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Diego Rivera / ART & REVOLUTION

How Can One Follow in a Myth's Footsteps?

The glorification of Rivera ironically has lessened his impact on artists. After all, who'd want to be a mere reflection of the master?

May 24, 1999|YISHAI JUSIDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. Yishai Jusidman is a Mexican painter who also dabbles in criticism

Diego Rivera was, by all accounts, larger than life. He was a massive, extroverted man with a protruding belly, a fleshy mouth and goggle-eyes. Brilliantly gifted, he painted fast and big--and grew to be one of the best-known celebrities of his time. He was second after Matisse to have a one-person show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Rivera lived through a heroic epoch--the Mexican Revolution and both world wars--and even became a hero of sorts. He played Vulcan to Frida Kahlo's Venus. In short, he is a legend, a national symbol, the stuff movies are made of.

Rivera was mas grande than the other grandes of Mexican muralism--Orozco and Siqueiros--but not necessarily thanks to his painting. (I personally prefer Orozco's.) It's as clear as this: When you look at a Rivera mural as a Mexican does, you don't see the hand of the painter, but the hand of Destiny itself. Sounds overblown? So it is. But it's also very real. Schoolchildren from all over Mexico are religiously shepherded to learn the country's history from Rivera's candy-colored, picturesque frescoes on the walls of the National Palace in the heart of Mexico City.

The master didn't leave any disciples, though. No one could dare follow him, so far above mere mortals, even artists, he was made out to be. And so, four decades after his death, Rivera's work has become a three-star sight along with the monumental pyramids and churches that fill the archeological mausoleum of Mexico's past. But there was a price to be paid for Rivera's glorification, and this was that younger Mexican artists would no longer pay heed to him. For how would we even consider competing against, let alone emulating, a figure of such mythic proportions? Art, after all, is something that takes place among mortals.

I would have held on to my indifference toward Diego Rivera if it hadn't been for a visit to the recently restored 1929 Rivera-Kahlo studio in the chic San Angel barrio of Mexico City. The austere, Bauhaus-like studio designed by architect Juan O'Gorman is in itself a surprise: an unlikely international-flavored setup given its occupants' nationalistic concerns. What's more, there I came across an extraordinary woodcut that had been designed as an advertisement for an Andre Breton lecture in 1938. At that time, Mexico struck Breton as something of a Surrealist land; the French poet adopted Rivera as his local guide, and Rivera took every opportunity to return the honors.

The print in question is nothing one could have imagined as coming from the hand of the muralist master: a grotesque landscape-cum-face done in brutish graphic style, showing a "tree" made up by a brain from which arteries and veins sprout and take root in blood-filled glasses. While its title, "Communicating Vessels," refers to one of Breton's writings, I couldn't help but think of this image as predating, or predicting, certain scatological drawings of bad-boy extraordinaire Mike Kelley--done 50 years later and now in the vaults of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. Could there be a link, after all, between Don Diego and Young Mike? Well, that's a tough one. Kind of like trying to link Egyptian and pre-Columbian pyramids. Hmmm. . . .

'Greatest Pseudo-Sage and Storyteller'

But, come to think of it, Rivera was a pretty bad boy himself, although you cannot tell it from his better-known folksy murals and saccharine flower-seller paintings. Rivera wanted to portray himself as a renaissance genius, one whose painting would attest to his universal, all-encompassing intelligence. He had his nose (and his tongue) mixed up in everything, from art to politics to science. And, above it all, he was a consummate con man: astonishingly talented, innately seductive and astutely manipulative. Scholars and intellectuals from around the world gravitated toward Rivera when answers about Mexico were called for. By 1931, anthropologist Anita Brenner advised her famous colleague Franz Boaz to beware of the "tall tales told by the greatest pseudo-sage and storyteller of Mexico, Diego Rivera."

Rivera's self-mythologizing persona should not detract from his artistic achievements. On the contrary, such whims place him on the level of other genial con men-artists of the century. For instance, he shared several traits with his contemporary Pablo Picasso: They both suffered enough egomaniacal self-assuredness to ride the crest of the wave of history, which in turn allowed them to enjoy the favors of the ladies in spite of their uncomely physiques (it's a close call as to which of them had more wives and concubines). And on top of it all, they shared a particular style for painting Cubist trees.

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