Published: May 25, 2004
Diego Rivera, one of the great figures in Twentieth Century art, gained international acclaim as leader of the Mexican mural movement that sought to bring art and history to the masses through large-scale works in public places. Today, he is also remembered as the husband of fellow painter Frida Kahlo, whose colorful, tragic life has been the subject of recent books and movies.
“The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics, Place,” on view at the National Gallery of Art through July 25 and the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, September 19-January 16, 2005, examines a little-known facet of the renowned modernist’s career: his early foray into Cubism. The exhibition celebrates the donation of a Rivera Cubist work to the National Gallery by the late publisher of the Washington Post, Katharine Graham. The show is sponsored by Target Stores.
Featured in this fascinating, focused exhibition are 21 canvases Rivera created in France and Spain between 1913 and 1915, a period in which his interest in Mexican nationalism and politics first emerged. There is no catalog, but a cogent brochure written by Jessica Stewart and the show’s organizer, Leah Dickerman, associate curator of Modern and Contemporary art at the National Gallery, is interesting and informative. Assisting Dickerman in curating the exhibition was Luis-Martin Lozano, director of the Museo de Arte Moderno.
Born in Guanajuato and raised in Mexico City by parents who were both educators, Rivera (1886-1957) showed early talent for art and studied at the national school of fine arts starting at age 12. With the help of government stipends, he spent much of the period 1907-1921 in Europe, where he examined art in museums and soaked up ideas from avant-garde artists in Madrid, London, Belgium and Paris.
In Paris, around the time of World War I and the Mexican Revolution, he made his studio and its surroundings in Montparnasse subjects of his work. He was exposed to an all-star international art community that included Marc Chagall, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani, Piet Mondrian and Chaim Soutine.
By 1913, Rivera was experimenting with the radical innovations of Cubism introduced a few years earlier by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. The Mexican painter adapted from their pioneering Cubist works dramatic fragmentations of form, use of multiple perspectives and flattened picture planes, as well as favorite subjects, such as liqueur bottles and musical instruments. Increasingly, Rivera’s art reflected his expatriate status, issues of Mexican identity and his sympathy for the peasant uprising back home.
Mondrian’s influence, mingled with those of the Cubists and Rivera’s sense of Mexican patriotism, can be seen in “Jacques Lipchitz (Portrait of a Young Man),” 1914. In this intriguing canvas, owned by the Museum of Modern Art, the Mondrian-like grid structure and Picasso/Braque-influenced multiviewed likeness of the Lithuanian-born sculptor is enlivened with hints of a colorful Mexican serape.
In a standout early work, a 1913 portrait of fellow Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard, Rivera posed his friend, striking in an elegant black coat, gloves and walking stick, against a panoramic view of the Montparnasse railroad station and the Giant Ferris Wheel built for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. This large, compelling painting reflects the affinity of the two Mexicans for their adopted city, while suggesting their common identity as expatriates.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Rivera cemented his friendship with Spanish expatriate Picasso, whose work the Mexican admired greatly. Rivera’s Cubist canvases during this time often echoed themes painted by Picasso.
Rivera’s patriotic fervor for the French cause in World War I is reflected in “Tour Eiffel,” painted in Spain in November 1914. Rather ghostly images of such Parisian symbols as the Eiffel Tower and the Great Ferris Wheel are teamed with splashes of color emblematic of the French and Mexican national colors.
The painting bequeathed to the National Gallery by Graham, “No. 9, Nature morte espagnole (Spanish Still Life),” 1915, is a complex composition mixing Spanish and Mexican themes. Backed by a wood table, tiled floor and shifting planes, the central form of a jar symbolizes Spain, while depictions of three “molinillos” – Mexican utensils used to whip a traditional chocolate drink – recall the artist’s homeland. “The inclusion of a domestic Mexican object within a Spanish still life serves as a reference to home from afar, as well as a reminder of the exportation of ancient Mexican customs to Spain,” write Stewart and Dickerman.
Back in Paris by the spring of 1915, Rivera encountered a city girding for a possible German assault. Closed galleries and dispersal of the Montparnasse art colony signaled the hardships of a nation at war. Nevertheless, he created several accomplished works that are in the current exhibition, like “Still Life with Bread Knife” and “Still Life with Gray Bowl.”
Harkening back to happier prewar days, “Still Life (Mallorca),” 1915, grew out of sketches made during the artist’s trip to the Balearic Islands. Rivera mixed sand into the oil paint to suggest pristine beaches he had enjoyed there, emphasized by the turquoise water and brilliant blue sky that surround the composition.
Perhaps the most vividly hued – and memorable – work from 1915 is “Le sucrier et les bougies (The Sugar Bowl and the Candles),” owned by Fisk University Galleries in Nashville, Tenn. It is a dazzling example of Rivera’s Cubist touch and sense of color at their best.
The painter’s mounting concerns about the course of the revolution back home were reflected in symbol-filled portraits of exiled Mexicans, such as journalist Martin Luis Cuzman, and the complex and colorful “Paisaje Zapatista (Zapatista Landscape),” 1915. In the latter, an array of objects representing the peasant revolt, including a serape, sombrero, rifle and cartridge belt, framed by Mexican mountains, suggest the artist’s attention to events in his homeland. “This amalgamation of still life and landscape genres is, above all, a symbolic portrait of Mexico,” observe Stewart and Dickerman in the exhibition brochure.
“My Cubist paintings are my most Mexican,” River once declared, but after 1915 he gradually abandoned the style. The body of work exhibited in this show, nonetheless, reflects the vigor and skill with which he employed the Cubist idiom, often adapting it to express his growing political sensibilities and emerging commitment to Mexican nationalism.
Visitors to Mexico City today can see examples of Rivera’s Cubist masterworks and later paintings in such museums as the Diego Rivera Mural Museum, Museo de Arte Moderno, Museum of Fine Arts and Dolores Olmedo Museum.
The Mexican capital is also the prime place in which to study the epic murals he created in public spaces in an effort to advance Mexican identity and “help the masses to a better social organization,” as the painter put it. Awesome, often enormous works in the Ministry of Education, National Palace and San Ildefonso School showcase Rivera’s mastery of mural painting and his affection for Mexicans and Mexico.
Visits to the Studio Museum of Diego Rivera, Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum and Frida Kahlo Museum on the outskirts of the city offer fascinating insights into the art, lifestyles and tempestuous relationship of Rivera and Kahlo.
A tour of these Mexico City sites is a must for dedicated fans of both artists.
The Rivera show complements the National Gallery’s blockbuster, “Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya,” an impressive display of 130 masterworks created for the nobility of northern Mexico, Guatamala and Honduras from AD 650 to 800. Benefiting from new archaeological discoveries in Palenque, Mexico, the exhibition explores the manner in which Maya kings and nobles sought to immortalize themselves and ensure their place in history through commissioned works of art and architecture. It is supported by a grant from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.
On view are a dizzying trove of objects, including stone sculptures, ceramics, precious stones and masks that reflect central themes of Mayan aristocratic life, such as divine models of courtly culture, the prominent roles and status of women at court, bloodletting rituals and the harsh realities of Maya warfare.
The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery, where it will be shown through July 25, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where it will be on view, September 4-January 2. There is a comprehensive, 300-page, fully illustrated catalog, with contributions from exhibition curators Mary Ellen Miller of Yale University and Kathleen Berrin of the San Francisco museums, and others. Published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Thames and Hudson, it is available in hardcover for $50 and softcover for $25. This volume will be treasured by all interested in this first ever United States show on the subject and its insights into the still evolving history of the grand, ancient culture of the Mayans.
Mexican concerts, films and other activities at the National Gallery and elsewhere in the nation’s capital are part of “Viva Mexico! Washington, DC Celebrates,” an ambitious citywide homage to Mexican art and culture.
The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th streets at Constitution Avenue NW. For information, 202-737-4215 or www.nga.gov.
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