“As an artist I have always tried to be faithful to my vision of life, and I have frequently been in conflict with those who wanted me to paint not what I saw but what they wished me to see,” Diego Rivera.
Although Mexican artist Diego Rivera is well known today for his tumultuous marriage to fellow artist and pop culture icon Frida Kahlo, his artistic genius should not be overshadowed.
Rivera remains one of the greatest muralists of all time. And the best place in the world to see his greatest works is Mexico City.
The epic size of Rivera’s murals and the painstaking detail with which they were rendered will have you squinting in concentration, trying to tease stories from his multifaceted works. His wall-sized murals contain many themes, all competing against each other for attention.
Rivera painted in the fresco style. His more restrained murals depict the daily life of indigenous people in Mexico, such as his renderings of women selling white calla lilies in the marketplace.
Rivera lived from 1886 to 1957, witnessing the Mexican Revolution as a young man. He was a Communist, so political themes and workers rights figure prominently into his works. He also inserted his beloved Frida into several of his great murals.
Searching for Rivera’s best murals in Mexico City can feel a bit like a treasure hunt. The four locations below feature some of his most famous pieces. They are all conveniently located within walking distance of each other in the city’s Centro Historico, or Historic Center.
With lots of walking, you can see them all in one day!
(1) Palacio Nacional (Plaza de la Constitucion S/N)
A huge mural by Rivera can be found right off the national palace’s courtyard, facing you as you walk up the stairs. Painted between 1929 and 1935, the mural tells the history of Mexico, and wraps around the wall.
Front and center is an eagle grasping a serpent, just like the central emblem in the Mexican flag. The eagle stands on an Aztec calendar stone. Above, men grasp a banner that reads Tierra y Libertad, land and liberty — the slogan of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata. Zapata and other revolutionary leaders are pictured in the mural.
Frida Kahlo makes an appearance in the mural in the side panel if you take the left stairwell leading to the second level. She is wearing a green dress. Behind her, workers hold a banner that reads huelga – strike.
Once you come up the stairs, you will see murals depicting indigenous life in Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards.
A striking young woman carrying calla lilies on her back appears in the first mural to the left after ascending the stairs. Disconcertingly, a man standing next to her holds a severed arm.
Meanwhile, a nearby wall depicts a more peaceful scene.
As a heads up, you will be asked to leave your picture ID at the door with the guards.
(2) Secretaría de Educación Pública (Calle Republica de Argentina 28)
Rivera’s murals cover three levels of the interior courtyard of the Mexican government’s public education ministry.
As with the palace, because this is a government office, you will be asked to leave your picture ID at the door.
The open courtyard is filled with a garden at its center, creating a very tranquil setting to wander and appreciate the frescoes by Rivera covering the walls that border the courtyard. The first level includes murals that depict life in different regions of Mexico. The murals reflect popular and religious traditions, as well as the lives of laborers and agricultural workers.
Workers are constantly restoring the fading murals. According to the Education Ministry, the murals have been going through a conservation program since 1990. Rivera painted the murals between 1923 and 1928.
The second level features murals with themes from the proletarian and agrarian revolution.
(3) Museo Mural Diego Rivera (Calle Balderas y Colon S/N, Cuahtemoc, Centro)
This small museum is built primarily to house one of the Rivera’s most famous murals, pictured below: “Dream of a Sunday afternoon in Alameda Central Park,” painted in 1947.
The museum provides a chart that helps the viewer understand who each of the multitude of figures in the painting represent.
If you want to take a photo, you must pay a small fee of a few pesos.
The panel that attracts the most attention is of four famous figures: from the left, there is Rivera as a young man with Kahlo standing behind him. Then there is the elegantly dressed skeleton (La Catrina) and the famous Mexican artist and printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada at the far right, holding a cane. Posada prominently featured La Catrina in his own prints, beginning in 1910. He used the image to mock the upper classes.
(4) Palacio de Bellas Artes (Av. Juarez, Centro Historico)
This beautiful performance venue is best known for hosting spectacular ballet folklorico dance performances. However, it also houses a museum that displays murals on the upper floors.
The mural below is titled “Man, Controller of the Universe.” It is a recreation of the mural “Man at the Crossroads,” which Rivera was originally commissioned by the wealthy Rockefeller family to create for Rockefeller Center in New York City. Because of its radical implications, the Rockefellers had the original mural destroyed in 1934.
In the mural, the man at the center is caught at the crossroads between capitalism (to man’s right) and communism (to his left).
If you are touring the Centro Historico, you should also check out the original famous El Cardenal restaurant (Calle Palma 23) for lunch. Make sure to try the delicious rich hot chocolate and fresh bread!
- “Three Days with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico City,” BBC.
- “Diego Rivera’s ‘Other’ Murals,” Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler.
- “Destroyed by Rockefellers, Mural Trespassed on Political Vision,” NPR.
- “Dream of a Sunday afternoon in Alameda Central Park,” Khan Academy.
- “Murals by Diego Rivera in the Palacio Nacional de Mexico,” Buffton University.