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Meadows Museum Presents "Diego Rivera: The Cubist Portraits, 1913-1817"
Diego Rivera, Zapatista Landscape — The Guerrilla, 1915. Oil on canvas, 57 3/32 x 49 1/4 in. Museo Nacional de Arte, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico City. CENCROPAM-INBA SIGROA 11948. Photo: © Francisco Kochen.

DALLAS, TX.- Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) spent several critical years early in his career in Paris, during World War I, where he immersed himself in literary and art circles and enthusiastically embraced the Cubist movement. While his Cubist works experimented with a range of genres, including landscape and still life, Rivera showed a particular affinity for portraiture, and he created empathetic and moving portrayals of some of the era’s most important figures. Thirty-one of these works are brought together for the first time in Diego Rivera: The Cubist Portraits, 1913-1917, an exhibition at the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas from June 21 through September 20, 2009.

The exhibition was inspired by a key piece in the Meadows Museum’s permanent collection, Rivera’s Portrait of Ilya Ehrenburg (1915). It is one of only four Cubist portraits by Rivera in a public American collection. The additional 22 paintings and 8 preparatory sketches and book illustrations are from museums and private collections in the U.S. and other countries, and include several works that will be exhibited publicly for the first time.

In addition, a complementary exhibition in the museum’s first floor galleries, Mexican Art at the Meadows, will showcase lithographs by Rivera and other Mexican artists in the Meadows Museum’s permanent collection; included will be Rivera’s portrait of his wife, Frida Kahlo, titled Seated Nude with Raised Arms, and scenes of rural and peasant life in Mexico.

“We are thrilled to have organized this exhibition, which will introduce to Dallas a fascinating aspect of one of Mexico’s greatest artists,” said Dr. Mark Roglán, Meadows Museum director. “Through the quality of the paintings, complexity of the drawings, and his always evolving technique, this exhibition presents a unique opportunity for our visitors to learn about and appreciate both Rivera’s portraits and Cubism at its best.”

Diego Rivera showed artistic potential from childhood, and at a young age studied at the National School of Fine Arts of San Carlos in Mexico City. In 1907 he went to Europe on a government pension and spent two years in Spain before settling in Paris. Apart from a brief trip to Mexico for his first solo exhibition at the San Carlos school in 1910, a visit that coincided with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, Rivera remained in Europe, residing primarily in Paris, until 1921. During his tenure in Europe, he established himself as an integral part, as well as a leader, of the Cubist movement.

“As the old world would soon blow itself apart [in World War I], never to be the same again, so Cubism broke down forms as they had been for centuries, and was creating out of the fragments new forms, new objects, new patterns and – ultimately – new worlds,” Rivera wrote years later. While Cubism was fundamentally marked by a broken, two-dimensional perception of form, artists brought their own interpretation to the movement. Rivera developed and experimented with Cubist techniques, incorporating unusual materials such as sand and sawdust into his oil paintings in order to create texture. His works were also distinguished by his adventurous use of color, treatment of the facets and intersections of forms, and occasional inclusion of Mexican motifs such as colorfully striped fabrics.

Rivera’s favorite subject matter was portraiture, a reflection of his early interest in rendering the human form and in challenging one of the most traditional art historical genres. He expertly deconstructed his subjects’ visages in order to reassemble them meticulously on canvas. The portraits in the exhibition introduce the viewer to his closest European friends and loved ones, those artists and intellectuals whose relationships proved invaluable to the young artist’s development. They include several of Rivera’s countrymen, notably writer Martín Luis Guzmán, painter Adolfo Best Maugard and architect Jesús T. Acevedo. The portraits also reveal Rivera’s relationship with Paris’s Russian emigré community, which he became acquainted with through his Parisian lovers (artists Angelina Beloff and Marevna Vorobieva-Stebelska). This community consisted of Bolsheviks living in exile after the failed St. Petersburg insurrection of 1905, and included Rivera’s friend, the young novelist Ilya Ehrenburg, depicted in the Meadows painting. Also represented are the burly poet Maximilian Voloshin, the sculptor Oscar Miestchaninoff, the painter Alexandre Zinoviev, Lithuanian sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, and the capitalist patron of the arts, Michel Ossip Zetlin, as well as several of their wives and companions such as Berthe Kitrosser, Marie Zetlin and Mme. Marcoussis.

Rivera enjoyed both critical and commercial success with his Cubist works. While he experimented in his portraits with varying degrees of abstraction and theories of perspective, he maintained that even a Cubist portrait should contain some degree of individualization that identified it as a likeness. However, in 1917, the influential art critic Pierre Reverdy wrote an essay criticizing not only the idea of Cubist portraits, but those who painted them. An angry Rivera physically assaulted Reverdy at a dinner shortly thereafter, and consequently the Cubist movement split into two camps; as a result, Rivera no longer kept company with the influential Cubist friends who shared Reverdy’s perspective, including Juan Gris, Georges Braque and Jacques Lipchitz. By the end of 1917 he had left the Cubist movement altogether.

Rivera abandoned Cubist fragmentation and experimentation for a more representational style, which continued to evolve with a trip to Italy in 1920, where he studied Renaissance frescoes. He returned to Mexico for good in 1921. By the mid-1920s he had developed the signature style found in his murals, a melding of avant-garde practices, pre-Hispanic sources and popular art, all informed by his excellent traditional academic painting. His murals set out to create a vision of Mexican society on the walls of that nation’s cultural and political sanctuaries and at such institutions as the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School); he also created murals in the U.S., depicting scenes of industrial labor, such as “Detroit Industry” at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Although he embraced a more nationalistic and political purpose for his art, Rivera recognized the critical influence of Cubism on his artistic development, and he remained proud of his affiliation with the movement. In 1957, shortly before his death, he said, “I still consider Cubism to be the outstanding achievement in the plastic arts since the Renaissance.”

Curated by independent Mexican scholar Sylvia Navarrete, Diego Rivera: The Cubist Portraits is organized by the Meadows Museum. Complementing the exhibition, two galleries with paintings from the Meadows’ permanent collection have been specially installed. One will showcase works by the “Spanish friends” Rivera colorfully described in his autobiography, including Picasso, Joaquín Sorolla, María Blanchard and others, with accompanying commentary by Rivera on his relationships with them. The other gallery will include paintings by Rivera’s Spanish contemporaries, artists such as Ignacio Zuloaga who lived and worked in Spain and whose technique and subjects directly or indirectly influenced Rivera. All of the exhibition text is presented in both English and Spanish.

Meadows Museum | Diego Rivera | Southern Methodist University | Cubism | National School of Fine Arts of San Carlos | Mexico City | Adolfo Best Maugard |

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