Restoring an icon, in film and deed

Diego López Rivera had just turned 5 when his grandfather, Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera, passed away in November 1957. Although he does not remember anything about him, López Rivera says he learned to cherish the stories his family has passed on about his short time with a man regarded as one of the art titans of the 20th century.

“`My family` told me on one occasion that my grandfather said to me in a tough voice, ‘Get out of here, stupid kid!’” said López Rivera, whose mother is Guadalupe Rivera, daughter of Guadalupe Marin and Diego Rivera. “Everyone had a laughing fit, and then he said, ‘That’s my grandson.’”

Last year López Rivera added his own contribution to his grandfather’s legacy when he co-directed Un Retrato de Diego: La Revolución de la Mirada (A Portrait of Diego: The Revolutionary Gaze), a documentary biopic created from never-before-seen footage of Rivera during the last years of his life.

The film, which was originally to be completed in 1957 as “a 50-year homage to Rivera’s art,” was shot by his friends, Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (The Night of the Iguana) and photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, famous for, among other things, his photo “Obrero en huelga asesinado” (Striking Worker, Assassinated).

After Rivera’s death, the footage was stored, incomplete, until Figueroa’s son, Gabriel Figueroa Flores, discovered it in his father’s files. López Rivera saw the original footage in 2005 and was amazed at the work put into capturing his grandfather’s aesthetic. From his visits to the local market to recreate some of his paintings to intimate footage of Rivera at the easel, there was a variety of shots to choose from on the 16mm Kodachrome Flores found three years after the artist died.

“When I realized that there would be a possibility to make this documentary, I came to understand that it would not only be very important for the original material, but it would also help people understand who these artists were,” López Rivera says. “I wanted to bring to life this figure, Diego, who had such an impact on me.”

López Rivera says the ghost of his grandfather made a profound impression on him during his formative years.

“I don’t remember a special moment, but it was a constant presence with the family to have pride for my grandfather,” López Rivera said. “I felt a lot of weight on my shoulders being the grandson of Diego Rivera.” With stories about Rivera’s ties to the Communist Party, his controversial relationships with Stalinists and Trotskyists, and his reputation as an infamous womanizer often overshadowing his life’s work, López Rivera said he felt obligated to convince people that his grandfather’s art was much more significant than any personal shortcomings.

Although his grandfather’s radical political beliefs and his marital problems with Frida Kahlo are not depicted in Retrato, López Rivera is outspoken about what he considers misrepresentations of his grandfather’s life.

“One of the `misconceptions` is that `my grandfather` returned to Stalinism,” López Rivera said. “But he’s the only one in the world that stood up for `Leon` Trotsky, when nobody wanted to receive him. He spoke to `President Lázaro` Cárdenas to help get Trotsky political asylum in Mexico. And during that time, Trotsky opposed the Stalin government. What is contradictory is that in her final years, Frida `Kahlo` returned to Stalinism with a total lack of self-criticism when the horrors of Stalinism were already known.”

It’s not only Kahlo’s political beliefs that López Rivera is comfortable criticizing. Although he considers her a “great artist,” he says Kahlo became an icon of modernism when people started buying into the idea that she was the victim of an emotionally abusive relationship with his grandfather.

“I don’t agree with this martyrdom status she gets,” López Rivera said. “People say, ‘Poor Frida,’ and, ‘Diego, what a jerk.’ People tended to make her the victim and she acted and manipulated it very well to stay in that position. But relationships are between two people, and everyone has to be responsible for their actions. `My grandfather` would always support her in every way, as a wife, woman, and artist. It’s a very complex love story more than anything else.”

Even after a tumultuous, sometimes salacious, life, López Rivera says artwork should speak for itself — an artistic evolution evident in Retrato’s documentation of Diego Rivera’s last years.

“During his life `my grandfather` had several stages,” López Rivera said. “Sometimes they were individualistic, other times they were more pragmatic. He was a very complex man. In any case, you could see it in his work and you could see how these changes were influencing other artists at the time.” •


Un Retrato de Diego:
La Revolución de la Mirad
6:30pm Fri, Sep 5
UTSA 1604 Campus
Retama Auditorium
Q&A with Diego López Rivera & Gabriel Figueroa Flores
following the film

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