Evolving a totally Mexican art

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MUCH of real education takes place around the edges of the classroom. My graduate school experience was especially like that. Those of us plodding through a common curriculum developed an extraordinary camaraderie. Some of the things I learned from informal discussions in parking lots, coffee shops, and pizza houses are more vivid now, 15 years later, than the classwork. The university was famous for its Latin American studies program, and though that had nothing to do with my degree program, it did turn out to be a specialization in my ``graduate education.'' It's also where my appreciation for the work of Diego Rivera (1886-1957) began. Some of my friends were ``Anglos'' involved in producing the first computer-based dictionary of Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs, and some with great pride called themselves ``Chicanos.'' At first I had been indifferent to the Mexican cultural heritage. What a revelation it was when I looked at it from my own Western European viewpoint. What if, through the deprivations of imperialism and religious zealotry, much of my cultural heritage were destroyed? If the Parthenon were only footings, Leonardo da Vinci only a name, Magna Carta a vague memory, Shakespeare's plays only a fragmentary listing of titles, I too might count on pride to fill in the gaps.

Diego Rivera had a deep pride in his Mexican cultural heritage. There is a quiet dignity and integrity in this painting. The young Mexican peasant woman is poor but not impoverished. Her homespun clothes are painted in even textured, simplified roundness. The purple ribbon braided into her solidly perfect hair adds a festive touch, a grace note to her poverty. With her back to us she could be ``Everywoman.'' We do not see her face, but we see the rhythm of her life. She lives close to the earth, the changing seasons, the rising and setting of the sun. The rhythmic repetitions are everywhere, her toes and fingers, the gathers of her blouse, the black braids laced with ribbon, the stamens of the lilies, their hexagonal stems. Nowhere does Rivera skip a beat. The measures of her life are counted out on the surface of the painting.

The focus of her attention - her livelihood - is the monumental lilies. Her hands are outstretched but do not seem to grasp them. Is this a gesture of awe? Rivera makes no apologies for the woman or her way of life. Her honest simplicity shines through the painting with a kind of nobility. Diego Rivera worked and studied many years before achieving the power and simplicity of this work. Obviously gifted as a youth, he enrolled at the art school in Mexico City and was taught the rigid disciplines of the European classical tradition. At 21 he was awarded a scholarship to study in France, the ``heart'' of the art world. There he brushed shoulders with the greats of the time and threw himself into several different styles of painting at various times and with varying degrees of success. Though he spent many years in France and some in Spain, he maintained close ties with home and followed with great interest the storm that gathered and broke as the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Struggling to throw off feudalism and find a more equitable distribution of land, justice, and dignity, Mexico took a new look at its peasants and its history. Diego Rivera came home to stay and to articulate the new feelings in paint.

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He took all the technique he had learned in Europe and used it to evolve a totally Mexican art. He used motifs from the ancient past of his people and the present reality of the common man. His paintings took on the earthy feeling, bold color, solidity, and hard-edged reality of the Mexican landscape and people. He studied the fragments of art left from the Pre-Columbian civilizations. The frescoes particularly interested him. What he couldn't learn from the fragments of the indigenous art he filled in with study of the great Italian frescoes. His frescoes on public buildings in Mexico and the United States are huge and filled with biting social commentary. But the smaller paintings like this oil on board, ``Girl With Lilies'' celebrate in a quiet way what it means to be heir to the cultural richness that began with those who spoke Nahuatl.

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