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Diego Rivera / Art & Revolution

Myth and Mystique

Art, politics and celebrity were mainstays of Rivera's path. With an intellectual fervor and an international following, he deftly drew upon those passions to transform his homeland and his work.

May 24, 1999|LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With an apropos title of "Art & Revolution," the Diego Rivera exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will open Sunday. Though the seeds for Rivera's revolutionary ideals were planted as a young man in his native land, his ideas as a mature artist blossomed from 1921-1930, a period of history coined by some as the Mexican Renaissance.

It was an era when art, culture and civic society were slowly blooming after a decade of war and destitution. Indeed, the country's artists played a forceful role in its fruition. "It was a fascinating time for Mexico because basically it was the construction of a new country after the Revolution," said Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, who has extensively chronicled that era and its major figures. "And the muralist movement was what attracted a lot of people to Mexico."

With the support of the Mexican government, muralists set about to change the concept of art from a bourgeois aesthetic ideal to an educational tool with a decidedly communist message for the masses to view in public buildings.

The movement centered around three men who came to be known as Los Tres Grandes: Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and, at the center of it all, Diego Maria Rivera--the irrepressible force who spent his adult life moving in lofty artistic, political and social circles.

Born in 1886, Rivera was a child prodigy who began attending the national school of art at the age of 11. By the time he was 20, his talent had won him government stipends to study in Spain, which would turn into a 14-year European odyssey.

When he finally settled again in Mexico in 1921, Rivera became attached to the early mural movement. Though his European studies had initially been made possible by the regime of the dictator Porfirio Diaz, Rivera was committed to the ideals of the Revolution and he would spend much of his life as a communist, embracing the struggles of the common people.

But Rivera made his reputation in Mexico by looking out for himself, and he had a fractious relationship both with the Communist Party and his artist colleagues. So, perhaps the biggest conflict of Rivera's life was not the external battle to marry art and social conscience, but the internal struggle between his egalitarian beliefs and the selfish, outsized ego that demanded attention--and often found it by courting celebrity and controversy.

This was, after all, a man whose first biographer could title his tome "The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera" and not be accused of hyperbole.

Rivera's escapades would find him among a cross-section of the most powerful and celebrated political, artistic and intellectual personalities of the 20th century. He mingled with Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, the Fords and Rockefellers, Sergei Eisenstein and Leon Trotsky, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, Leopold Stokowski, Aaron Copland, Georgia O'Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Helen Wills Moody, Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, to name a few.

Celebrity status followed Rivera unlike any artist of that era. The opening for his 1931 retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art was attended by Edward G. Robinson, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, Paul Robeson, John Hay Whitney, the Henry Luces and the William Paleys.

Then there was the artist's prolific love life--dalliances with movie stars on both sides of the border (Goddard and Dolores Del Rio), and five marriages, including two tumultuous unions with Frida Kahlo, the first of which ended after Rivera's affair with her sister.

In short, Diego Rivera was the prototypical Art Star.

A Stature Matched by His Personality

Among the muralists, Rivera stood out as the most charismatic, passionate figure, successfully crafting his own mystique. A rotund man of "elephantine" size, possessing toad-like facial features with protruding brown eyes and small teeth, Rivera was not particularly handsome. But his vigor, wit, intelligence and passion for art and politics created an electrifying aura.

"Part of his charm was his sense of humor," said his daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marin, in a telephone interview from her home in Mexico City. "He had a very strong personality. Some of his friends told me that when he was angry, he became so ferocious, cackling like a hyena, that he truly terrified people."

In addition to his strong presence, Rivera's popularity also came from the impressive group of friends he and his second wife, Guadalupe Marin, came to know in Mexico City from 1923-29.

Alone, their individual stories are phenomenal. As a group, they became legends, forming part of what was called the "radical salon." Experimenting with newly found freedom and a passion for socialist ideals, the group would eventually disband amid all the elements of a fantastic novel: treachery, deceit, murder, adoration and love.

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