Wednesday Book: Bring me the heart of Diego Rivera

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SUBSTANTIAL IN physical girth and mental agility, with often gargantuan appetites, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera liked to think of himself as a being on a grand scale. Grand enough, at least, to cover the walls of the centres of power - political institutes and universities, business centres and factories, north and south of the Rio Grande - with outsized paeans to "Man, Controller of the Universe", "The Aztec World" or "Land and Freedom". Even when coating the Detroit Institute of Arts with the "Production of Engine and Transmission of Ford V8", there was not the merest suspicion of bathos.

The history of Rivera's career runs from the first proletarian revolution of this century to the relatively benign decade following the Second World War. (In 1942, Mexico declared war on the Axis, the first Latin American country to do so.) He was born in 1886, in "a small marble palace" owned by a bourgeois household in Guanajuato, a town famous for its deathly associations, established by the mummified bodies in its catacombs. Here, too, the reactionary dictator of Rivera's childhood, Porfirio Diaz, was wont to holiday.

From Guanajuato, Rivera made a series of painterly journeys to Spain, Italy, Belgium and France, where he resided for the best part of a dozen years. While he was receiving his professional (and personal) formation in Europe, Rivera's home country was undergoing the violent decade-long revolution that cost over a million lives. Having missed the action, he simply invented his participation in it: Patrick Marnham denotes him "the Fabulist". Latterly, as if retroactively vouching for himself, he spent chunks of the 1920s and 1930s - when he did much of his best work - either in the Soviet Union (for political reasons) or the US (for professional ones).

Here was an artist who, having experimented small-scale with a variety of imported styles, applied them and other techniques to the visual propaganda of both communism and capitalism. He also celebrated his own revolutionary country and culture, ensuring maximum access to his work by using public buildings such as the National Palace and the Ministry of Education. His venues, as much as his subjects, are a clue to the links between the "two Diegos", who could agree to decorate both the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco and the Red Army Officers' Club in Moscow.

Patrick Marnham's strengths, in this immensely readable life, lie in investigating the psychological and historical forces behind Rivera's work. He is particularly vivid on the Paris years, but the notion that "a sort or political Montparnasse" was established by the artist's return to Mexico does neither Montparnasse, Mexico nor Rivera any favours. The internationalism that gives rise to this conclusion - enhanced by the arrival of thousands of fleeing Spanish Republicans and Trotskyist exiles in Mexico - was a two-way street. Rivera was going smartly in the opposite direction. He moved away from his misnomer of "the Lenin of Mexico", and towards the projection of a Mexican identity, however synthetic.

In 1923, El Machete published a manifesto signed by Rivera with his fellow muralists Siquieros, Guerrero and Orozco. They averred that "the art of the Mexican people is the most important and vital spiritual manifestation in the world today, and its Indian traditions lie at its very heart". In another manifesto, Siquieros avowed a determination to "become universal", with the vital rider that "our own racial and regional physiognomy will always show through in our work". This ambiguous vaunting of racial pride and universal art were Rivera's pretext for his denunciation of the "victory for typist's taste" in popular culture.

In tandem with his faintly snobbish dismissal of typists went the elevation of progress. This accompanied another radical Mexican art movement that doesn't get much of a look in here. The "estridentistas", as their name suggests, stridently applauded the export of their cosmopolitanism (less so the import of others'). Their flyers praised such inventions as "news sent by telegraph to the top of skyscrapers" and "the blue discharge of car exhausts, scented with a dynamic modernity". This was not such a long way, after all, from Progress as hailed in the Soviet Union or as the (literal) motor of capitalism.

Marnham's book is intensively researched and, wherever possible, patiently doubles up on references to reinforce or balance an assertion. However, he is candid in his opinions: Trotsky is introduced as "On the run, a very much less repulsive character than he had been in his days of glory". His writing is a pleasure to read, even when put to the test of a larger- than-life subject who could easily begin to pall. Common sense combined with a sense of humour cuts Rivera down to a size that even the novice reader can wrap her mind around. And because this is a literary rather than a visual feast, it is best read accompanied by the reissued study Diego Rivera from the Detroit Arts Institute (Norton, pounds 60), so we can see just what earned his huge reputation.

Amanda Hopkinson