“Diego Rivera’s America” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Diego Rivera, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Irene Rich (1941), oil on canvas, 24 x 17″; courtesy Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), Northampton, MA
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The passage of time can be a merciless arbiter of reputation. Fashions evolve, sometimes double-back, and often peter out altogether. This is as true for art as it is for haute couture. Live long enough, and you’ll see how quickly The Next Big Thing turns into tomorrow’s Never Was, how this morning’s outrage de-evolves into this evening’s commonplace. All of which is worth taking into account when considering the fortunes of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957). 

Dial back the clock fifty- to seventy-years ago, and you’d discover that even the most cursory student of art would have recognized Rivera’s name. He was a star, a hard-charging bigger-than-life talent whose work was sought after by Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller and other captains of industry. A luminary amongst luminaries, Rivera counted among his friends Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Fernand Leger and Chaim Soutine, and served as a link between the avant-garde and the Americas. He was passionate about politics, forever siding with the proletariado at the expense of any coherent social philosophy. And his ego! Forget fools: Rivera suffered no one gladly. His squabbles with all and sundry–the Soviet Union no less than the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, an organization predicated on a woolly brand of occultism–were the stuff of legend. Rivera played life to the hilt. The world paid attention.

But that was then, and this is 2022. Though Rivera isn’t unknown to contemporary audiences, his personality and accomplishments have been overshadowed by those of his wife, Frida Kahlo. Like Rivera, Kahlo was no stranger to celebrity culture, having famously posed for a 1937 photo-spread in Vogue. Still, no one could have predicted the extent of Kahlo’s fame almost seventy years after her death. Movies, books, exhibitions, umbrellas, restaurants, coffee cups and plush-dolls–how hasn’t that legendary unibrow been marketed? The beneficiary of historical revisionism and globalist outreach, Kahlo has become a ubiquitous and, for some, empowering figure–so much so, that not a few wags nowadays refer to Rivera as “Mr. Frida Kahlo.”

Diego Rivera’s America, a traveling exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is unlikely to stem the tide of Frida-mania. Still, it should do much to re-confirm Rivera’s place in the cultural firmament. Guest curator James Oles, a professor of art history at Wellesley College and a specialist in Latin American Art, has set a scholarly eye on Rivera’s “utopian belief in the power of art.” The exhibition focuses on a 25-year period of Rivera’s output spanning, roughly, from the 1920s through the ’40s.  Not coincidentally, this time-frame captures Rivera at the height of his powers. It was during this phase, Oles writes, that the artist “reimagined Mexican national identity on a vast scale, embraced the industrial age in the United States, and conceived of a greater America in which unity, rather than division was paramount.” 

Diego Rivera, The Flower Carrier (1935), oil and tempera on masonite, 48 x 47-3/4″; courtesy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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Oles has a significant collection to cull from: SFMOMA boasts among the world’s largest holdings of Rivera’s art. Along with loans from private institutions and public collections, America includes more than 150 pieces in a variety of media. Art historical staples like The Flower Carrier (1935) and Self-Portrait (1941) will be seen in conjunction with a host of preparatory studies, a smattering of documentary objects, and canvases that have rarely been on public display. 

Context is provided by the inclusion of work by Rivera’s peers, including photographs by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and paintings by, yes, Frida Kahlo. Three galleries are devoted to video projections of murals done in Mexico and the United States. SFMOMA is touting America as the largest Rivera retrospective in over twenty years. Oles does the museum one better, claiming that the oeuvre hasn’t been as fully accounted for since 1949, the year Rivera was feted with a retrospective at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Whatever the case, the point is clear: America is a big deal.

The artist christened Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez was born in Guanajuato City, a municipality located in Central Mexico. His parents were affluent; his twin brother, dead at age two. Rivera showed artistic promise as a toddler, scrawling upon the walls of the family home. As it turned out, he was something of a prodigy: Rivera was accepted to the prestigious Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City at age 10. He worked with Santiago Rubill, a former student of Ingres, and, one feels, a decisive influence. Rivera’s skills garnered notice: the governor of Veracruz sponsored a European sojourn for the young artist to further his education.

It was during his stays in Spain and, especially, France that Rivera was transformed every which way. How could he not be? Paris, especially, was a hothouse of creative–indeed, revolutionary–fervor. Rivera absorbed the lessons of early Modernism with an enthusiasm that was nothing short of rapacious. He explored a variety of approaches, Post-Impressionism and Cubism in particular, and proved a deft hand at all of them. José Vasconcelos, Mexico’s newly installed Minister of Education, managed to woo Rivera back home, eager to have him take part in an ambitious new program for public painting. It is at this point in Rivera’s life that America begins the accounting of one artist’s attempt to (pace the catalogue) “radically transform the world.” 

Back home, Rivera immersed himself in indigenous cultures, reveling in the people and paying homage to their traditions. In the sections of America titled “South to Tehuantepec” and “Daily Life”, we see Rivera depicting ordinary folk and everyday rituals all the while keying into a distinctly local range of colors. His palette took on a cast indicative of the surrounding landscape and climate. Dance in Tehuantepec and Tehuana (Aurea Procel) (both 1928) are suffused with ripe variations on orange and red, as well as exhibiting a fidelity to native costumery of forbidding complexity. Works like Pneumatic Drill (1931) and Hombre Fumando (1937) evince an eye as attuned to the documentary as it was prone to the exaggerations of caricature. Mexico’s people, Rivera intimates, are of the earth and, as such, immovable.

Rivera’s approach to form became increasingly concrete and weighted. The human figure was subjected to stylizations that hinted at Cubist precedent, but seem more inspired by the totemic effigies of Pre-Columbian cultures and artifacts from prehistory. The woman and child seen solemnly making their daily bread in La Tortillera (1926) are rendered with an uncanny sculptural fortitude. 

Diego Rivera, La Bordadora (1928), oil on canvas, 31-1/4 x 39″; courtesy The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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La bordadora (The Embroiderer) (1928)–a canvas as iconic in character, if not renown, as The Flower Carrier–is freighted by an almost Giottoesque stolidity, its two women having been wedged within the canvas to emphasize their mass. Monumentality had its symbolic functions: Woman with Calla Lilies (1945), with its mountainous effulgence of flowers, confirms the primacy of the natural world as well as our modest place in it.

Notwithstanding the circumscribed focus of the exhibition, America is wide-ranging in how it touches upon Rivera’s interests and accomplishments. His gifts as a draftsman are in abundant evidence, no more so than in Study for Germination [Tina Modotti] (1926), as nuanced an essay in sensuality as one could hope for. And although Rivera forever thumped the drum of social justice, he wasn’t without a sense of humor. Among the delights–and surprises!–of America is a suite of graphite and watercolor costume designs made for H.P. (Horsepower) (circa 1927-32), a ballet and symphony organized by the musician Carlos Chávez. With their unlikely amalgams of flora and fauna, Rivera divulges a Surrealist bent and a welcome air of whimsy. 


Rivera’s murals, by definition, are less amenable to travel, but a number of working drawings are on display–including a pair of gouache and graphite pieces featuring colorful and compartmentalized designs for the Paramount Theater. And towards the end of the exhibition, you’ll find Self-Portrait, in which the artist, surrounded by a field of luminous yellow, holds a note written in Spanish to the woman who commissioned the painting, actress Irene Rich. Clearly, Rivera’s political leanings didn’t override his communing with the rich and famous. Indeed, anyone familiar with Rivera the man knows that he was far too contradictory a creature to serve as a coherent role model for contemporary activists. But the artist? As Diego Rivera’s America makes plain, he’s a figure worth tussling with–the vagaries of reputation be damned.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the July 2022 edition of Art & Antiques.

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