More about Agrarian Leader Zapata

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Diego Rivera's Zapata marks a profound shift in the self-identity of the Mexican people, for whom it served as a lesson in the possibilities of organizing.

Zapata was instrumental in teaching contemporary Mexicans about the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata's relevance to their lives. The Mexican Revolution lasted nearly ten years, and the armed phase ended with a new constitution the same year as the communist revolution in Russia, in 1917. Zapata's home state of Morelos, which Rivera visited for some hands-on revolutionary research, had almost no industry, and almost everyone tilled the soil by hand for subsistence. Zapata was not a subsistence laborer himself, but he led the people to victory in their demands for land reform, which were opposed by monopolies of landowners and politicians in cahoots, from Mexico City to Washington. Zapata's bravery and heroism, which his followers, the Zapatistas, called Zapatismo, was completely distinct, and much more strategically specific, than Diego Rivera's Marxismo, but the intellectually ambitious Rivera managed to fit it into his expansive communist theory of everything.

Rivera was essential in giving credibility to the Museum of Modern Art, and, just two years after its opening, he debuted this work in their gallery, breaking attendance records with 56,575 attendees, more than twice the number that attended a prior Matisse show. He'd innovated the use of the mural form, based on his studies of Italian art, for political education in Mexico, which was an enormously successful strategy. This work is a sample from a larger fresco he'd done one year earlier at the Palace of Cortés, Cuernavaca. Members of the concrete, iron, and steel mural series weighed up to half a ton—they called them "portable" only because they're easier to ship than an entire building. "As the fresco dried, the lime in the mortar reacted with the air to create a hard layer of calcium carbonate. This chemical reaction effectively fused the pigments to the work’s surface." They couldn't expect people to fit "portable murals" in their homes, so they also printed affordable lithographs, redrawn by Rivera, of five of the murals with the George C. Miller print shop and Weyhe Gallery, which had an enormous impact.

Zapata wears the customary clothing of Cuernavaca, and he's commandeered the Man's white horse, modeled from the work of the Florentine painter Uccello, for the revolution. Rivera commandeered Zapata's legacy for communism, but Zapata might have appreciated him for doing it. There's no way to know.

Like many revolutionaries, Zapata was betrayed and martyred by another revolutionary faction. Two years later, Rivera returned to Mexico from his Renaissance studies in Europe. Six years before this painting, Rivera had attended a ceremony at Zapata's grave site, at which the Mexican government declared its allegiance to Zapata's principles. By the time he produced this work, Rivera was in the Communist doghouse: the Mexican government had outlawed the Communist Party two years earlier, and he had already become a pariah to other Communists for his affiliation with Trotsky, who led a faction that seemed to be less violent than that of Stalin, which isn't saying much. Rivera's work, like Frida Kahlo's, shows that for artists from countries struggling against the greed and exploitation of colonialism, Marxism often seemed necessary. The difficulty was, and still is, that the obligatory, dogmatic atheism and materialism of the ideology goes against the indigenous faith practices of nearly everybody everywhere, if not the feelings of Marx himself. Marx had no idea what kind of can of worms he was opening, although some of those worms have surely helped people to overthrow tyrannical colonial viceroys. By reducing everything to material value, communism threatens to remove the soul from the righteous project of helping out the poor. By enforcing the idea of fulfilling everyone's economic needs with a one-size-fits-all formula, communism was often too mechanical, and too hostile toward local faiths. Rivera stepped up to the plate as an artist who could bridge the PR gap between the Russian atheist agenda and more humble indigenous lifestyles. Still, the lives of farmers were quite different from those of the workers in Marx's London: their lives were based on the cycles of the seasons, not the timecard.

In the same year, Rivera had produced his masterful Allegory of California for the San Francisco Stock Exchange, and the next year he made his epoch-making Making of a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City at SFAI. Each image, while aesthetically marvelous, is a lesson and a reminder to the hoity-toity and the captains of industry that their caca also smells like caca.