The Creation: A Conceptual Mural of Diego Rivera's Art

The Creation is Diego Rivera's first mural. It explores the concept of mestizaje, which today has been put up for debate. The painter brought to Mexico this powerful impulse of artistic renovation that would influence a generation of painters.

The Creation: A Conceptual Mural of Diego Rivera's Art
Avant-garde. The Creation, 1922-1923, Diego Rivera. Photo: Michel Zabé, AFMT, IIE-UNAM

The Creation, Diego Rivera's first mural, explores the concept of miscegenation, which today has been debated, but it is an allegory of the arts and sciences and also a cosmic scale that proposes the transmission of knowledge from the celestial to the terrestrial, something appropriate for a space like the Amphitheater of the National Preparatory School, where there were conferences, lectures, debates, and concerts.

The above, according to the specialist of the Institute of Aesthetic Research of the UNAM, Sandra Zetina, who detailed:

"The iconography is extremely complex and is probably based on the fresco paintings of the Estancia de la Signatura, in the Vatican, by Raphael, where Christian and pagan themes converge: Adam and Eve with the tree of life, Apollo and the muses, as well as the theological and cardinal virtues."

On each side there are two scenes: on the left side, at the bottom, the Woman appears seated and naked; then there are the muses or allegories of the arts and sciences: Music, with sheepskin and a flute; Song, with a red dress; Comedy, with braids; and Dance, standing and with her arms raised. And next to them are the personifications of the theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity.

In the one on the right, below, is Man seated and naked; then Fable, dressed in blue and gold; Tradition, with a crimson dress; Erotic Poetry, with blond hair; and Tragedy, with her face covered by a mask. And next to them are the personifications of the cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Continence, and Fortitude.

And at the top of each scene float two angelic figures: Wisdom (on the left) and Science (on the right).

"A curious fact is that Rivera resorted to several personalities of the time to use them as models. Thus, Music was based on the then dancer Dolores del Rio; Song, on the model and novelist Guadalupe Marin, whom Rivera later married; Comedy, on the tandas actress Guadalupe Rivas Cacho; Dance, on the composer, organist, pianist, and teacher Julia Alonso; and Erotic Poetry, on the painter and poet Carmen Mondragon, called Nahui Olin by Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo Coronado), among others," adds the researcher.

A new mode of figuration

Commissioned by José Vasconcelos, at that time Secretary of Public Education in the government of President Álvaro Obregón, Diego Rivera painted between 1922 and 1923 The Creation, inside the Amphitheater of the National Preparatory School, then located in the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso (today Museo de San Ildefonso), in the Historic Center of Mexico City.

"This mural is considered the first of a series that inaugurated a new mode of figuration and, also, a new relationship with the architectural space," said Sandra Zetina.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the authorities of the National Preparatory School decided to expand its facilities. The Mexican architect Samuel Chávez won the competition and took up the Baroque style of the old cloisters to build the Amphitheater. In 1910 it was completed, and on September 22 of that same year, it was the venue for the inauguration of the National University of Mexico, on the occasion of the celebrations of the First Centenary of Independence.

"As the Amphitheater of the National Preparatory School was a very important symbolic place for the National University of Mexico, Vasconcelos concluded that he should look for an experienced painter to paint a mural inside it. And he thought of Rivera," said the university expert.

When the then official established communication with the artist through Alfonso Reyes, Rivera was still in Paris where he had participated in avant-garde movements, especially cubism; however, after 1917 he had distanced himself from this movement by his own choice and now proposed a new figuration based on constructivism and the representation of more spatial dimensions in a two-dimensional plane.

"Thanks to this first contact with Vasconcelos and the sale of some of his paintings, Rivera had the opportunity to make a trip to Italy, which was fundamental for what would become the first muralism, because there he was able to see and study the authors of the great works of mural painting, from the Etruscans and the primitives to Giotto and Titian," said Zetina.

Once he arrived in Mexico in 1921 and became fully involved in the Vasconcelos project, he began to offer a series of lectures in which, in addition to showing how the European avant-garde worked, he encouraged the Mexican artistic milieu to renew itself.

"We must consider that the country had just suffered a long civil war that prevented the latest trends in art from being known in depth. And Rivera brought this powerful impulse of renovation that would influence a whole generation of painters," said the university professor.


Several sketches of The Creation are known, in which it can be seen how its composition was changing to anchor it in the architectural structure and transform the space.

"Originally there was an organ that covered the entire acoustic shell, but Rivera removed it and placed a new one, of smaller dimensions, which was integrated into the pictorial composition. That is where the central figure is, with his arms open in a cross (the organ was part of his body). It may be a self-portrait of the painter himself. It represents both the Pantocrator and Apollo and the new man or the mestizo man because in this mural many notions about racial diversity that was under discussion in those years are put into play. Above this figure is a blue semicircle, symbolizing the energy or creative principle that radiates in three directions; and below it, amid lush tropical vegetation, a lion, a cherub, a bull, and an eagle."


To create it, he used encaustic, which uses molten wax and resin to bind the pigments, and is applied with direct fire. The painter from Guanajuato said he had recovered this ancient Greek technique and at the same time created Mexican encaustic, because he added copal resin to the formula, and used a blowtorch to melt the colors on the wall.

"Now, as encaustic is very complicated, it took him a year to finish the mural, so he never used it again to paint another one. His assistants were Carlos Mérida, Xavier Guerrero and Jean Charlot. And so collective was the making of La Creación that it is not signed. Yes, it is one of Rivera's few murals, if not the only one, that does not bear his signature," says Zetina.

On March 23, 1923, it was presented by Vasconcelos, Alfonso Caso, and Manuel Maples Arce, founder of estridentismo, who read an avant-garde speech. "And, according to the invitation, Julia Alonso, dressed in a long white tunic and with long, flowing hair, as she appears in this mural, played several Chopin preludes on the piano," the academic concluded.