Diego Rivera’s dirty little secret: His murals are magnificent celebrations of socialism; his friendship with Trotsky and his marriage to Frida Kahlo are leftist legend, but new evidence shows that he betrayed his comrades to his enemies. Phil Davison reports
by Phil Davison
Thursday 25 November 1993
In 1932, Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural for the RCA building in New Yorks Rockefeller complex. The sight of the Mexican artist at work pleased John D Rockefeller no end: this was to be a great public painting for New York and a great enhancement to the glory of Rockefeller. He was the happiest of millionaires until he noticed that among the many characters of this enormous and heroic vision was one Vladimir Ilich Lenin.
Rivera was asked to paint him out, but refused. The work was covered up and eventually destroyed. Rivera repainted it almost exactly in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, and called it Man at the Crossroads with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.
Today, 36 years after his death, it is Diego Rivera who is a man at the crossroads. Two American academics researching for a book on Riveras friend Leon Trotsky have discovered that this artist-hero of the Mexican left worked for the United States as an informer.
He was thrown out of the Mexican Communist Party (not for the first time) when he objected violently to the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, and soon afterwards he started feeding information to the Americans: he supplied lists of Communist infiltrators high within the Mexican system and reported 60 political assassinations by officially-ordered death squads. He warned that Communist refugees from the Spanish Civil War had been trained by Moscow to set up cells on the Mexico-US border and infiltrate north. He told Washington that the Nazis and Soviets were jointly increasing their influence in Mexico and that the Mexican Communist Party was being financed largely by sympathisers north of the border. Only the fact that the Americans took much of Riveras information with a pinch of salt dissuades one from using the terms secret agent or spy.
The socialist content of Rivera’s work, as well as his friendship with Trotsky, mark him out if not as a revolutionary hero, then at least as a symbol of the left. His paintings, and notably the powerful murals he left in public buildings throughout the capital and the nation, ensured his reputation not only as a man of the people, but as Mexicos best-known artist. His name and works are presented by Institutional Revolutionary Party still in power after 64 years as an example of patriotic Mexican greatness.
The new and startlingly different picture of Diego Rivera is revealed in US State Department and FBI documents uncovered by Professor William Chase, of Pittsburgh University, Pennsylvania, and his assistant, Dana Reed, during their researches on Trotsky. The Mexican political and cultural establishment has been stunned by this weeks publication of the references by a journalist, Rossana Fuentes-Berain, in Mexico’s business daily El Financiero.
Diego Rivera’s was a political as well as an artists life. He was born at Guanajuato in central Mexico in 1886. During his twenties, while his country was engulfed in revolution, he was in Europe, mixing with Picasso and Chagall in Paris and studying Tintoretto and Michelangelo frescoes in Italy. He went home in 1921 and soon joined the Mexican Communist Party, but was expelled in 1928 after expressing sympathy for the views of Trotsky dumped by Stalin and shortly to flee Russia. In the same year Rivera married Frida Kahlo, who is now recognised as one of the finest women artists of the century.
When the exiled Trotsky was roaming Europe, unable to persuade many countries to let him in, Rivera used his contacts to get him into Mexico in 1937. It was Kahlo who went to meet the gaunt, goat-bearded figure as he disembarked from an oil tanker at Tampico. According to some accounts, they were later to have a brief but temptestuous affair.
Trotsky settled down with the Riveras in Kahlo’s home in the colonial village of Coyoacan, now a suburb of Mexico City the so-called Casa Azul (Blue House), now a museum. But after disagreements with the muralist, he moved to another house nearby in May 1939 a break that may have sparked Riveras decision to act as an American informant.
Trotsky escaped a first assassination attempt in his new home in May 1940, when a group of Mexican communists, including Rivera’s fellow painter and muralist David Siqueiros, staged a Chicago-style machine-gun attack on the house. Rivera himself was among the suspects, not least because he disappeared to California, with, as the Chase-Reed documents show, the secret assistance of the US State Department.
Three months later, on 20 August 1940, Rivera had a more solid alibi. He was in San Francisco when Frida, by then his ex-wife, called to say: They killed old Trotsky this morning. A Soviet agent had unceremoniously buried an ice pick in Trotsky’s skull while the exile read his mail.
After the first assassination attempt on Trotsky, Rivera had gone into hiding, saying later that he had feared for his own life. The documents obtained by Chase and Reed show that the US embassy in Mexico City secretly helped the painter, who by that time had the Hollywood actress Paulette Goddard in tow, to cross the border into Texas. There are reports from US diplomats in Mexico City to the State Department on secret conversations with Rivera, and FBI reports showing how FBI agents tailed the painter across the United States and tapped his phone.
Rivera’s FBI file number was 100-155423. One report, dated as far back as 18 October 1927, when Rivera was travelling in the US, shows that he had long been of interest: Agent then went through the train and found the man occupying Car number 8, Lower 7, was the only one that resembled a Latin. Agent obtained a seat in this car and later, when this man and other passengers left for the dining car, looked over his baggage, and found Subject’s name on one of the tags. It goes on to describe the subject as having a broad, Indian-type face,wearing a wide-brimmed stetson hat, dark grey suit, tan shoes and carrying a dark gray overcoat and yellow slicker. On arrival at Pennsylvania Station, New York, about 2pm, agent was met by special agent (blacked out) who took up the surveillance
All this material leaves no doubt that Rivera was passing information to the Americans. Whether or not that information was accurate and several diplomats pointed out the painter’s tendency towards exaggeration is another question. True or not, it was all music to the ears of the FBI chief, J Edgar Hoover. Perhaps because Rivera’s warnings of Nazi-Soviet collaboration in Mexico tallied with Hoover’s fears, the FBI tapped the artist’s phone in 1940 while he was in San Francisco to paint a mural. So far there has been no official reaction from the US or Mexican governments, nor from the painter’s grandson, the film maker Diego Lopez Rivera. Communist old-timers, however, were unsurprised. Some recall Rivera as paranoid and egotistical, pointing out that although he was ostensibly opposed to the Mexican government of the time, he eagerly accepted contracts to paint murals in public buildings, such as his magnificent historic masterpiece in the main gate of Mexico Citys Palacio Nacional.
The revelations about Rivera are surprising enough, but Chase and Reed are promising to shatter some much bigger illusions. Reed told the Independent the two academics had also uncovered some very damaging stuff about Trotsky. We’re still trying to get hold of some FBI stuff on him . . . in fact, I can tell you we have concrete information that Leon Trotsky, too, was an informant of the US government.