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Celebrating New World Modernism

Hirshorn Museum exhibition of four Hispanic masters traces their impact on 20th-century art

THE great Diego Rivera led a quartet of Latin American painters who melded the European avant-garde with their own culture to create innovative forms in New World modernism.

They are celebrated in a bold new show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, "Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers." It traces the major impact Rivera, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Wilfredo Lam, and Matta have had on modern art.

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Hirshhorn curator Valerie Fletcher, who organized the exhibition, says, "We've selected four artists whose work I felt presented the first generation of artists to overtly address the question of how do we take the radical avant-garde, new aesthetics that were emerging from Europe ... in the first half of the century, and how do we make [this] relevant to our own cultures in each of our own countries....

"For example, Diego Rivera, who was a very successful Cubist, in the first rank of the Cubists in Paris, from 1912 to l917, when he gave it up, and his solution seemed to be a very nationalistic, and often highly politicized answer, creating an art that was very specifically for the people of Mexico...." He returned to Mexico to help create the "Mexican Renaissance" of large-scale public murals.

The Rivera section of the exhibition is an object lesson in how an artist evolves, including some of his early cubist work, from his abstract portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, "Zapatist Landscape (The Guerilla)" to "Maternity (Angelina and Baby Diego)," to the vivid, nationalist "Dance in Tehuantepec" and his later, powerfully beautiful works "The Flower Carrier" and "Women Selling Calla Lilies." His murals, of course, are what he's most famous for.

IT is difficult to imagine four artists more different in style than the heroes of this show. Joaquin Torres-Garcia, born and raised to age 15 in Uruguay, hit his prime in Paris in the '20s, as a cofounder of the "Circle and Square" group of abstractionists motivated by pure geometry and color. But his later work was influenced by symbolic designs inspired by pre-Columbia art. After a 40-year absence from Uruguay, he returned to Montevideo and founded an influential art school there.

The Chilean-born painter Matta, now an octogenarian living in Paris, was an architect who abandoned that art for Surrealism.

His "Inscapes," as he called them, were inspired by the metaphors of Spanish author Federico Garcia Lorca and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

In l939, Matta left Europe for New York, where he became Surrealism's envoy to Abstract Expressionists. A trip to Mexico in l94l also influenced his work when he witnessed a volcanic eruption and visited Mayan cultures. He left New York in l948 for Paris and made three brief visits to Chile, but Paris remains his home.

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Wilfredo Lam, half-Chinese and part African, was born in Cuba and studied at Havana's art academy before moving to Europe.

After living in Madrid, he moved to Paris, where he was influenced by African sculpture (through Picasso) and Surrealism. Lam left Nazi-occupied Paris in the '40s and returned to Cuba. There he immersed himself in Afro-Cuban traditions, especially the Santeria religion, which blends Roman Catholic and Yoriba beliefs. Unable to make a living in Cuba, he spent the last part of his life in Paris.

Valerie Fletcher explains why these four men were chosen for the show: "Rather than present a show about l00 works by 20 artists where you only have a few works by each artist, I wanted to take four artists who really presented the broadest range of ideas, did so for decades - many, many years - and make them the epitome, the exemplars, of that generation's greatest range of ideas."

The exhibition displays 90 works, mostly paintings, and will be at the Hirshhorn through Sept. 7. Its catalog is printed in both Spanish and English, with alternating pages.

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