Diego: Bigger than Life


author: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand
illustrator: David Diaz
Marshall Cavendish, 2009
grades 7-up
Mexican

Here is Diego Rivera, the revolutionary Mexican artist who sought justice for all poor and working people. Here is Diego Rivera, the woman-chaser, whose many marriages and extra-marital affairs were well known. Here is Diego Rivera, the storyteller and, some would say, master liar. The 34 poems here, in flawlessly executed free verse gathered mostly from Rivera’s own writings—and occasionally, from those of Frida Kahlo and the Mexican Communist Party—affirm the exhaustive amount of research that Bernier-Grand must have undertaken.

In the text of her work, the author chooses to leave Rivera’s perspectives virtually untouched, relegating unanswered questions and hypotheses to a helpful author’s note. In a piece entitled “The True Life of Diego Rivera,” Bernier–Grand raises the inconsistencies between Rivera’s writing and information available today—When Rivera was born, was the pale infant really thrown into a dung bucket? Was he really raised by an Indian wet nurse? Did the Mexican Communist Party really expel him, or did he expel himself? Here is where Bernier-Grand details the political and personal controversies of Rivera’s tumultuous life and work, as well as his many stormy dalliances, affairs and marriages. 

In addition to “The True Life of Diego Rivera,” there’s a short section entitled “In His Own Words.” Other back matter includes a glossary, a chronology of Rivera’s life, a list of sources, and copious notes that support Bernier-Grand’s research. This wealth of material will prove invaluable for student research and classroom projects, including, for example, a study of political mural art or that of point-of-view in published biographies and autobiographies.    

But it’s the biography itself that’s a veritable work of art. Here, Bernier-Grand, with an amazing economy of words, paints a portrait of a man who was, indeed, “bigger than life”:

As naturally as I breathe,
I painted in grand scale the colors of Mexico—
clearer, richer, more full of light than colors in Europe.

As naturally as I speak,
I painted in grand scale the music of Mexico
in markets, crowds, festivals—
Burning of the Judases, the Dance of the Deer.

As naturally as I sweat,
I painted in grand scale the workers of Mexico
in fields, mines, streets—
Indians carrying bundles of calla lilies.

A million public walls
wouldn’t be enough
to paint all the beauty of Mexico.

Diaz’s portrayal of Rivera’s life and work—one artist’s interpretation of another—is stylized and abstract, using shape and pastel color to hint at details. This is off-putting, considering Rivera’s highly detailed paintings and huge frescos, whose rich, bold colors explored deep, complex themes. Indeed, Diego is a book crying out for reproductions of Rivera’s own murals—especially his Rockefeller Center fresco, “Man at the Crossroads,” which Nelson Rockefeller ordered destroyed when Rivera refused to paint out the face of worker’s hero Vladimir Lenin. I would rather have seen more of Rivera’s artistic work and less interpretation by someone with a totally different illustrative style.

Despite this unfortunate choice of book design and illustration, Diego: Bigger than Life is, indeed, an amazing mural of words. It is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/19/13)

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