Almost everything about painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957) is larger than life: his vast murals depicting Mexican history, his influence on nearly a century of Mexican artists, and of course, his own persona as a poet of the people - which he cultivated almost as assiduously as his art.
A new show, "Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is dedicated in part to looking beneath the Rivera myth. It explores the artist's stylistic radicalism. At the same time, it examines his historically underplayed relationship to significant trends in European art, such as Cubism and neoclassicism.
The collection of more than 100 paintings, prints, and drawings has been assembled by the Cleveland Museum of Art and Mexico's Consejo Nacional Para la Cultura y las Artes.
"Rivera was one of the great innovators of 20th-century art," says Lynn Zelevansky, LACMA curator of modern and contemporary art. "America was a backwater artistically at the beginning of this century, and Mexico was far ahead artistically."
Rivera's contribution, Ms. Zelevansky says, was his ability to "combine the most radical avant-garde strategies of the time with indigenous themes to create a public art that feels contemporary."
One of the ironies revealed by the show is that Rivera, whose career became synonymous with Mexican nationalism, was not in his native land during his country's violent years of political upheaval (1910-1920).
The young artist was in Europe mingling with some of the biggest names of the day - Picasso, Modigliani, and Mondrian among them. The works in the show reveal Rivera's stylistic debt to these fellow radicals. "Zapatista Landscape" (1915) is a good example of his exploration of Cubist principles.
His many forays into the aesthetic concerns of colleagues such as Czanne also reveal the foundation upon which he drew when he returned to Mexico and launched an aesthetic revolution of his own. His stylized murals detailing the struggles of a people to overcome oppression tapped a depth of emotion in the popular press that earned him a place in the hearts of everyday Mexicans.
Zelevansky points out that while the muralists of Mexico were developing their populist, political realism, history overtook them. After World War II, American artists began to look across the Atlantic to Paris, not south of the border, she says.
This yearning to relate to European traditions, combined with the fervent nationalism of the populist Mexican artists, created what has been dubbed the "Tortilla Curtain." Communication between the cultures slowed, and much of Mexican art since has been deemed provincial, political realism. But, says the curator, not before significant influences had taken hold.
"The Mexicans were the model for finding an indigenous art form," says Zelevansky, much like Thomas Hart Benton and many other Americans who spent their careers trying to define a quintessentially American experience. Jos Clemente Orozco, another of the great Mexican practitioners of the mural art form, along with David Alfaro Siqueiros, was in New York at midcentury. "The Mexicans were doing it all first," she adds.
Members of the Latino community in Los Angeles say they are heartened by this long overdue recognition for Rivera.
"We're trying to see who we are, where we came from, politically and artistically," says Patricia Ramos, manager of communications at KMEX, a Spanish-language TV station. "This show is one way to honor the profound influence of Latino culture throughout America."
*'Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution' runs through Aug. 16 at the L.A. County Museum of Art.