DREAMING WITH HIS EYES OPEN by Patrick Marnham

DREAMING WITH HIS EYES OPEN

The Life of Diego Rivera
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Vast in scope and detailed in execution, this biography evokes the artist with an ambitiousness he surely would have recognized. Most people recall Diego Rivera as a painter of complex, highly symbolic and politically charged murals; few know he was equally inventive with his own life. In writing this biography—the first of Rivera in some 35 years—Marnham has undertaken a formidable challenge: pulling apart fact and fantasy. Rivera’s own friend, Bertram Wolfe (who wrote the only other biography existent) referred to the lies Rivera told as the “labyrinth of fables.” The artist claimed, for example, that at age 11 he enlisted as the youngest soldier in the Mexican army and that as an art student in Mexico City, he fell in with a crowd of medical students who regularly dined on the flesh of their cadavers. Marnham does an excellent job debunking these myths. In their place, he offers a compelling—and even somewhat sympathetic—portrait of Rivera as a talented, hardworking young painter who evolved into a fervent communist and blustering egomaniac. His appetites were huge; so was his ambition: Rivera was powered by a desire to make paintings with relevance to Mexico’s political present as well as its past and future. To his credit, Marnham skillfully describes the complex spheres of power, influence, idealism, and corruption that influenced the communist movement in the 1920s and the artist himself. Nor does he slight Rivera’s emotional life: he duly notes virtually all of Rivera’s known paramours and wives (Frida Kahlo was, after all, his third). But somehow, Marnham never quite manages to convey the strange passion that must have bound Kahlo to this huge, fleshy, forceful, adulterous man. Their interaction, while grounded in their art, seems clinical: dependent and passionate, but distant. Marnham excels as a biographer of history and personality, less so as a biographer of creativity and obsession. But all of those qualities were integral to Rivera’s life.

Pub Date: Nov. 12th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-43042-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1998