In 1985, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibition titled Diego Rivera: The Cubist Years, focusing on Rivera’s work during his prolonged stay in Paris (1913 to 1921). During that time, he became friends with Pablo Picasso and fell under the influence of analytic Cubism. Although he was a few years late to the Cubist party, Rivera did many convincing works in that quintessentially modernist style.
The current SFMOMA exhibition, Diego Rivera’s America, picks up where The Cubist Years left off. Curated by James Oles with Maria Castro, it establishes a mid/late-career chronology that begins in 1921, when Rivera returned to Mexico City after spending a decade and a half in Europe. It contains over 150 works, including three by Rivera’s third wife, Frieda Kahlo, plus a couple of photographic portraits of Rivera taken by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. The earliest work is a preparatory drawing for a mural project titled Creation (1921). The most recent is a 1954 oil portrait of socialist philosopher (and famed Joseph McCarthy antagonist) Corliss Lamont, posing with a clutch of calla lilies, indicating premature funeral rites for the kind of utopian egalitarianism championed by the portrait’s subject.
Well over a third of the works in this exhibition are drawings, studies and preparatory sketches executed on paper, supported by some archival materials. Many of these are culled from the 70 works by Rivera held in SFMOMA’s permanent collection. The rest are easel paintings, more than a few pulled from the same group. It is fortuitous that this exhibition takes place alongside the extended presentation of Rivera’s 1940 Pan American Unity mural in a downstairs gallery.
Rivera is rightly regarded as the greatest mural painter of the 20th century. San Francisco is home to three of his best (and still home to a vibrant mural painting community), making it the only city in the U.S. that can lay claim to such public treasure. Of course, Mexico City has the most outstanding of them, that being the cycle on the second floor of the Palacio Nacional, depicting over a dozen episodes from the history of Mexico. Rivera executed it in 1934-35 and created additional in 1941 and 1950) For obvious reasons of scale and site-specificity, it is not included here. However, the virtual ghosts of three other murals are on view in this exhibition, presented as large, high-definition digital projections.
Creation (1922-23) is the earliest of that trio, presented here as a stage set backdropping a musical performance. Because it is organized in the manner of a triptych altarpiece (minus the Christian iconography), it is tempting to read it as a template for others that would follow. It features a prominent floating central figure — an allegorical mother figure no less — flanked by 16 supporting characters, some crowned with golden halos, representing such things as faith, hope and charity. Those familiar with Pan American Unity (or the mural Rivera painted in 1931 at the now-defunct San Francisco Art Institute) will recognize the strategy: giant allegorical figures centrally placed amidst flanking clusters of supporting persons elaborating the work’s central theme in the manner of an altarpiece predella. Fun fact: Rivera painted Creation at the Bolivar Theater at the old College San Ildefonso in Mexico City. It was there (and then) that the 15-year-old Kahlo initially met the then-married Rivera. In 1928, she joined the Mexican Communist Party and reconnected with Rivera, even though he was in the process of being expelled from the party. They were married in 1929, confirming their tumultuous and mutually abusive relationship lasting almost three decades.
Adjacent to the Creation projection are about a dozen other preliminary studies made with red chalk on paper (all Untitled, 1922-23), showing the level of detailed preparation that went into executing the larger works. Most of these are depictions of hands, while a few others are examinations of faces. These studies point to the lingering influence of Picasso. Not the Picasso of Cubism fame, but the Picasso of the (so-called) Neo-Classical period of the 1920s and early 1930s, featuring weighty figures articulated as crisply abbreviated silhouettes. In a cluster of nine Untitled studies of hands from 1922, for example, we can see a powerful synthesis between the volumetric weightiness of Rivera’s subject matter perfectly balanced with an attention to graphic clarity.
The other digital projections include two panels from the mural executed for Mexico City’s Ministry for Public Education El Tanguis (1923-28), showing people buying and selling their wares at a village market. These scenes of free and unsupervised exchange strike a communitarian note pertaining to Rivera’s imagining of a pre-capitalist economy that had been lost during the Conquista. The third digital projection shows Allegory of California (1931), which Rivera painted for the Pacific Stock Exchange (now the San Francisco City Club). It features a cluster of male figures engaged in various toil, reaching up to a giant mother figure surrounded by signs of earthly degradation. Another fun fact: the lumberjack figure at the center of the composition depicts Victor Arnautoff, one of Rivera’s assistants during the early 1930s, who would soon paint the mural that recently became controversial at San Francisco’s George Washington High School.
Interestingly, Rivera’s career as a muralist emerged coincidental with the early publication of essays included in György Lukács’ 1923 book History and Class Consciousness. There is no hard evidence that Rivera read the book. At various times, he was pro-Trotsky and/or Pro-Stalin, but the critical point is that he was motivated to work in the style that soon became known as Social Realism, abandoning his long flirtation with the European avant-garde to create publicly scaled celebrations of class solidarity and class struggle. At this juncture, we see the first of two major themes in Rivera’s work: historical stories that could resonate with the ordinary citizens seeking to partake of the industrial plenitude controlled by financial elites.
The Social Realist plot gets complicated because post-revolutionary Mexico had yet to fully succumb to modernity and industrialization. This meant that Rivera’s message-driven art needed to address rural farm laborers rather than urbanized proletariats, many of whom were illiterate and deeply religious. This, in turn, opens onto the other central theme in Rivera’s work, Mexicanidad (awkwardly translated as “Mexicanishness”), which appears in various guises throughout the exhibition, including the El Tanguis murals. For example, it keynotes the left half of the Pan American Unity mural and appears in a series of works Rivera did during multiple visits to Tehuantepec in Oaxaca to do various preparatory works for the Ministry of Education murals. Another section of later works, subtitled Scenes of Daily Life, also confirms Rivera’s interest in Mexicanidad, although some paintings included lapse into sentimentality. There is no record of how the people of that region (called Tehuanos or Tehuanas) felt about Rivera’s presence there.
As for Rivera’s multiple journeys to semi-tropical Oaxaca, Kahlo may have been involved, as her mother was originally from that area. So even though Kahlo was born in Mexico City, she often painted herself regaled in colorful Oaxacan costumes, as can be witnessed in her Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931), a wedding portrait included in the exhibition. Both artists had mestizo mothers married to fathers with European backgrounds, so we can confidently presume that there was something more profound than mere political affiliation undergirding their attempts to synthesize Mexicanidad and Social Realism.
Rivera’s Oaxacan works from the middle-late 1920s are remarkable. Many are studies of men’s heads and faces, usually sporting the conical hats typical of the region to good compositional effect. Some related works portray young women in festive costumes, while others depict women bathing or doing laundry near a river. In this grouping of works, backs are often turned so that faces are obscured; this has led to a recent tempest in the social media teapot about Rivera’s “objectification” of his Tejano subjects as exoticized noble savages. Considering Rivera’s education and extended stay in Europe, I would point to how artists such as Picasso, Cezanne and Gauguin treated similar subjects without any elevation of eyebrows. If his gaze was colonizing (maybe patronizing would be a better word), it was certainly not the only example, nor the most egregious one.
There are a few outstanding early paintings in this section of the exhibition. One titled Dance in Tehuantepec (1928) features three pairs of dancers facing each other across the open center of the canvas. The females appear in the dominant position of choosing their male partners, who look like they have been lined up to face a firing squad. It’s one of Rivera’s most colorful paintings. The female dancers are costumed in vivid, peach-colored dresses and set against backgrounds of tropical foliage and a cobalt blue sky. Still richer colorations can be found in Flower Seller (1926), showing a centrally positioned woman displaying a sumptuous spread of flowers, mostly calla lilies. This is the earliest of many paintings where Rivera would feature those famously funereal flowers, which, in different contexts, might also symbolize abundant life. A viewer could be forgiven for thinking this is late work by Paul Gauguin, who, like Picasso, exerted an influence over many of the paintings Rivera produced during the 1930s. A kindred trio of pastel works from 1938 presses the issue by drawing attention to the sharp profiles of Tehuana women’s faces juxtaposed against rich bursts of floral colors.
Diego Rivera’s America includes several preparatory drawings for the artist’s famous mural, Man at the Crossroads (1933). Nelson Rockefeller commissioned it for the lobby of Rockefeller Plaza and soon after famously destroyed it because it valorized Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin. Rivera executed a smaller version of the same mural in Mexico City in 1934 (retitled Man, Controller of the Universe); it’s represented here by preparatory sketches evoking an idealized future of technological abundance. There are also a few studies for Rivera’s San Francisco Art Institute project, two of which suggest that the composition initially had a gigantic female figure in a reclining pose dominating the composition. There is also a schematic drawing for the main panel of the Palacio National murals. These are installed near some smaller works, one of which is a fresco titled Opponent of Nazism (1933), depicting a worker warding off a blood-drenched Nazi dagger in front of the Russian flag. Here, it’s worth remembering that Hitler had been in power for only a year before Rivera painted this prophetic image — a not-so-fun fact. Another overtly political painting, The Seventh of November, Moscow (1928), shows a worker’s procession winding through a snow-covered parade ground.
The most surprising aspects of Diego Rivera’s America appear in a room dedicated to 26 costume and production design sketches for a 1934 ballet called H.P. (Horsepower). Most of these are watercolor and gouache works on paper dated 1927, along with a few others that came later. All show Rivera taking a
playful turn at watercolor renditions of fanciful ideas, some harking to collaborations between Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky. These works are charming and delightfully unselfconscious, revealing a spontaneity that almost seems out of character for Rivera as he toyed with the conflict between urbanized industry and Mexicanidad.
Thirteen of the works in Diego Rivera’s America focus on children, sometimes portrayed with their mothers, others alone and a few others in tandem, as in My Compadre’s Children (1930). It is a charming and light-hearted work featuring a pair of urchins bathed in pink and orange, looking uncomfortably churlish. Girl in Blue and White (1939) takes an elevated view of a tweener carrying a pair of bags, standing in stubborn defiance of the viewer’s gaze. The most telling of the work in this category is Seated Girls (1928), which shows a light-skinned girl reading from a red book while a dark-skinned girl listens intently. The fact that the darker girl is depicted in a subordinate position is of interest, as is the fact that she is clothed in peasant garb. Her light-skinned companion occupies a higher perch, indicating status, further denoted by her store-bought clothing and shoes. In a charming and unassuming way, this little picture sums up the relations between town and country and the tension between Social Realism and Mexicanidad.
The inclusion of three of Kahlo’s works in the room containing Rivera’s larger easel paintings prompts a comparison. Kahlo excelled at making modestly scaled easel paintings, usually involving some form of self-portraiture mixed with surrealist fantasy and unflinching honesty. In contrast, Rivera usually painted easel-sized paintings as a sideline to his mural projects. By 1932, his works on canvas were so prized by collectors that he could make more money from portrait commissions than he could from mural projects. A good example is the 1932 Portrait of Edsel B. Ford, a stiff academic rendition of the captain of industry who would be a supporter of Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals executed in 1934. Astute viewers will note the sitter’s comically undersized hands resemble those of a recent American President. Compare those to how Rivera painted Corliss Lamont’s paws, and the point becomes obvious.
During and after World War II, mural commissions grew rare, saying something about who really won the war while giving Rivera more time to focus on his easel paintings. Mandrágora (1939) and Maja Guarino (1940) are two of the larger late paintings, showing the same sitter dressed in what appears to be bridal attire (or funeral garb?). The former depicts a woman cradling a skull in her lap while plaintively looking out at the viewer. The latter shows the same woman standing upright, ominously dangling a miniature skeleton.
Another late portrait from 1938 takes Rivera’s second wife, Lupe Marin, as its subject. Rivera painted it a decade after he divorced her to marry Kahlo, but because Marin was the mother of Rivera’s two daughters, she remained on close terms with him. The portrait itself is something to behold. Adopting a diagonal compositional structure rare for Rivera, it looks down at its subject from an elevated point of view, showing her sitting very close to a mirror while wearing a white dress. Her face is a study in anguished self-recrimination, perhaps reflecting Rivera’s residual guilt about being a louse. Her hands are clasped together as if in palsied prayer, freakishly malformed and much larger than they should be. Could this work have been influenced by Picasso’s Girl in Front of a Mirror from 1932? It’s possible, but not likely, although the later painting has since become one of Picasso’s most famous works. Most likely, Rivera would not have seen Picasso’s painting until 1940, when he was in San Francisco when SFMOMA was hosting the Picasso retrospective organized initially in New York. Besides, even though the two works are thematically similar, their stylistics are as different as night and day.
Another remarkable late portrait is Gladys March from 1946. It is a smallish work, showing the slumped body language of its anxious subject, painted similarly to how Picasso depicted Gertrude Stein in 1906. March would become the co-author of Rivera’s self-exonerating autobiography, completing the manuscript after Rivera died from penis cancer in 1957. Other late portraits, such as Philias Lalanne (1936) or Frances Ford Seymour and Frances DeVillers Brokaw (1941), obviously motivated by something other than an interest in the people they depict, are too convention-bound to take seriously.
Alice Neel’s portraits, recently celebrated in a major exhibition at the de Young Museum, make Rivera’s own portraits a comparison of convenience. Both artists were political activists who had deep roots in the Social Realism of the 1930s, and both fell out of fashion during the Abstract Expressionist 1940s. But Rivera never had the same focus on portraits that Neel had, nor did he have the interest in self-interrogation that animated Kahlo’s self-portraits. Diego Rivera’s America contains only one of his few self-portraits, a small work from 1941 where we see him striking a Goya-esque pose, looking sideways at the viewer as if to share a secret. Of course, Rivera also included self-portraits in some of his murals, including two in San Francisco that depict him turning his back on the viewer. Neel had more obsessive motives for painting portraits as a way of taking in stray lives, subconsciously casting her sitters auditioning for the role of replacement child. This propensity gave her pictures an uncanny intensity that was as much about Neel as it was about any of the people she painted. Rivera’s portraits sometimes have a similar psychological intensity. Witness an early profile titled Head of Tehuana Woman (1930), looking like a David Park painting from two decades later. Nevertheless, Rivera’s central obsession with an imagined unity between a politicized Social Realism and an ahistorical Mexicanidad worked much better on a grand scale. But on the more intimate scale of easel paintings? Occasionally yes, as in the images of agricultural workers carrying flowers or other fruits of the earth. On other occasions, not so much. Still, the rhetorical question remains: If we disregard Rivera’s accomplishments as a mural painter, would his easel paintings be enough to warrant a major art historical reputation? Given the unevenness and occasional sentimentality of the work included in Diego Rivera’s America, the answer is no.
Diego Rivera’s America comes at a time when the idea of Americaness lives in a state of contested disunity, teetering on the precipice of a second Civil War and possibly another World War. For Rivera, it was always so, and it is worth remembering that he had little regard for the jurisdictional differences between the different nation-states of the western hemisphere. He was much more interested in those differences’ cultural and political aspects, allowing him to depict histories without lapsing into simplistic triumphalism, except in those moments when he naively thought that technological advancement would provide utopian salvation. Diego Rivera’s America also arrives when younger painters are again seeking a path toward a social poetics of painting that could substitute new forms of democratic relatability for a long-exhausted formalism. Of course, such a quest carries risks, not least of which is an over-enthusiastic embrace of a politicized didacticism devoid of poetic subtlety. If this exhibition proves anything, it is that Rivera never had that problem. In fact, his work stands as a model of having it both ways, which is no easy feat.
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“Diego Rivera’s America” @ SFMOMA to January 2, 2023.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.