Saint Diego

The Cleveland Museum of Art's retrospective proves that Diego Rivera mastered more than murals.

V.S. Pritchett, England's recently deceased dean of letters, once said that the Iberian ego tends to skip the middle ground and go right for the big picture. This, it might be argued, is precisely what Diego Rivera did in his gigantic murals that glorified "The People" and connected contemporary Mexico with its pre-Columbian past. Pritchett qualified his remark by saying that the Iberian preference for "the all" should not be seen as a vulnerability to Communist ideology, but rather as an interest in what happens when many separate lives are stitched together.

If most commentary on Rivera focuses on the first part of Pritchett's statement--the sweeping generalization--the current retrospective at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution, focuses on the subtle qualification that follows. In so doing, it challenges the stereotype of Rivera as an inexhaustible muralist who had a soft spot for Lenin and Stalin. Rather, this collection of more than one hundred works on canvas and paper, executed between 1899 and 1957, introduces us to an artist who isolated and then recast the idiosyncrasies and quirks that made people and objects irreducibly themselves. It argues persuasively for a Rivera who sought the universal by exploring the particular.

The exhibit is a collaboration between the CMA and Mexico's Instituto de Bellas Artes, but the suspicion that this many cooks would overseason the broth proves unfounded. The combined Mexican and American perspectives provide, not academic revisionism run amok, but a rare opportunity to see what can happen when intelligence and teamwork are brought to bear on an ambitious project. Basically, there are two ways to pull off a retrospective of a famous artist's work: with little fanfare and great faith in the public's taste, or with little faith in the public's taste and great fanfare. It is a tribute to these joined forces that they render this distinction moot: The spotlight is placed squarely on Rivera, and this exhibit is as unpredictable and mercurial as the artist who once proclaimed that, just as a tree fulfilled its destiny by producing flowers and fruit, he fulfilled his by painting.

Unpredictable definitely is the word to describe Rivera's forays into surrealism. Some of these paintings are as wicked and wacky as a Marx Brothers gag. For example, one series of paintings is based on the "radish sculptures" created by peasant vendors in an annual radish festival in Oaxaca. Vegetables have never looked less edible; one is reminded of the old lady on the Letterman show who owned a potato chip factory and spent her free time searching for malformed chips that looked like Richard Nixon. In "The Temptation of Saint Anthony," an oil painting done in 1947, Rivera turns the radish ritual into a riot of sprouting, bulbous, pink forms, with nary a straight line to be found anywhere. Nature is alive, and vegetables are fond of sex, he seems to say. The thought of Fantasia as directed by Rivera intrigues; one suspects, however, that his anthropomorphic vegetables and fauna would never have gotten past the Hollywood censors.

By contrast, works like "Post War," a 1942 tempera on masonite, distill a sense of human anguish into craggy, tree-like forms. Shorn of all foliage, these withered trunks and branches nevertheless suggest the curve of a hip, the outline of a breast, the crook of a misshapen elbow. The eerie woman whose outline is thus suggested has mangled and outsized hands, which recall the grotesqueries of Picasso's withering anti-war works. The savagery of that master's "Guernica" is not far off, and the women in that famous work, who extend their enormous hands toward an unseen viewer, are distant cousins of Rivera's tree-woman.

It's Rivera's cubist works, though, that serve as the soul of this exhibit. CMA's associate curator of painting, William H. Robinson, successfully persuades us to see these works afresh, and from that point on, it's impossible to view Rivera as the one-theme artist some of his admirers have made him out to be. Robinson's essay in the catalog accompanying this exhibit is required reading for anyone wondering if this show is really as essential as its organizers have suggested.

Briefly, Robinson argues that Rivera was drawn to cubism, not for its novel technical features and its association with the European avant-garde, but because he sincerely believed that cubist principles could help him to explore his deepest feelings about Mexico. For Rivera, cubism was not just about the reduction of forms into their geometrical subcomponents; it was a style which, in his hands, was a vehicle for the fusion of European modernism and the indigenous Mexican culture to which he was so devoted.

"Zapatista Landscape--The Guerrilla," a spare and angular cubist work executed in 1915, was once described by Rivera as the work that represented his most faithful rendering of the Mexican spirit. In the context of this exhibit, whose curators have featured "Zapatista Landscape" on the cover of their lavishly illustrated and meticulously researched catalog, Rivera's claim is finally substantiated. The Mexican iconography--the sombrero, the rifle, the dry desert mountainside--provides the essential backdrop. But what really stands out is how the profusion of angles and perspectives creates a prismatic effect, akin to how one might view a sculpture in the round, pausing every few moments to absorb a new vantage point. Since, in this oil painting, only the rifle has been left in one piece, perhaps Rivera is suggesting a rifle shot by ellipsis--maybe even the shot that started the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Rivera denies the viewer the moment of impact, but the force of the shot resonates throughout the canvas, and the results are suggested by the dispersed forms. Here, in one work, revolutionary politics and revolutionary aesthetic principles are joined.

Less radical but no less groundbreaking are Rivera's portraits, works notable both for their sensitivity to the personalities of their subjects and for the way they employ geographic settings to play off those personalities. A case in point is Rivera's 1913 oil painting "Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard," considered the masterpiece of Rivera's early career. Adolfo, a painter himself, is standing on a Parisian ledge, with the Montparnasse train station and a Ferris wheel in the background. Adolfo, who's been elongated in the style of El Greco, assumes a dandyish pose, oblivious to the smoke and industrial activity behind him. The Ferris wheel echoes the shape of billowing smoke just to the right of his elbow and also the shape of his head and the curve of his cane. Rivera, in this manner, seems to link Adolfo with an environment that his subject wants no part of. The two men clearly are at cross-purposes on the subject of modernity.

Along with his artistic contemporaries, Rivera also painted his share of models, creating portraits that were less concerned with philosophical issues than they were with the texture of hair, the turn of a lip, or the position of a pair of hands. Everyone will rave about Rivera's portrait of his second wife, Lupe Marin, but don't miss the one he did of adolescent model Delfina Flores. Although only about fifteen years old when Rivera executed this portrait in 1938--and despite her traditional Mexican dress and blouse--Flores stares at us like one of Gauguin's Tahitian women, and Rivera delights in every square inch of her face and body. Sophisticated and primitive all at once, this girl is like some mythical Mexican goddess. No wonder she was one of Rivera's favorite models.

Though this exhibit purposefully downplays Rivera's murals, it doesn't ignore them. For instance, Art and Revolution includes several preparatory pencil-and-chalk studies, all done in 1942 for the mural called "Purepecha Civilization." These studies introduce us to Rivera, the meticulous craftsman and the diligent master of Renaissance theories of perspective. A series of sketches of hands at rest, done in anticipation of the mural called "Creation," achieves a life beyond the confines of its original intended function. Sensitive modeling allied with a plastic approach to the articulation of form are the salient qualities of these studies, which stand alone without apology, even though they were meant only as rough drafts.

In his best work, Rivera combined an interest in political and philosophical truths--"the all," to use Pritchett's term--with a devotion to the details which gave that "all" a feel for the essential rhythms of life. By placing these joint interests in high relief and by showing how Rivera adopted revolutionary aesthetic theories to do them justice, this retrospective boldly calls for a reappraisal of the controversial artist's contribution to twentieth-century art. Rivera was far more than a muralist, and Art and Revolution shows us why.

Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution, through May 2 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard, 216-421-7340.

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