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The Painter Behind the Icon

So you think you know Diego Rivera's work? Think again, as a show at LACMA views the Mexican artist's conflicted legacy.

May 23, 1999|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Diego Rivera is Mexico's most famous artist, but that isn't the half of it. Forty-two years after his death--at a moment when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is preparing to open a major traveling retrospective exhibition, "Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution"--his powerful artwork and magnetic aura still loom so large that his country tends to be seen in terms of his imagery.

In Mexico, where Rivera became the most visible leader of the revolutionary muralist movement--and thus is identified with the revolution itself--his work appears on everything from public buildings to children's schoolbooks. Elsewhere, his reputation has suffered somewhat as a result of shifting politics, artistic tastes and the machinations of the art market. Nonetheless, he is widely recognized as the quintessential Mexican artist.

Yet Rivera's status as a national icon has marginalized his artistic legacy. As Mexican and American scholars agree, Diego Rivera the mythological Mexican giant has dwarfed Diego Rivera the real cosmopolitan Modernist--a hard-working artist who was part of the European avant-garde long before he painted murals and whose signature work is a synthesis of many different styles and cultural influences.

Attempting to set the record straight--or at least present a more complete picture of Rivera's artistic evolution than the popular snapshot offers--the exhibition of about 100 paintings, drawings and prints tracks the artist's aesthetic evolution, illuminates his formal achievements and places his work in the context of international art history.

"This is not about Diego Rivera as muralist," said Luis-Martin Lozano, a Mexico City-based independent curator who organized the show with William H. Robinson, associate curator of paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Agustin Arteaga, director of the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. The point, Lozano said, is to build a broader understanding of the artist who is known by art specialists for fusing Renaissance, Modernist and Mexican styles in his own brand of social realism--and by tourists for ambitious public projects, such as frescoes depicting a compressed history of Mexico at the National Palace in Mexico City.

Traveling under the auspices of Mexico's National Council for Culture and the Arts (through the National Institute of Fine Arts) and the Cleveland Museum of Art, in partnership with the Ohio Arts Council, the show opened in Cleveland in February. After leaving Los Angeles, it will appear at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (Sept. 19-Nov. 28) and the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City (Dec. 17-March 19).

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Rivera, who lived from 1886 to 1957, has long been a source of controversy and scholarly debate. During his lifetime, conservatives denounced his mix of art with social commentary, while leftists reviled his "bourgeois" infatuation with folk themes and his willingness to work for wealthy capitalist clients. Today, art historians argue about whether he was a Modernist or a Classicist, and whether he was an innovator or a reinterpreter of Cubism.

In addition, Rivera muddied many issues concerning his life and art by making contradictory statements or inventing his own history of his artistic evolution. A notorious, self-aggrandizing yarn spinner, he told so many tall tales about himself that his contemporary biographer, Bertram Wolfe, despaired of finding truth in a "labyrinth of fables." The beat goes on in a recent biography, "Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera," in which author Patrick Marnham devotes a considerable amount of space to debunking Rivera mythology.

Among the farfetched stories in the artist's autobiography--written with Gladys March and published in 1960, three years after his death--is a claim that he was a military-strategy prodigy who briefly joined the Mexican army at age 11. He also claimed that his study of art in Mexico City included a course on human anatomy at a medical school, where he restricted himself to a diet of human flesh for two months. Women's legs and breasts were delicacies, he wrote, but he particularly relished "women's brains in vinaigrette."

This sort of thing adds spice to the study of art history. But fame fanned by a fabulous imagination has its downside. In the case of Rivera, his celebrity has focused attention on one aspect of his work--the murals--and created a popular two-dimensional image of an extraordinarily complex character who embodied as many different facets as his relatively little-known Cubist paintings.

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