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Diego Rivera / ART & REVOLUTION

Let the Revolution Begin

The new retrospective at LACMA shows Rivera as Cubist and Surrealist, an innovator in forms far different from his well-known mural images.

May 24, 1999|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

"Diego Rivera: Art & Revolution." Get it? Probably not. The title of the exhibition opening Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art may seem perfectly obvious, but it doesn't mean what you might think.

Rivera, who was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1886 and died in Mexico City in 1957, rose to the pinnacle of the Mexican muralist movement in the 1920s and early '30s. Creating a new iconography based on socialist ideas and the indigenous heritage of Mexican culture, he overshadowed his extraordinarily talented but less politic and less flexible compatriots David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco, so he is inevitably linked to images that espouse ideals of the Mexican Revolution.

But when the curators came up with a name for the Rivera show, they had another revolution in mind--the aesthetic upheaval that led to Modern art.

"We weren't thinking about the Mexican Revolution," said Luis-Martin Lozano, an independent curator based in Mexico City 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 curatorial team wanted to prove that Rivera was a revolutionary figure not only in terms of his leftist politics and murals but also in many other aspects of his long artistic career. Generally relegated to the ranks of social realists, Rivera is "in need of serious reassessment," Lozano said. So he and his colleagues set out to explore the complex relationship between the revolutionary aesthetics and radical politics in Rivera's art throughout the full run of his career.

The result is a survey of about 100 paintings, drawings and prints, ranging from youthful academic work to utopian visions of world peace, painted during his final years. The murals are represented by sketches, details of figures and cartoons. But the bulk of the work on display was done by "the other Rivera"--the relatively little-known artist who was deeply involved with the European avant-garde and established himself as a Cubist before he ever painted murals. That Rivera also immersed himself in Surrealism and portraiture after his career as a political muralist wound down.

The range of styles and subject matter on display will surely surprise visitors who know Rivera only as a muralist who spread the gospel of socialism on public walls in Mexico and the United States--as well as those who mainly know him as the husband of artist Frida Kahlo, who posthumously rode the wave of feminism all the way to stardom in the 1970s and still has a devoted following.

But just as the show isn't about the Mexican Revolution or Rivera's murals, neither is it about Kahlo, who was only one of four women he married or called his wife, amid a parade of liaisons. "He has never been, nor will he ever be, anybody's husband," Kahlo wrote in a statement about Rivera shortly before her death in 1954. Indeed, Rivera's life as a freewheeling ladies' man has been so compellingly chronicled that it can be difficult to separate his persona from his art.

Rivera occasionally included images of Kahlo in his murals, but he is said to have made only one easel painting of her--a small portrait acquired by LACMA with the Bernard and Edith Lewin collection of Mexican modern art. Though the portrait is not in the traveling show, it will be added during the Los Angeles engagement. Other works from the Lewin collection will be displayed on the third floor of the Anderson building, as a complement to the Rivera exhibition in the Hammer wing.

Unlikely as it might seem, the exhibition sprouted from an alliance between the Mexican government and the state of Ohio, initially concerned with trade but later extended to include the arts. In 1996, when the Ohio Arts Council sent a show of American art, "Visions of America," to the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City proposed a Rivera show in exchange.

As the idea took shape, the Mexican National Council for Culture and Arts joined forces with the Cleveland Museum of Art, in partnership with the Ohio Arts Council. From the beginning, Cleveland curator Robinson said, the organizers hoped to send the show to California and Texas, which have large Latino populations. The exhibition opened in Cleveland in February; after closing in Los Angeles on Aug. 16, it will travel to 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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