Diego Rivera was one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. His life was a thrilling adventure in art, politics, and history. Yet in his autobiography My Art, My Life, co-written with American journalist Gladys March, Rivera still felt the need to embellish his life story with a truckload of tall tales and fabrications. When he was six years old, for example, he gave an impromptu atheistic sermon at his local church that was so impressive he was immediately granted an honorary induction into a society of liberal intelligentsia. Ridiculous, yes; and that's only the beginning. Throughout the book, Rivera constantly makes himself out to be a macho, revolutionary tough guy. (He could have killed Porfirio Diaz and Adolf Hitler, if only someone else hadn't stopped him.) Yet whenever anyone criticizes the deliberately provocative and controversial imagery in his paintings, he suddenly adopts the attitude of a disingenuous schoolboy: "Who, me? I never meant to offend anyone."
Gladys March does well to preserve Rivera's fictions; it is not her job to censor him. She does not get off scot-free, however. Not only does she take Rivera's stories and translate them from Spanish to English, she also takes the words of an intellectual visionary and translates them into the language of an eighth-grader. The short, choppy sentences and elementary vocabulary make for uncomfortable and occasionally tiresome reading. There are factual errors, as well, which could be attributed to March rather than Rivera. The artist and educator Gerardo Murillo, who called himself Dr. Atl, is here referred to throughout as Murillo Atl, as if that were his given name. At one point Rivera talks about painting a 40 x 65 foot mural at the Ministry of Education. There is no forty-foot-tall Rivera mural in that building, so he must have been talking about some other building, perhaps the National Palace? Later, while Rivera discusses the "painting" of his mural at the Teatro de los Insurgentes, never once is it mentioned that the finished mural is not a painting but, in fact, a mosaic. These are a few examples of confusing discrepancies of fact which distract from the already distracting self-mythologizing of Rivera.
Despite these shortcomings, the true value of this book becomes evident when Rivera discusses the creation of his art, his growth as an artist, and the development of his artistic philosophy. On these subjects he is frank and forthright. Because of my admiration for Rivera as an artist and my fascination with Mexican culture and history, it's almost impossible for me not to like a book on this subject matter, especially when it comes from the mouth of the master himself. As far as Rivera biographies go, however, I prefer The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera by Bertram Wolfe. Although Wolfe was a friend of the artist, he's not afraid to point out Rivera's faults. Here the only fault Rivera will own up to is his ill treatment of women. (As appendices, the book includes brief statements by each of Rivera's four wives, providing a welcome dose of reality.) This book does have its flaws, and after reading it I must admit my estimation of Rivera may have dropped a notch or two, but those interested in Mexican art will appreciate this unique glimpse into the mind (and ego) of a genius.