- Click here to read the Dallas Morning News review of the exhibit.
Let me preface this post by saying that I am in no way an art critic. Sure, I like looking at art. And I definitely know what art I do and don’t like. But when it comes to reviewing an exhibition of a distinguished artist like Diego Rivera, I’m pretty lost. So I’ll tell you what I saw, and you tell me if I’m wrong.
This internship comes with pretty sweet perks, one of which is that I was included in the press preview tour of the new Rivera exhibit at the Meadows Museum last week. My knowledge of Rivera’s work was limited to a 4th grade “research paper” I wrote about his murals and my love of the movie Frida. Needless to say, I was not well acquainted with his Cubist side.
This new exhibit at the Meadows, which opened Sunday, was inspired by Rivera’s Cubist portrait of the young Bolshevik novelist Ilya Ehrenburg, a piece which lives in the museum’s permanent collection. The exhibit, Diego Rivera: The Cubist Portraits, 1913-1917, marks the first time that Rivera’s Cubist portraits have been studied as a unit. And it also marks the first time that there has been a sole exhibition about Rivera in Dallas. Surprising, given our southern neighbors’ reverence for his work.
Before we entered the exhibit, Museum Director Dr. Mark Roglán implored us to “get close” to the artwork, so that we could really appreciate the texture and design of each piece. He also told us that he felt like Rivera’s Cubist period was a time when the artist was really able to explore. He was just “painting for the sake of painting,” and as a result, his art seems freer and less political. I liked that notion of this beloved artiste just trying things out, painting whatever and however he felt like painting.
The first room offers a written overview of Rivera’s life, as well as a timeline of his artistic career. This historical 411 made the rest of the exhibit easy to access, as it was divided into sections based on the years in which each painting was made. Each painting’s label gives the viewer an abundance of information about the sitter as well as about the technique, which is perfect for people like me who want to know the whole story behind a piece of art. But that wealth of history does make it a bit hard to move through the exhibit at a quick pace. The best feature of the exhibit’s text is that each label is presented in both English and Spanish. Bien hecho, Meadows.
Dr. Roglán told us of the desire to connect this summer’s Rivera exhibit with the Meadows’ existing collection, which is primarily focused on Spanish artists. And I believe he succeeded. The exhibit paints a portrait of an artist beyond his canvas – he can be seen in his historical context, in relation to other works in the museum’s permanent collection, and most importantly, both his artistic influences and his closest friends are on display. In a section entitled “‘My Spanish Friends’: Diego and Spain,” works by artists such as Picasso and María Blanchard can be seen, and the viewer can read excerpts about each artist taken from Rivera’s autobiography. A schedule of public programs, including everything from lectures to hands-on activities, shows that this exhibit is not only about Rivera’s work from the early 1900s, but also about his entire existence as one of Mexico’s most venerated artists.
Here’s what I found most fascinating about Rivera. He wasn’t a pioneer of the Cubist movement, but he came into it with an open-mind and a willingness to embrace the style. Cubism is all about taking something apart and finding an entirely new way to look at it. Rivera himself defined the movement in this way: “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.”
But he insisted that there be a part of each piece that reflected the human – he believed there needed to be a “unique and personal facial cipher” in each of his portraits. While other leading Cubists of the time rejected this idea of the Cubist portrait, Rivera reveled in it. His desire to retain a human element while deconstructing an individual is evident in two particular portraits in the exhibit. Angelina y el niño Diego shows a woman and her baby. Amidst a sea of multicolored geometric shapes, the curve of the baby’s head and the breast of the mother lend a distinctly real vibe to the piece. Its neighbor, Mujer en Verde, shows a pregnant woman. Most cubists would have a hard time depicting pregnancy, but because Rivera included the curves of the woman’s stomach, the viewer is able to understand that this particular sitter carries a child.
Diego Rivera: The Cubist Portraits, 1913-1917 is an important exhibit for this time of re-evaluation in our world. Whether it’s the economic system of a nation or our own lifestyles and values, we’re constantly rethinking the way we live. This is just what Rivera was doing with his version of the cubist style. He could take an image and distill it down to what was most important: the human element. And he was always careful to preserve the identity of each of his sitters by depicting the shape of a body or the symbol of a culture. That creative perspective provides a nice message for the average American: When your life has been reduced to a series of meaningless shapes, humanity is the only thing that matters.