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I Paint what I see: a poem about Diego Rivera

I Paint what I see: a poem about Diego Rivera

I Paint What I See

"What do you paint when you paint a wall?" Said John D.'s grandson Nelson.

"Do you paint just anything there at all?

"Will there be any doves or a tree in fall?

"Or a hunting scene like an English hall?"

"I paint what I see," said Rivera.

"What are the colors you use when you paint?" Said John D.'s grandson, Nelson.

"Do you use any red in the beard of a saint?

"If you do is it terribly red, or faint?

"Do you use any blue? Is it Prussian?"

"I paint what I paint," said Rivera.

"Whose is that head I see on my wall?" Said John D.'s grandson Nelson.

"Is it anyone's head whom we know, at all?

"A Rensselaer, or a Saltonstall?

"Is it Franklin D.? Is it Mordaunt Hall?

"Or is it the head of a Russian?"

"I paint what I think," said Rivera.

"I paint what I paint, I paint what I see,

"I paint what I think," said Rivera,

"And the thing that is dearest in life to me

"In a bourgeois hall is Integrity;


"I'll take out a couple of people drinkin'

"And put in a picture of Abraham Lincoln,

"I could even give you McCormick's reaper

"And still not make my art much cheaper.

"But the head of Lenin has got to stay

"Or my friends will give me the bird today

"The bird, the bird, forever."

"It's not good taste in a man like me," Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,

"To question an artist's integrity

"Or mention a practical thing like a fee,

"But I know what I like to a large degree

"Though art I hate to hamper;

"For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks

"You painted a radical. I say shucks,

"I never could rent the offices.

"For this, as you know, is a public hall

"And people want doves or a tree in fall,

"And though your art I dislike to hamper,

"I owe a little to God and Gramper,

"And after all,

"It's my wall...."

"We'll see if it is," said Rivera.

This poem was first published in The New Yorker, May 20, 1933 during the controversy over Diego Rivera's mural in the Rockefeller Centre which was destroyed the following year on February 9, 1934. 

So Who Was Diego Rivera?

First and foremost to me he was Frida Kahlo's husband but there is much more to this unique individual.

Diego Rivera, a prominent figure in 20th-century art, left an indelible mark on the art world during his 50-year career from 1907 to 1957. Born in Mexico, Rivera spent significant periods of his life in Europe and the United States, in addition to his home in Mexico City.

While he initially experimented with Cubism and later embraced Post-Impressionism, his unique style and perspective were unmistakably his own. Rivera was an artist and an active participant in politics, aligning himself with Marxism and joining the Mexican Communist Party in 1922. In the 1930s, he famously hosted Russian exile Leon Trotsky and his wife in Mexico City.

Rivera's early years were marked by his enrollment in the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City, where he studied traditional painting and sculpture techniques. He exhibited his works at various shows and developed his artistic style, which featured elements of Impressionism and Realism. During his time in Europe, particularly in Paris, Rivera's style shifted towards Cubism, influenced by artists like Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne. His paintings began to exhibit abstract and geometric forms, showcasing his exploration of multiple dimensions of a single subject.

In his middle years, Rivera's focus turned to political events and his Mexican heritage. Inspired by Renaissance frescoes during a trip to Italy, he became involved in mural painting upon his return to Mexico. He joined a government-sponsored mural program and created extensive frescoes that depicted Mexican society and its revolutionary past.

His style evolved to feature large figures, simplified lines, and vibrant colours, often portraying workers and scenes of Mexican culture.
Significant accomplishments and controversies marked Rivera's later years. He travelled to the Soviet Union in 1927, met influential figures in the art world, and continued his mural projects in Mexico and the United States. His commissioned murals, such as the "Detroit Industry Murals," showcased his artistic prowess and storytelling ability.

However, his mural project for the Rockefeller Center in New York, which included a depiction of Lenin, led to its destruction due to objections from the Rockefellers.

Rivera's influence on the world of art cannot be overstated. He played a vital role in shaping Mexican art and left a lasting impact on American public art. His depictions of American life on public buildings inspired Franklin Delano Roosevelt's WPA program, providing work opportunities for numerous American artists. Rivera's original painting style and his powerful ideas continue to influence American painting to this day.

Diego Rivera's life was filled with artistic achievements, political engagement, and turbulent moments. His Marxist leanings and contributions to the art world have made him a countercultural symbol of the 20th century. His legacy lives on, inspiring the imagination and minds of artists and enthusiasts alike. If you would like to know more about him read this article.

Posted: Thursday 20 May 2010


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