political message is just as relevant today.

Rivera was a leader of the Mexican mural movement – he was convinced that art was excluded from the masses – and his work stands throughout Mexico. He was also commissioned by wealthy patrons in the US to decorate public walls too, but not without controversy.

The most contentious was his 1933 Rockefeller Center commission, called "Man at the Crossroads.” On the mural Rivera depicted Lenin leading a demonstration, and after he refused to change his vision, the work was reportedly destroyed. Another controversy had flared the year earlier after he finished a piece commissioned by Ford Motor Co. called “Detroit Industry.” The patrons conceded they did not share his politics, but let the work stand.

His political message is underlined at a MoMA exhibit that opened in November, “Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art,” just as Occupy Wall Street protests flared in New York City. (The exhibit is a tribute to the work he was commissioned to do for them in 1931 as the museum’s second exhibit.)

One of the pieces at the exhibit is called "The Uprising," which depicts a working-class woman, carrying a baby, fighting off sword-wielding authorities. Bob Duggan points out on Big Think: “The fierce woman in the center fending off a soldier – while still clinging to her baby as other protesters struggle behind and below her – stands for every person of every age struggling against powerful forces of oppression. You don’t need to know anything about Mexican politics of the early 20th century to read the conflict and to hope for the right resolution. Watching the recent crackdowns on Occupy camps across America, I couldn’t help but superimpose Rivera’s leading lady on those sad scenes of civil unrest turned violent.”

Rivera was born in 1886 to a well-off family in Mexico and studied art at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico. In 1907 he moved to Europe, spending most of his time in Paris. It was the frescoes of Italy, however, that inspired his medium.

Rivera, who often joked about his weight, was a big man in his time, both literally – he topped 300 pounds – and figuratively. He was outspoken and wildly popular in his era, far more so than his most famous wife, Frida Kahlo, who today is the more well-known of the two (their volatile relationship was captured in a Hollywood film).

In many ways Google’s doodle, which will undoubtedly been seen now by far more people than have ever seen one of his murals in person, honors Rivera in the best possible way: by bringing his art to the masses in true Communist fashion. But Google better watch out: it might be the next placed on the new Communist watch list, right after Kermit the Frog.

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