JUNE 1994
THE COVER: DIEGO RIVERA Mural Palace Fine Arts Mexico City &
FRIDA KAHLO: Self Portrait with Stalin

"Stalinist Terror, New Perspectives", J.Arch Getty &  Roberta T. Manning; 1993.

(Note: This 2002 text, is a considerably expanded version of the original 1994 Alliance text).
    We chose a work of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) for the cover of Alliance 7, and also illustrated the text with a work from his second wife, Frida Kahlo (19071954).
    Though for a period they were closely attached to Leon Trotsky, they were truly great artists enamoured of the working class. They were just that - artists. They were not vanguard revolutionists, who easily distinguished between Marxism-Leninism and the revisionism of Trotsky. This does not excuse Rivera's serious mistakes, but the story is not so simple as to simply condemn him.
    We will first discuss Rivera and then Kahlo. Our main emphasis here,  is on their artistic merits, but their purely political lives are not ignored.

    Background Of the Mexican National Revolution
    It was in Mexico that the Muralist school took a hold on the imaginations of people, and it was Rivera who both virtually re-invented the art and took it to great heights. He was well recognised in his life time as an innovator.
    Mexico was in 1910, a land ruled by the landed aristocracy in a comprador partnership to the USA imperialists. The representative of this class was the dictator Porfiro Diaz, who ruled from 1876 till his overthrow in 1910. The first phases of the National Democratic Revolution took place in Mexico, under the leadership of a liberal democrat Francisco Madero. However when his imprisonment prevented elections, civil war ensued. It was in this civil war that peasant leaders such as Emiliano Zapata raised the cry for "Land and Freedom!". Although Diaz left in exile, the comprador-aristocrats continued a bitter war.  By 1920, the PRI (Institutional Party of the Revolution), led by the constitutionalist General Alvarao Obregon, was able to take power.  The ensuing state - was initially one of a national democratic regime, but it had adopted a thick veneer of "socialist" ideology. The Mexican cultural renaissance quickly became imperative to the education and survival of Mexican nationalism.  It too adopted socialist forms.

    2. The Origins of the Mexican Mural Movement
    The germs of the movement later to become the Mexican Muralist movement was in the exhibition of indigenous Mexican art organised by the painter Gerardo Murillo (1875-1964) - known by an adopted Nahuatl name of Dr.Atl. ("Mexican Muralists"; Desmond Rochfort; San Francisco 1998; p.16). The movement centred on the journal "'Savia Moderne" - and Rivera was one of these. it was anti-Academy and demanded a "national art'. Atl praised the Italian renaissance murals such as those in the Sistine Chapel by Michaelangelo.
    Atl thereby directly influenced Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros (Rochfort Ibid; p. 18). Atl recruited all three to the side of the constitutionalist army led by General Carranza.
    The Mural movement itself can be dated to 1921 when the first ones were commissioned by the Secretary of State for Public Education Jose Vasconcelos - himself an intellectual and painter.
    In 1922 Rivera began his first murals in the Bolivar amphitheatre of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. He was then 36 years of age and already well known and established. For a period he had been influenced by Cubism in Paris, but he then tried to move away from it.
    Early Rivera
    Cubism was a reactionary art movement that believed that realism was out-dated, and that it had to be supplemented by simultaneous depiction of all geometric forms of an object. It laid the ground for abstract art:

    By 1915, Rivera had established his life's work - to fuse Mexican themes with a language of revolution. His first attempts, were somewhat painful, as can be seen in the transitional cubist painting Zapatista Landscape (See at:
    He went to Italy in 1920, influenced by Atl, to study the frescoes of the renaissance. On his return after 18 months, he plunged into "Creation" (See: This begins to shed the Cubist past, but remains heavily influenced by European art. This was despite his having been to the Aztec temples of Tehuantepec, in a spiritual journey to re-discover his homeland (Rochfort Ibid; p. 34). This mural had a still awkward lack of successful fusion of two types of art, and it received a mixed reception.  
    As the counter-revolutionaries launched attempted coups led by Adolfo de la Huerta, the increasing ferment led to further radicalization. The voice of the Russian Revolution was being increasingly heard in Mexico also, radicalizing the masses. Many co-operatives and syndicates arose, influenced by the Communist party of Mexico.
    Revolutionary artists led by Siquerios & Rivera & Xavier Guerrero formed the Syndicate of Technical workers Painters & Sculptors in 1922, which pledged in the manifesto written by Siqueiros:     This firmly established the Mexican Mural School, whose three leaders were also members of the Communist Party. Rivera now sealed his reputation by the murals of the Ministry of Education (See a large wall at: )and the National Agricultural School in Chapingo between 1923-28 (see ). By 1928 he and his assistants had covered 15,000 square feet with 235 fresco panels.
    In "My Life, My Art" Rivera wrote that his aim was:     In these works, he had depicted all strata of life. It especially honoured the Indians and the peasants - and attacked the oppressors. In "The Mechanization of the Country" ( fresco Court of Labour, Ministry Education Mexico City) Rivera showed an impassive peasant watching a landlord being struck down. In "Wall St banquet" (North Wall Courtyard of the Fiestas Ministry Education) he lampoons the stock exchange and the ticker-tapes of the rich. He preached revolutionary justice in "He Who Wants to Eat Must Work"; & "Death of a Capitalist". He instructed the masses in the need for organization and education in "The Trench", "Distribution of Arms", "Learning the ABC" etc. The panorama of life he depicted, cannot be easily described, they are meant to be seen. We urge the reader to be patient and load up the web-sites referenced in this text & below at the foot of the article.
    By 1929, Rivera was such a powerful force in Mexico - imprinting his audience with a philosophical world view, that he was coopted by the ruling PRI. They wished to use him as a means of consolidating their own positions. He was asked to paint "The History of Mexico" from ancient to modern times. By now, it is true that a certain sense of formulaic 'repetition' - rather than innovation had crept in. Although, his forms had lost the earlier "cubist" background.
    In content he tended to a simplification and a certain Idealism, in a reply to colonial stereotypes. In his portrayal, he painted a Utopian vision of ancient Mexico, one where the pre-Hispanic Gods of Quetzalcoatl - were benevolent. Missing was the savagery and cannibalism that in reality had marked this era.
    As his history approached modernity, he was more accurate in his depiction's of colonial rule and the dictatorship of Diaz. Although he portrayed the new nationalist regimes with the nationalist leaders as heroes, he did not shy away, from showing that in "The History of Mexico-The World of Today & Tomorrow: (Fresco 1929-35 South Wall National Place Mexico City) - there was still a vicious class conflict that could only be resolved by the Marxist path.
    The huge mural on the history of the Mexican nation in the Palace of Justice in Mexico City, shows  atop of the viciousness of life today, Marx showing workers the way ahead. The cover of Alliance 7 -  showed this mural on the Class Struggle. (
    Nonetheless by this time, relations between Rivera and the Mexican Communist Party were strained and he had been expelled from the party (See below for details). His former comrade Siqueiros had not been nearly so prolific an artist, but castigated Rivera for 'capitulating' to capitalism.
        The Pull of the USA
    However, the cooption of the great painter continued. By 1928, the USA imperialists had regained control of Mexico, largely by ensuring a new comprador relationship. The capitalist Dwight Morrow, also USA Ambassador to Mexico, persuaded President Plutarcho Calles to rescind legislation that barred USA entry to oil rights in Mexico (Rochfort Ibid p.93). Morrow then commissioned Rivera to paint murals in the Cortez Place at Cuernavaca.
    Invited to the USA in 1930, he spent 4 years there. His murals are on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and at the School of art & (irony of ironies) the Stock Exchange in San Francisco. In these he expressed a wonder at the potential of the new technology of factory mass production. In his early USA work, he was muted in his political expressions, being content to simply paint "the optimistic industrial spirit of America" (Rochfort Ibid; p.125 ). It appeared that he had closed his eyes to the reality of the suffering of the masses of the USA. His Detroit was "unscarred by the Great Depression" (Rochfort Ibid; p. 130).
    However when Nelson Rockefeller commissioned "Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope & High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future", for the Rockefeller Center in New York, trouble broke as Rivera introduced the figure of Lenin. This proved too much for the Rockefellers, who over-painted his mural and fired him. (See the later mural copy located in Mexico: Go to: ).
    What had happened to re-vitalise Rivera? As noted before, he had been severely criticised by the communist movement as an "opportunist painter for millionaires" - so he chose to create a mural that would :     Rockefeller had insisted that the face of Lenin be painted out. But Rivera had refused. Rivera later re-painted the same mural at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. The episode further inflamed the polemics between Rivera and Siqueiros. Rivera had become close to Trotsky, while Siqueiros remained pro-USSR, and labelled Rivera as an "aesthete of imperialism" (Rochfort Ibid; p. 150).     When he participated in the writing of the Syndicalist manifesto (see above) with Siqueiros, Rivera was already a member of the Mexican CP. For a time he served on the Central Committee, until 1924.
    In 1927 he went to Moscow, invited as a delegate of the Mexican Peasant League and general Secretary of the Anti-imperialist League. Although wishing to paint murals there, and commissioned to do so by Anatol Lunacharsky (Commissar of Education & The Arts) - but somehow this never materialized (See Betram D.Wolfe "The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera"; New York; 1963; pp.216-223). His art was praised, as in this note from Alfred Kurella (head of Department of Agitation & Propaganda of the Communist International):     However, somehow Rivera was prevented from being allowed to commence mural work. He left feeling aggrieved. He was ordered home by the Latin American Secretariat of the Comintern (Wolfe Ibid; p.221). He began to turn against the USSR. Almost simultaneously, the journals of the Comintern began to attack his art as poor:     In 1929, he was expelled from the Communist Party. The chief charges levied were that he had:     Other charges were that he had also opposed an armed uprising at a time when the Party was quite un-prepared for one.
    Although it is often stated that his break with the USSR coincided with an alliance with Trotsky, it seems more likely that his alliance with Trotsky began after his break, which was unrelated. In 1936, Rafael Carrillo (Secretary of Mexican CP) said to Wolfe that:     El Machete the organ of the party, wrote in 1936 in an editorial:     However, for the time being the breach between the party and Rivera was unbridgeable.     When Trotsky was exposed following the wide ranging and public debate upon his revisionism in the USSR, he was exiled in February 1929. He went successively to Turkey, France and Norway until 1936. Rivera was instrumental in obtaining an invitation for Trotsky to come to Mexico:     During this period, Rivera fell deeply into an alliance with reactionary elements in art, that of surrealism (Surrealism is discussed below with Frida Kahlo):     There is no doubt that Rivera acted in complicity with Trotsky. He even "named names" - of purported USSR agents in the communist movement of Mexico - to the FBI. This was part of a plot engineered by Trotsky to curry favour with USA authorities to obtain visa entry to the USA. Professor William Chase's research was first reported in the Independent (UK), and to the progressive press by "Lalkar":     Trotsky himself met with officials of the US Consulate in Mexico, and passed on names:     As Lalkar points out, this was a vehicle of Trotsky's to attack supporters of the USSR:     But Rivera did break with Trotsky - largely over the internal politics of Mexico. Neither Trotsky nor Rivera come out well for their motivations for the respective choices they made regarding the presidential elections of the year 1940:     His last works were in praise of the USSR's attempts to weld a world peace.     Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is much less appreciated by communists these days, than by fashionable trendies. However she was a very committed artist in her broad life, albeit one whose paintings were mainly personal. Her life can be summarised as an artistic passage in pursuit of the purely personal to a vision of the broad social concerns that must be fulfilled in order to  liberate the single personality.
    Her most personal and private works depict a sharp ability to convey a personal anguish. Before she met Rivera, she was politically active at her school, following the ideas of the nationalists who led the Mexican bourgeois revolution in its earliest stages.  She met Rivera as one of his students, watching him perform the mural in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. She showed him her canvases which impressed Rivera. Shortly thereafter he left his first wife, and then in 1929 married her.
    She suffered a serious accident as a teenager, in a tram and bus collission. She was lucky to survive, but it left her bed ridden for 3 months, and severely handicapped by spinal disruption, and an inability to safely bear children. Her own series of subsequent painful illnesses were in large part responsible for her repetitive anguish, that surfaces in her frequent self-portraits:     In contrast to Rivera therefore, Kahlo was neither an artist on the grand scale of Muralism - nor was she as often as overtly political. She was much more 'personal' and 'intimate'. She depicted the harshness of her own life and could be said to be self-absorbed. It is interesting that Rivera acknowledged her works in this way:     It is not necessary to agree with Rivera 100%, but there is an element of truth in what he says. Certainly, she created her interactions with the world in ways that possibly allowed her to overcome the physical obstacles in her life. In doing so, she adopted a naive style that was frankly "surrealist" in both form and content:     What is surrealism? This was a reactionary petty-bourgeois art movement, that  constituted a reaction against the bourgeois world which had created the First World War. Although it rejected the bourgeois world, it lacked a stable link to the real world of workers and their struggle against the ruling class. Consequently it drifted into "anti-rationalism" - into creating "effects" for the sake of "effects". The leading artists deluded themselves that they were "revolutionary":     The essence of surrealism was a release of the unconcious, relying on Freud's theories:     Although the surrealists viewed themselves as revolutionaries, their influence ensured a most abstract art that served reactionary ends:     Undoubtedly in the middle of her career, Kahlo must be considered as a surrealist. A web-site written in Spanish carries a lot of the self-portraits of Kahlo, which amply confirms this. (See at: or at )
    Perhaps her first experiment in the direction to surrealism, was the "portrait of Luther Burbank" (1931) - the American horticulturist later admired by the Lysenko circle in the USSR, for his hybrids. Kahlo depicts him in a manner that is totally realistic down to his knees. Below his knees he has a tree trunk that extends into roots that feed off a human skeleton. However, although the pciture is "anti-realistic" and "surreal" - this painting can be read with an obvious and meaningful ease.
    The physical pain that permeated her life was vividly expressed as in the painting "The Broken Column" (1944) depicting her with the steel corset she had to war. Her spine is shown as a broken Ionic column. (See at:
Even the most apparently "exotic" or strange of her self-portraits can be interpreted in the sense of her personal demons. Thus at - can be seen a self-portrait with monkeys. This picture is an expression of her loneliness:      This ability and wish of Kahlo's to tell a real story, puts her at odds with most surrealists.  In fact, her best work shows an understanding of the real forces of the world beyond the narrow personal.. In a small manner this is attested to by the dress in which she garbs herself in her numerous self-portraits - invariably Mexican. More graphic and chilling are two works by her, that show how she begins to extend the personal to a more political and broader plane.
    One depicts the murder of a woman "A Few Little Pricks" (1935) - that followed the newspaper report of a woman killed in an act of jealousy. This was possibly also prompted by:     This extension to beyond her own anguish, progressed to the end of her life. A more overtly political work, one that still holds a very personal persuasion- is "Self-Portrait Between the Borderline of Mexico and the United States"; (1932) (Image at: shows her standing in the centre of a canvas between two worlds. To her right is Mexico where organic and living forms are depicted growing on the ground - surrounded by Mexican ancient art, while over them looms the Mexican pyramids. On her left in contrast are the factories of Ford spewing out inorganic structures. While she does not credit the factory with anything life enhancing - she correctly sees the USA factory inundating and overwhelming Mexico.
    In fact she had "invented her own brand" of painting:      The Riveras led a life-style characterised by a very loose and sexually labile promiscuity, which ended in little happiness for them, and they divorced in 1939. At about the same time she left the Communist Party over issues to do with Stalin ("Frida Kahlo"; Ed Sally Bald, Angelika Muthesius, for Benedikt Taschen Verlag  Cologne,  1993, p.31).
   But in 1940, in severe pain from her illnesses (spinal infections) she re-married him. Kahlo by now was herself receiving artistic recognition and was famous. Despite being labelled a surrealist, she disdained Surrealists like Andre Breton:     However, she exhibited at the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City in 1940.
    Despite the political role that Rivera and Kahlo played with Trotsky, they both later recanted of this. There is no truth to the view that she had any role in the death of Trotsky as claimed by the more prurient of commentators:     She had left the Communist party during her brief affair with Trotsky, but in 1948 she rejoined it. She wanted to "serve the Party" as she wrote in her Diary:     She turned her personal saga of pain and suffering into a message for the class, in the painting: "Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick" (1954). This depicts herself as throwing away her crutches, While a floating (magical) head of Marx grabs Uncle Sam by the neck ("Frida Kahlo"; Ed Sally Bald, Angelika Muthesius, for Benedikt Taschen Verlag  Cologne, 1993, p.85). In fact both Kahlo and Rivera now supported the USSR. In "The Nightmare of War & The Dream of Peace" - one of Rivera's last murals, he depicts Kahlo as the political activist who had organised the list of signature to support the International Peace Congress ("Frida Kahlo"; Ed Sally Bald, Angelika Muthesius, for Benedikt Taschen Verlag  Cologne,  1993, p.84).
    Again, both Kahlo & Rivera were honest activist great artists souls - they were not aware Marxist-Leninists.
    Thus, in "Moses or nucleus of creation" (1945), Kahlo depicts at the centre of a canvas, an ovum that leads to a baby in the womb and one in the floating cot surrounded by bullrushes. All these are encircled by the cell divisions that lead to life. But in the bullrushes are the great figures of the past. But who do we have? On the left tof the image we have the destructive forces, superstition and evil personified as ancient Greek gods, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Moses, Hitler, Mohammed - oppressing the people. And on the right hand side of the panel are the forces of Marx, Stalin, Lenin, Gandhi, the Bhudda surmounted by the Mayan civilization. ("Frida Kahlo"; Ed Sally Bald, Angelika Muthesius, for Benedikt Taschen Verlag  Cologne,  1993, p.74).
    Kahlo went on to paint another of her series of self-portrait, this time - with Stalin: ("Self-portrait with Stalin" at: In the museum to her life in Mexico, the following was the condition of her bedroom at her death:     Her last work was the unfinished portrait of Stalin mentioned above (see photographs of her room, "Frida Kahlo"; Ed Sally Bald, Angelika Muthesius, for Benedikt Taschen Verlag  Cologne, 1993, p.88).
    Certainly the road had been long, from activist to surrealist to Trotskyite - but Kahlo died believing that the USSR had achieved a humanitarian end.
    Her tortuous path reminds one that Marx regarded the life of great artists with tolerance.

    The life and work of both Rivera and Kahlo bring to mind the attitude of Karl Marx, whose tolerance of artists - even where serious political errors were made - was attested to by his duaghter Eleanor Marx, in letters to Karl Kautsky in 1895:     There is no doubt that Rivera acted in despicable fashion during his disillusionment with the Comintern.
    No doubt also that the attacks on his art by some in power, lacked merit.
    Finally, there is no doubt that by the test of time - his art remains an iconographic proof that great art does speak to the world masses.
    As for Kahlo, she was a very troubled soul, who did however transcend her personal pain into a real communication with the viewer. She also, tried and often succeeded in speaking to the masses.
    Both ultimately rejected the great trap of many 20th century art movements - abstractionism.

On Socialist Art: Alliance compilation: Marx and Engels on Art: Marx Art
On Biographical detials on Kahlo & Rivera:
For one of the most informative biographical details this site, For Rivera  Go to:
For Kahlo:
Most texts on the web focus on Kahlo's exotic and at times prurient love-life, however neglect her more serious activist life; however Go to:
also to:

Some of the Best Picture Galleries are at these following sites:
- For perhaps the most overtly political of his pictures  (including four paintings of Lenin by Rivera and one picture of Trotsky): Go to:
The same site has the famous "Epic of the Mexican People - Mexico Today and Tomorrow, 1934-35", which is at the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City - This shows the class struggle as it unfolds to the armed revolution; at the top Marx is depicted showing a copy of the Communist Manifesto on a banner to Mexican workers and pointing the way to the future.
- The "official" virtual image library of Rivera's. Some interesting biographical details here as well....  Go to:
- Contains a listing of several museum pages with links to specific paintings/murals in their collections by Rivera... Go to:
- An especially interesting site in our view, is that of the Detroit Institute of Arts - where pictures are shown - either of the entire murals during creation/construction with Rivera present, - or of the Ford motor plants taken for Rivera and used as the basis of murals. These pictures then run forward in time to the appearance of the murals themselves as they are now in colour:
Go to:

 - Contains a listing of several museum pages with links to specific paintings/murals in their collections by Kahlo... Go to
- Probably the best web-archive fo her work is at:

OTHER ALLIANCE SITES ON ART:         Marx and Engels on Art: Marx Art