Mayakovsky in Mexico: The story of one painting by Diego Rivera

Mayakovsky in Mexico: The story of one painting by Diego Rivera
Vladimir Mayakovsky with Second Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Mexico Viktor Volynsky and F. Moreno. Photo by Tina Modotti. State Mayakovsky Museum
Check out the story below prepared by mos.ru and Mosgortur (Moscow Recreation and Tourism Agency) to find out how the most celebrated Soviet poet and a great Mexican artist met, what they talked about and why Rivera said Mayakovsky had a “magical” voice.

The State Vladimir Mayakovsky Museum has a portrait of the poet painted by the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera. There is a great story of friendship between two great people behind this painting created in Moscow in 1955.

Eighteen days on the ocean

In 1924, the Soviet Union and Mexico established diplomatic relations. The progressive Mexican public showed great interest in Soviet literature and art, and so in the 1920s, cultural exchanges began between the two countries. Vladimir Mayakovsky was one of the first Soviet cultural figures to visit Mexico.

The poet travelled to Latin America on a transatlantic ship departing on 21 June 1925 from the French port of Saint-Nazaire. He kept a diary the entire way. “SS Espagne, 14,000 tonnes. The steamer is small, kind of like our GUM. Three classes, two funnels, one cinema, a cafe-canteen, a library, a concert room and a newspaper,” wrote Mayakovsky, who was travelling first class. The voyage to the Mexican port of Veracruz took 18 days, including a stop in Havana.

“We stood moored for a day. They brought on coal. There is no coal in Veracruz, and they needed it for six days of navigation, there and back again across the Gulf of Mexico. The first class was given a shore pass immediately and everyone brought to the cabin... The second class went ashore selectively. Only those the captain liked. Mostly women. The third class was not allowed ashore at all – they were crowded on the deck, amid the screech and roar of coal pumps, and clouds of black dust that stuck to their sticky sweat, pulling up pineapples on a string.”

Coming toward us

                    slower than the body of a seal

is a steamship from Mexico,

                    just where

                              we’re headed.

It couldn’t be otherwise.

                    The division

of labour.

These are lines from the poem Shallow Philosophy in Deep Places that Mayakovsky wrote during his trip. The 18-day voyage inspired several poems — Spain, Six Nuns, Atlantic Ocean, Black & White and Christopher Columbus.

Vladimir Mayakovsky in Mexico. Unknown photographer. State Mayakovsky Museum

Cacti and a man with a ‘good belly’

Mayakovsky arrived in Veracruz on 8 July. The poet was captivated: “I have never seen any land like this and never even thought such lands existed. Against the background of a red sunrise stood cacti, also painted red. Only cacti and nothing else. Nopal, donkeys’ favourite food, pricked its huge ears covered in warts.”

Mayakovsky travelled to Mexico City from Veracruz by train. Diego Rivera picked him up at the station. Mayakovsky knew that he was going to meet with the greatest artist in Mexico and one of the founders of the Mexican Communist Party. He was eager to finally see Rivera and get to know him.

“Diego is huge, with a good belly, broad face and permanent smile. He talks about thousands of interesting things, mixing in Russian words (Diego perfectly understands Russian), but before telling a story, he warns: “Just remember, and my wife will confirm, I lie about half of what I say,” the poet wrote after his first meeting with Diego.

Diego Rivera with a Xoloitzcuintle at the Frida Kahlo House Museum

Speaking of his wife, Rivera was referring to Guadalupe Marín, a Mexican writer and model he was married to in 1922-1927. Frida Kahlo, who was to be the third and most famous of Diego Rivera's spouses, only turned 18 at the time of Mayakovsky's visit. She was still at the Preparatoria school, where she studied medicine and where, by the way, she first met Rivera. The artist taught at the school in the early 1920s.

The first place Diego Rivera took Mayakovsky was to a museum to see “ancient round Aztec calendars on stone excavated from the Mexican pyramids, and two-faced idols of the wind, with one of the faces overtaking the other.” But the poet was far more impressed by Rivera’s murals decorating the Ministry of Public Education. Mayakovsky called the mural “the first ever communist art in the world,” depicting “the past, present and future of Mexico.”

Vladimir Mayakovsky at a bullfight. Unknown photographer. State Mayakovsky Museum

At that time, the poet had already visited Germany and France, and in a letter to Lily Brik dated 15 July 1925, he compared what he saw in Mexico with those countries:

“First of all, this obviously differs from other foreign places because there’re palm trees and cacti, but those grow in proper shape only south of Veracruz.  Mexico City is heavy, unpleasant, dirty and immensely boring. I missed the high season (it’s winter), and it always rains for half a day, with cold nights and a very lousy climate because it is 2,400 metres above sea level, so it is awfully difficult to breathe (the first two weeks, they say) and it gives me palpitations, which is even worse.”

Mayakovsky’s magical voice

Vladimir Mayakovsky stayed in Mexico for about three weeks. He saw Rivera every day. They met at the Soviet embassy, ​​where the poet was staying, or at the artist’s place or at friends’.

Vladimir Mayakovsky on the roof of the Soviet embassy in Mexico. Photo by E. Wolf. State Mayakovsky Museumор Э. Вольф. Из коллекции Государственного музея В.В. Маяковского

One day they had a gathering of Russian and Mexican politicians, artists, engineers and writers, each of them “ready to kill anyone who would dare to doubt his revolutionary ardour.” The guests made toasts, had conversations and got into arguments, which finally grew into a big fight between the Mexicans and the Russians involving bottles, glasses and chairs, and soon the Mexicans took out revolvers.

“So Mayakovsky yelled in Russian: Listen! And everyone stopped fighting and just stared at him, and he began to recite Left March, his voice growing louder and louder. The Mexicans quieted and, when the poet finished speaking, gave him a thunderous applause: they rushed to hug him, and then began to hug each other. So the magical voice of Mayakovsky and his poetry restored peace. Having achieved this, the poet went outside, and everyone followed him.” From the reminiscences of Diego Rivera

During his stay in Mexico, Mayakovsky travelled around the neighbourhood, visited theatres, cinemas, museums and even attended a bullfight. In addition to getting exposure to the local culture and history, the poet spoke to local workers, willingly talked to the press, and also got acquainted with artists and politicians, including Minister of Education Manuel Puig Casauranc. Mayakovsky had so many meetings he even had to order business cards in Mexico City.

He put his impressions about the country into the poem Mexico:

Five hundred tribes

                    poverty-struck

                              in Mexico,

One full-bellied with one tongue:

squeezes into a lemon with one hand,

locks it with one padlock.

Beware

          of splitting your fight

                              in tribes.

A beggar with beggars

                              go side by side!

Let the kindred call

                    sweep across the earth

                              from the land of the Mexicans:

 ‘Camarada!’

Hunger is good

                    at equating people.

He’s an Indian

                    who is poor.

In the coming fire,

                   embers are kin –

Aztec,

          mestizo

                    and Creole.

On 27 July, Mayakovsky left Mexico and continued his journey to the United States.

A return visit and never-painted portrait of Stalin

Diego Rivera first visited Moscow in 1927, invited by the Soviet government to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution.

In Moscow, he visited exhibitions, theatres and, as an honoured guest, attended meetings of the World Congress of Friends of the USSR. Rivera gave lectures on Latin American art and became one of the founders of the Oktyabr art association, a group of artists, architects, directors and writers. The main goal of the group was to promote “the further development of truly revolutionary, proletarian trends in the field of spatial arts in the Soviet Union and around the world.”

Diego Rivera even signed a contract to create a fresco in the Central House of the Red Army and received an offer to paint a portrait of Joseph Stalin, but for a number of reasons, neither the first nor the second project actually came to fruition.

During Rivera's stay in Moscow, he frequently met with Mayakovsky. The artist recalled one of these meetings in mid-November at the home of Mayakovsky and the Briks in Gendrikov Pereulok.

“In those days, one very cold evening, Mayakovsky invited us to his place ... It was as hot as in an oven, and the enthusiasm of those who had the honour of enjoying the hospitality of a genius really heated the place up. There were so many of us... That evening, Mayakovsky had over some people who were already famous, as well as those who became famous later. Among the former was Theodore Dreiser, author of American Tragedy,” Rivera recalled.

Rivera stayed in Moscow until May 1928.

A portrait and a guestbook entry

Diego Rivera’s next and last visit to Moscow was in the autumn of 1955, when he came for treatment. In January 1956, workers of the State Mayakovsky Library-Museum sent a letter to the artist asking him to paint a portrait of the poet:

Dear comrade Diego, we do really want you to make a portrait of Vladimir Mayakovsky for our museum, and show him the way you remember him. It would be such a rare and valuable gift for us and for our visitors, and a memory of Mayakovsky and his friend Rivera, the best artist in Mexico, who visited us in the autumn of 1955.”

Portrait of Vladimir Mayakovsky. Artist Diego Rivera. 1956. State Mayakovsky Museum

Rivera obliged, and, as a tribute to the poet, he painted his portrait, with the inscription: “This is how I remember Mayakovsky in Mexico.” He also signed the guest book: “I recall with excitement the greatest poet of the revolution, Mayakovsky, whose friend I have the honour to call myself.”

Diego Rivera in Moscow. 1950s. State Mayakovsky Museum