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Feature

Reconsidering Rivera

By Robin Herbst | HUMANITIES, January/February 1999 | Volume 20, Number 1

"And what sort of man was I?" asks Diego Rivera toward the end of his autobiography, in the last year of his life. Indeed, with a life as rich in controversy as Rivera's, the ambiguous answers to that question continue to fascinate scholars of his work. But it is the question of what sort of artist Rivera was, and the meaning of his undeniably prodigious contribution to twentieth-century art, that lie behind a new, major retrospective of his work, "Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution," opening at the Cleveland Museum of Art on February 14, 1999.

The show is the first major retrospective of Rivera's work in this country in thirteen years. It contains 146 paintings, murals, prints, and drawings, and will be accompanied by an exhibition catalog that presents new scholarship and interpretations of Rivera's work.

Rivera is generally acknowledged to be one of the most important artists of this century, and its most influential muralist. By the age of forty-five, he was among the most well-known and controversial artists in the world. He developed a painting style that synthesized the influences of European art, socialist ideals, and the cultural riches of pre-Columbian, indigenous Mexico. Today he is still revered as a Latin American folk hero.

But what sort of man was Diego Rivera? And what is the significance of his work? Political artist and visual satirist? Was his greatest contribution the populist mural, whose style he developed after he returned from Europe to Mexico in 1921 to participate in the "Mexican Renaissance?" He was a man of obvious contradictions, and occasionally revolting appetites. He was a devoted Marxist who nevertheless reviled Stalin and painted portraits of his own Hollywood friends. He was a lover of women, fond of marriage, who couldn't remain faithful to any of his four wives, and whose unabashed experiment with cannibalism in 1904 he proudly recounts in his autobiography -- including his favorite recipes, which chiefly involve the cadavers of young women.

Rivera's life may be inextricable from his art, but it is the latter that interests the organizers of the massive traveling retrospective. "He's the greatest Mexican artist of the twentieth century," says Graham Beal, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The show appears there from May 30 through August 16, 1999, and will complement LACMA's extensive holdings of Mexican and Latin American art. From there it travels to Dallas and Mexico City.

"With the death of communism, we can openly and without fear of repercussion address Rivera's influence on the evolution of American field painting -- the whole notion of a wall as a field that the spectator enters. Jackson Pollack and other important artists were looking at his work, yet Rivera had fallen out of favor."

Rivera claimed to want to create not merely a public, but a populist art, according to William H. Robinson, associate curator for paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art and a curator of the exhibition -- an art "possessing the visual and rhetorical power to change the world."

Rivera invoked remarkable disputes and inspired -- and contributed to -- a body of legend that continues alternately to reveal and cloak the artist in mystery. His physical appetites were Rabelaisian -- uncouth, enormous -- and his intellect possessed the subtlety and energy to match. The only certainty is that opinion about Rivera's contribution to twentieth-century art remains as sharply divided today as it was during his lifetime.

Why produce a new Rivera retrospective now? "For two reasons," says Robinson. "There's a lot of new research on Rivera at the moment; we're bringing together new scholars." Their articles on Rivera's work appear in the exhibition catalog. "Also, the National Institute of Fine Arts Mexico co-organized the exhibition with Cleveland. They've been pursuing research on Rivera for the past fifteen years, which includes not only locating new works but uncovering new information about Rivera." Robinson contends in the catalog's introduction, "Nearly forty years after his death, Rivera remains an artist in need of serious reassessment."

Diego Rivera was born in the mining town of Guanajuato, Mexico in 1886 and was sent by his parents at an early age to San Carlos Academy in Mexico City. There he studied mathematics and art and mastered the academic drawing style. He surrounded himself with other young artists and intellectuals. In 1907, after receiving an academic stipend to study abroad, Rivera traveled to Spain. Of this period, he writes in his autobiography, "I was twenty years old, over six feet tall, and weighed three hundred pounds. But I was a dynamo of energy…. For days on end, I painted from early dawn till past midnight." This was the sort of schedule he was to maintain throughout his life. He spent the next fourteen years in Europe, mostly in Spain and France. He studied and painted, combining his view of the spatial distortions he found in El Greco's work with strains of European modernism, such as divisionism and symbolism. While in France he became involved with artists of the avant-garde, including Picasso, Mondrian, Juan Gris, and Severini, gradually adopting and furthering cubism -- his was an "austere, theoretical" form of the art. But by 1917 Rivera decided that cubism was neither a "collective" or "social" art, and he appeared to abandon its formulae almost entirely. According to Robinson, however, this is but one of the many misconceptions that have dogged Rivera's reputation. Rivera's work may appear to belong to discrete periods, signifying changes in his interest or focus; this, contends Robinson, is an illusion.

"Rather than abandoning ideas and styles," Robinson writes in his introduction to the exhibition, "Rivera characteristically absorbed and redirected them. He was, above all else, a great synthesizer, possessing a remarkable quality to fuse his accumulated experiences of European and indigenous artistic conventions with personal iconography, aesthetics, and national cultural identity."

The exhibition covers Rivera's entire career, but unlike earlier examinations of his work, devotes one-half of its space to the work Rivera produced before returning to Mexico. It is divided into four sections, arranged thematically as well as chronologically. They are titled, From the Academy to the European Avant-Garde, 1886- 1913; Cubism and Classicism, 1913-1921; Muralism: A Proposal for Universal Humanism, 1922- 1932; and finally, The Artistic Languages of Diego Rivera, 1923-1957. In the first, as the title indicates, we follow Rivera as he leaves his roots in the Mexican academy and becomes involved with the European avant-garde. The second section traces his involvement with the Parisian avant-garde and his movement toward a more "socially relevant art," which would synthesize modernist and classical styles. The third theme follows Rivera's development as a muralist. The final section explores the vast range of Rivera's art in the last four decades of his life, in which he produced a dazzling array of work and employed styles, according to Robinson's introduction, "ranging from surrealist-inspired fantasy to the monumental, hieratic simplicity of pre-conquest Indian art."

The exhibition is designed to draw attention from the standard obsessions with Rivera's political interests, personal life, and a narrow view of his work as a muralist, and to shed light instead on the earlier work and the process he developed of assimilating and transforming artistic styles and techniques. For example, rather than promote the accepted view that Rivera "abandoned" cubism, the exhibition traces "his use of the planar, geometric structures of cubism in composing his later murals and scenes of Mexican life," writes Robinson.

"I think Rivera was considered a traitor," says Robinson, because he appeared to have "abandoned cubism and gone back to work for low wages in murals. Supporters of cubism worked to destroy his reputation. There's a very different view of his work from Europe than the Americas."

Rivera had indeed come to believe that cubism as an art form was only accessible to artistic cogniscenti; a view that was influenced at the time by his conversations with Mexican and Russian expatriate revolutionaries in Paris. They urged him to find a "more collective and social" art. At this time he was also greatly influenced by the work of Cézanne and Ingres, and eventually joined other artists in a Paris exhibition that trumpeted their work as "modern classicism." He traveled to Italy where he sketched medieval and Renaissance frescoes - - which he believed ended his search for a "monumental, public art capable of persuading and educating the masses."

Mexico in 1921 had just emerged from a protracted and bloody revolution. Rivera was also at a turning point artistically, tired of France and Italy, tempted by its political climate to go to Russia, but yearning for home. As he put it in My Art, My Life, the autobiography written with Gladys March,"The call of my country was stronger than ever. And a turn in the political situation seemed to favor my prospects ... . An artist with my revolutionary point of view could now find a place in Mexico -- a place in which to work and grow ... .the exile was coming home."

Mexico's new leader, President Obregon, supported the notion of free universal education. To further his project, his Minister of Education recruited artists to create murals in public buildings -- works of art that would promote his educational programs, "rehabilitate" the indigenous Indian race, and integrate the peasants into mainstream Mexican society. In 1923 Rivera embarked on his second project for the government, a cycle of murals for the Ministry of Public Education. He used styles and subjects inspired by his travels in Mexico, and employed the technique of the true fresco -- understood by Europeans and ancient Mayans alike -- using earth, rather than commercial pigments, applied on wet plaster. "I had the ambition," Rivera writes, "to reflect the genuine essential expression of the land. I wanted my pictures to mirror the social life of Mexico as I see it, and through the reality and arrangement of the present, the masses were to be shown the possibilities of the future."

Although Rivera's cubist period is dismissed as a lapse by some, other scholars maintain that it is impossible to overestimate its importance to Rivera's later work.

"…Everything about the movement fascinated and intrigued me," Rivera writes. "It was a revolutionary movement, questioning everything that had previously been said and done in art. ... cubism broke down forms as they had been seen for centuries, and was creating out of the fragments new forms, new objects, new patterns and -- ultimately -- new worlds. When it dawned on me that all this innovation had little to do with real life, I would surrender all the glory and acclaim cubism had brought me for a way in art truer to my inmost feelings."

Despite this apparent disillusion, Bertram D. Wolfe, contents in his book, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, that Rivera regarded cubism "as the most important experience in the formation of his art."

The exhibition also traces Rivera's role in the anti- modernist reaction in France during World War I, and the relationship between his art and the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

Massive and ambitious in scope, Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution suggests new interpretations of specific works and revised perspectives on the totality of his contribution. Indeed, its grand scale seems to mirror the man himself -- an artist whose near-mythic life force and prolific output never slowed, even toward the end of his life. Suffering from a recurrence of cancer in the mid- 1950s, following the death of his third wife, the artist Frida Kahlo, he returned to Mexico from Moscow, where he had been treated for the disease. Surrounded by family and friends, he contemplated his tumultuous personal life, his contribution to art, and his feelings toward existence. Faced with these mysteries, he returned at length to the heart of the matter. He writes, "Right now, my fingers and I are literally itching to start work on my next mural."

Robin Herbst is a writer in Annapolis, Maryland.

The Cleveland Museum of Art received $100,000 from the Endowment to help produce "Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution," along with a catalog and public programs on the exhibition.