Rivera's art: the common man as hero. Centennial retrospective illuminates his genius

``BECAUSE of its unique character, Mexican muralism is perhaps the only completely original contribution by American artists to the development of modern art,'' writes Mexican historian Lu'is Cardoza y Arag'on in the sumptuous catalog that accompanies the Diego Rivera retrospective on view here at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While some might object to Mr. Arag'on's statement as hyperbolic or chauvinistic, few would deny him his point altogether. For it is true that the Mexican mural movement did not grow out of the usual European influences but sprang full blown, like Athena from the head of Zeus, from a combination of indigenous traditions and national necessity.

As the Mexican Revolution chipped away at the repressive oligarchic regime and gradually brought about agrarian, educational, and labor reforms during the second decade of this century, a wave of populist fervor swept over Mexico and found pictorial expression in the hands of the muralists -- Rivera, Jos'e Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Rivera put their philosophy in the following perspective: ``Mexican muralism has not brought anything new to the universal plastic arts, nor to architecture, and even less to sculpture. But Mexican muralism -- for the first time in the history of monumental painting -- ceased to use gods, kings, chiefs of state, heroic generals, etc. as central heroes . . . . For the first time in the history of art, Mexican mural painting made the masses the hero of monumental art. That is to say, the man of the fields, of the factories, of the cities, and towns. When a hero appears among the people, it is clearly as part of the people and as one of them.''

Of the triumvirate, Rivera (1886-1957) had the greatest influence on North American artists, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn, and Works Progress Administration muralists during the 1930s, because of the several mural and fresco cycles he executed in the United States. The most celebrated of these are in San Francisco at the Pacific Stock Exchange, the City College, the Art Institute, and in Detroit at the Institute of Arts, which boasts a 27-panel tribute to the city's industry.

The idea for a Rivera exhibition originated in Detroit, when the cartoons for the cycle were discovered in the basement and gradually evolved into a full-fledged retrospective commemorating the 100th anniversary of Rivera's birth. The exhibition opened in Detroit, highlighted by a display of 13 cartoons and the fresco cycle itself. The traveling exhibition that is currently at the Philadelphia Museum is necessarily a somewhat less dramatic version, without the frescos and all the cartoons. It comprises, nevertheless, an impressive 100 paintings, 140 words on paper, three cartoons, two portable panels from the museum's collection, and about 100 photographs.

It is ironic that, despite the fact that Rivera flung himself with such passion into the Mexican mural movement, his painterly roots were in the European tradition. Rivera studied in Spain, France, and Italy for almost 15 years before returning to Mexico in 1921. During those years he assimilated the influences of such divergent painters as El Greco and Picasso, C'ezanne and Gauguin, Ingres, and Modigliani. In fact, a discussion of influences upon Rivera is almost pointless, as the first part of this exhibition illustrates, because Rivera segued with such facility and rapidity from school to school, style to style, whether Cubist or Impressionist, classicist or Surrealist, only to abandon them all, except for the occasional evocation or experiment. These early paintings also demonstrate, however, that this was truly a protean genius. They compel those who might be tempted to toss him off as a mere muralist or proletarian painter to acknowledge his status, not as an imitator, but as an original interpreter of European movements on a par with their masters.

Like a gourmet chef, Rivera tasted and digested European cuisine and then went on to make up his own native recipes. He took his inspiration directly from Mexico, from ``that inexpressible beauty of that rich and severe, wretched and exuberant land,'' as he put it, not only in terms of his subject matter but his style. He abstractly interprets the square, massive bulk of the peasants and work he so lovingly portrays, as if they were solid geometry or icons derived from the pre-Columbian age. Similarly, his palette is a kaleidoscope of the earth tones and brilliant hues of the Mexican landscape. Like the architect that he sometimes was, Rivera is ever conscious in his paintings of achieving structural balance.

Rivera had a tendency to idolize peasants and workers, even the tools and machinery they used in their labor, and at times throughout his life belonged to the Communist Party. His political leanings were the most controversial aspect of his life and resulted in the loss of at least one commission -- a mural at Rockefeller Center in which he had painted a figure that resembled Lenin. It is important to bear in mind, however, that he resigned from the Communist Party as often as he joined it, and just as the US deplored his left-wing tendencies, the Communist Party press denounced him as ``an agent of American imperialism.'' A sensitive study of his murals and of his perceptive, compassionate portraits of individuals suggests that the only fair label to affix to Rivera is humanist. His admiration and respect for human beings from all walks of life, from the factory worker to Edsel Ford, was profound, and he felt it his mission to celebrate equally their simple dignity and protest its violation.

The exhibition itself is a mural of sorts, presenting the panorama of Rivera's oeuvre. The highlight is the three monumental cartoons for the Detroit fresco cycle, and there is another very interesting section consisting of drawings, plans, and photographs on the ``Liberated Earth with Natural Forces Controlled by Man'' frescos at the university chapel at Chapingo, near Mexico City. Unfortunately, there is no opportunity to view the actual frescos and murals. There is, however, a 35-minute film, ``The Frescos of Diego Rivera,'' that helps fill the gap, and the catalog also reproduces and deals comprehensively with the frescos.

Organized by Linda Downs, curator of education, and Ellen Sharp, curator of graphic arts at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the exhibition was funded by the Ford Motor Company Fund with the assistance of the National Endowment for the Arts. After it closes here Aug. 10, the exhibition will travel to museums in Mexico City, Madrid, and West Berlin.

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