Mexican patriot sharpened his art in France

French cubism helped Diego Rivera put his nationalism into his paintings


April 18, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Diego Maria Rivera is remembered as one of the towering figures in the school of Mexican mural painters who helped forge a new national identity for their country after the revolution of 1910-20.

In the 1920s, Rivera, along with such contemporaries as David Sequeiros and Jose Clemente Orozco, created large-scale public murals to enlist popular support for the new republican government's programs. In doing so, they married the venerable art of fresco painting with a highly expressive modernist language that embodied the revolutionary spirit of their times.

But before Rivera took up the revolution's cause in Mexico, he had spent more than a decade in Europe, where he studied the Old Masters and became intimately acquainted with Picasso and Braque's experiments with cubism, a style that for a time he would adopt as his own.

Now Rivera's cubist paintings, many of which were executed in Paris between 1912 and 1915, are the subject of an illuminating exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The show brings together about 30 paintings, collages and works on paper that trace the evolution of Rivera's art during a critical phase of his development.

French influences

As a young man, Rivera had already revealed himself as an artist of prodigious talent. Born in 1886 to middle-class parents in Guanajuato, Mexico, he was enrolled in the national school of fine arts in Mexico City at the age of 12, and on completion of his degree in 1907 he was awarded a government stipend to continue his studies in Europe.

Rivera spent two years in Spain, then embarked on travels that took him to Paris, London and Belgium.

Settling in Paris in 1912, Rivera developed a personal interpretation of cubism that drew on his memories of Mexico as well as motifs from his studio, Parisian landmarks, portraits of his friends and images from his frequent travels to Spain.

Rivera's 1913 portrait of his fellow Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard, for example, shows the artist's friend as a fashionably dressed dandy around whose elegantly gloved hand the Great Ferris Wheel in the background, built for the 1900 Paris World's Fair, seems to revolve.

The portrait of Maugard does not yet show the highly faceted surfaces characteristic of cubism, which are implied rather than depicted in the grid-like structures of the balcony railing before which Maugard stands and in the apartment buildings, train station and houses behind him.

But another painting from that year, The Woman at the Well, already reveals how deeply Rivera had absorbed the influence of Picasso and Braque. The image, inspired by a visit to Toledo in Spain, where Rivera had admired the works of El Greco, depicts a woman drawing water in faceted planes of color that suggest the forms of her body and the heavy earthenware jugs she carries.

Rivera inserts his own memories of Mexico into the image with the colorful parrot near the top of the painting and through the shape of the water jugs, which resemble ancient Mexican pottery.

A similar blend of European and Mexican themes emerged in Rivera's portrait the next year of Lithuanian sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. Rivera breaks up the picture plane into monochromatic facets that describe the artist's face, torso and hands, but also inserts into the composition the striped pattern of the colorful serapes worn by Mexican peasants.

The motif of the serape, which would become a hallmark of Rivera's cubist works, symbolically wraps Lipchitz in Rivera's own Mexican identity, while the gridded facets of the composition are also a reference to Mondrian, whose studio was in the same building as Rivera's.

After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, Rivera briefly took refuge in Spain, where he painted several works expressing his sympathy for the French cause and his growing awareness of the deteriorating political situation in Mexico.

In Eiffel Tower, executed in Madrid in 1914, Rivera depicts the Parisian landmark together with the Ferris Wheel as emblems of French culture and modernity, along with the blue, white and red of the French flag in the background. The tricolor motif is repeated in the bars on a building in the right foreground, but this time it is the green, white and red of Mexico's national colors.

Layered memories

Rivera returned to Paris in 1915 and began a series of still lifes that reflected his growing affinity with the collage-like forms of synthetic cubism. Earlier he had written of his efforts "to achieve new textures and tactile effects by mixing substances like sand and sawdust in oils."

Rivera's still lifes from this period are poignant images expressing his sense of loss for Paris' bohemian community during the war as well as his growing Mexican nationalism.

It was during this period that he painted his Zapatista Landscape, a powerful melding of forms that include a sombrero, serape, rifle and cartridge belt amid a stark mountain landscape set in the Valley of Mexico.

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