Diego Rivera | Art and Revolution

Flower Day [1925], oil, 57 7/8 x 47 1/4, courtesy the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA.,painting, southwest art.
Flower Day [1925], oil, 57 7/8 x 47 1/4, courtesy the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA

By Stephen May

The exhibition Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution, organized by the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes through the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, features 120 works by Mexico’s most famous artist. The exhibit is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA, May 30 through August 2; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, September 19 through November 28; and the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, December 17 through March 19, 2000.

Colorful, controversial, sophisticated, and complex, Diego Rivera developed a larger-than-life persona that was well suited to the paintings of great ambition and compelling power that became his life’s work. Seeking to advance revolutionary ideals, promote social justice, and create a national popular art, Rivera incorporated both Mexican and European influences into his idiosyncratic, folkloric style.

Fed by his notorious political views and turbulent personal life, Rivera’s art often scandalized contemporary viewers. Today, however, his work appears relatively benign and of enduring importance. Indeed, the bold colors and simple, monumental forms that he designed to appeal to Mexico’s masses turn out to have universal appeal and strength more than four decades after the artist’s death. This exhibition underscores the astute manner in which the Mexican firebrand fused the innovations of European modernism with motifs from his country’s own pre-Columbian past and indigenous people.

Postwar [1942], tempera on masonite, 76 3/8 x 47 5/8, courtesy Museo Casa Diego Rivera, INBA, Guanajuato, Mexico.,painting, southwest art.
Postwar [1942], tempera on masonite, 76 3/8 x 47 5/8, courtesy Museo Casa Diego Rivera, INBA, Guanajuato, Mexico.

Born into a liberal, middle-class family in Guanajuato, a town 170 miles northwest of Mexico City, Rivera [1886-1957] moved to the capitol city at age six and began formal art studies. Arriving in Spain in 1907 for what became a 14-year sojourn in Europe, Rivera studied the old masters at the Prado Museum in Madrid and plunged into experiments in symbolist-inspired modernism. After 1909, traveling exten-sively from his base in Paris, Rivera soaked up ideas ranging from the old masters to avant-garde styles and applied them in his own personal way. After he met Picasso, Leger, Modigliani, Chagall, Mondrian, and other modernist titans, Rivera’s art was transformed. His innovative, offbeat brand of Cubism, growing out of his non-European background, was much admired by his fellow artists and critics.

After returning to Mexico in 1921, Rivera set out to paint works for the masses, creating enormous murals reflecting the ideals of the recent Revolution. Traveling through the country, he undertook an intensive study of indigenous art and traditional culture and began amassing a large personal collection of pre-Columbian and folk art that figured into his later mural and easel paintings.

In the 1930s, soon after marrying the celebrated and notorious artist Frida Kahlo, Rivera became even more deeply immersed in political and social issues, both at home and in the United States. He created a number of frescoes in Detroit, New York, and San Francisco which had a significant impact on American social realist painters.

One section of the retrospective surveys the last four decades of the artist’s life, during which he created a variety of works featuring seemingly contra-dictory impulses, ranging from monu-mental realism to surrealistic fantasies. An ardent Marxist and social reformer, Rivera’s fascination with Mexico’s an-cient civilization was motivated by a desire to connect the na-tion’s pre-colonial past with the present and, in the process, to restore its margin-alized, native peoples to their rightful place in society. His effort to forge a new, multiracial national identity for Mexico resulted in a vast “portrait” of his homeland. Rivera utilized a simplified, pre-conquest Indian art style, for example, in works such as Flower Day, which emphasized the dignity of work and the folk customs and religious heritage of his people.

The nonpopulist side of Rivera’s personality, dedicated to sophisti-cated adaptation of 20th-century intellectual ideas, spawned a group of highly imaginary images. Postwar, for instance, shows a tree in the shape of a writhing woman’s body with a sword thrust into her heart. It apparently served as a metaphor for the suffering victims of World War II.

Also included in the exhibit is a group of images of Rivera’s friends and colleagues, high-lighted by the typ-ically large, lush, and expressive Portrait of Guadalupe Mar-in, one of Rivera’s favorite models, painted long after the end of their 1922-27 marriage. In his final years, Rivera completed numerous other strong portraits, figure studies, and paeans to Soviet communism before he died of heart failure in Mexico City in 1975.

Viewed in the final year of the century in which his work stirred both intense praise and violent condemnation, the simplified forms and vivid colors of this multifaceted superstar seem both enduring and endearing, suggesting that his work will play a continuing role in the cultural dialog between Mexico and America.

Featured in “In the Museums” June 1999