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by Margarita Nieto

(Los Angeles County Museum of Art, West Hollywood) This century has been full of sacred monsters, monsters whose zest and lust reached out to all of the delicious morsels scattered here and there by explosive ruptures of form and thought labeled cubism, atonality, stream-of-consciousness psychology and phenomenology. Some are so familiar that their names have become axioms for their time--Picasso of course, the most recognized name of any painter of the twentieth century, Stravinsky, Eliot and Joyce all come to mind. And their familiarity comes about because of the world that they inhabited and our romantic, nostalgic connections with it. Paris. For with the exception of Eliot, Paris was the touchstone for their creative endeavors.

An enormous sacred monster as well, Diego Rivera sought the beginnings of his long and illustrous career there also, as this exhibition demonstrates. Yet, the intense pull of his Mexican homeland, the circumstances of his time and the ultimate challenge of creating an “art for the people” would ultimately modify his aesthetic direction, forever associating his name with only one of his many facets.

The show is divided into four thematic constructs that taken together stress the international development of Rivera’s work. The first traces Rivera’s relationship with the Spanish and French avant garde, departing from his academic training in Mexico. The second illustrates his involvement with the classic modernist styles of the Parisian avant-garde. The third presents his signature mural work. And lastly there is an overview of the variety of subjects explored during the last four decades of his life. Diego Rivera Mexican muralist becomes, through this exhibition, Diego Rivera, the twentieth century modernist from Mexico. Through masterful drawings, paintings and works on paper, the references to this are particularly evident in his cubist works, while others reflect the influence of Cézanne and Renoir among others.

Rivera’s encounter with cubism was not a straightforward issue, as Ramón Favela has pointed out. Arriving in Paris in 1901, two years after coming to Europe, his awareness of cubism developed only after 1911, shortly after participating in the Salon de la Société des Artistes Francaises and after a brief visit to Mexico. Once awakened to its possibilities, and for him that meant searching for mathematical ratios as well as studies of color and light within the planes and dimensions of the surface, he spent five years, from 1913 to 1917, producing cubist works. In contrast to Picasso’s characteristic neutral backgrounds, his search for solutions in Two Women [1914], as Robinson notes, leads to an enhancement of the psychological world of the figures through the incorporation of the buildings against which they appear.

Diego Rivera, "Zapatista
Landscape (The Guerilla),"
o/c, 145 x 125 cm, 1915.

“The Tortilla Maker,”
o/c, 43 x 36”, 1926.
Photo courtesy the University
of California, San Francisco.

"The House of Vizcaya,"
o/c, 90 x 110.5 cm, 1907.
Photo courtesy of the collection
of Galerias A. Cristobal.

"Portrait of Guadalupe Marín,"
o/c, 67 3/4 x 47 1/4", 1938.
Photo: Javier Hinojosa.
Courtesy of the Museo
de Arte Moderno, Mexico

"Dancer," o/c, 59 1/2 x 49 1/2",
1947. Courtesy Indiana University
Art Museum, Bloomington, gift
of Samuel and Cecile Stone.

In 1915, after incurring the scorn of Spanish critics as part of a group show dedicated to cubism, Rivera returned to Paris to find a world turned upside down by the Great War. His stipend from Mexico had also been cut off and it is in this harsh environment created by poverty and horror that he painted what is probably his first major masterpiece, Zapatista Landscape, utilizing a trompe l’oeil realism, cubism and a unique iconography. Shattering the strict monochomatic fomalism of the cubist aesthetic, this work abounds with textures ranging from scratchy surfaces, incising, and fibers. Depth and perception are resolved through an interplay between rectilinear and circular forms. The result is a “heretical’ work by virtue a bright palette that is intelligent, powerful and humorous as well, particularly with the playful addition of a blank piece of paper nailed to the corner, a reference to Zubarán for some, and for others, a hom-age to the anonymous ex-voto tradition.

But these forays into the aesthetic directions of his European years only reveal the nature of this sacred monster. His energy and vitality subsequently moved on to other spaces, to other experiments. Certainly Mexico, in the twenties and thirties, became one of the most dynamic centers for creative experimentation in the world.

The long-standing relationship between European art to Latin American art (initiated in 1521) is tacit in this exhibition. For the familiar Rivera--the nationalist, the polemicist, and the muralist--can finally be seen for what he is: A great artist who, like those other sacred monsters, is the result of a conscious understanding of the aesthetics of his time.