Raising the Bar

The Museo de las Américas hosts a Rivera show and unveils its plans for a new building.

In an effort to become more visible, the unassuming little Museo de las Américas will host a series of big-name exhibits in the coming years, beginning with its current summer attraction, Diego Rivera: The Brilliance Before the Brush, now heading into its final month. At the same time, the Museo, using these shows as a draw, has launched a nationwide capital campaign to raise money to fund the construction of a new building.

The Rivera exhibit, though small, is significant and unusual. When we think of Rivera, who was the most important Latin American artist of the twentieth century, we recall his heroically large paintings that cover entire walls. And although there are three easel-sized paintings at the Museo, most of the Riveras are small preparatory sketches, in pencil on paper. It's this unexpected take that makes the show worth seeing, as the sketches demonstrate how Rivera worked out the compositions that he later used for larger paintings and enormous murals.

Rivera was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1886. At age ten, he began taking art classes at Mexico City's famous art school, the Academia de San Carlos, and remained there until 1906. In that year, Rivera first exhibited his work at the Academia and received a government-funded scholarship to continue his studies in Spain.

The proposed facade for the Museo.
The proposed facade for the Museo.
"Sketch for Tehuana with fruit basket," by Diego Rivera.
"Sketch for Tehuana with fruit basket," by Diego Rivera.



Through August 25

Museo de las Américas, 861-865 Santa Fe Drive

He arrived in Europe in 1907 and pursued his art education for several years. It was there that Rivera became connected with the avant-garde movement, first in Spain and later in Paris, where in 1913 he abandoned the traditional Hispanic representational style of his earlier work and adopted a cubist style instead. The following year, Rivera met Picasso in Spain, where both men had fled to wait out WWI. Picasso was the unrivaled master of cubism and had been one of the style's inventors. He was said to have admired Rivera's stylistically sympathetic work.

In 1920, Rivera moved to Italy to study the fresco technique associated with that country. Frescoes are murals made with tinted plaster instead of paint. Perhaps because of the power of the Renaissance masterpieces he studied, Rivera denounced cubism and developed a signature representational style that's essentially an updated version of the Italian classical styles he was exposed to on his trip.

Returning to Mexico in 1921, Rivera immediately established himself both as the country's premier painter and one of its most high-profile communists and political radicals. He was also granted some important commissions, the first of which was a mural for the Escuela Nacional Prepatoria, which showcases his Italian-influenced style. The next year, he made his first trip to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where he sketched the daily life of the people. For his second mural, done in 1923 for the Ministerio de Educación Pública, Rivera painted the first panel with a scene of Tehuantepec.

The drawings in the exhibit at the Museo are all from a single sketchbook that Rivera brought with him to Tehuantepec in 1923. He admired the people there because they had resisted the influence of Spanish culture and were perceived as being more purely Mexican. His lengthy stay in Europe had given him a keen understanding of which parts of Mexican culture were the result of Spanish conquest and which were not, leaving him with a preference for what was not.

Rivera became involved in the Mexicanidad movement, which sought to encourage non-Spanish Mexican culture. He later married Frida Kahlo, another important twentieth-century Mexican artist who was also involved in the movement. In fact, Kahlo, who lived in Mexico City and was thus a big-city woman, began to dress in the manner of her country cousins from Tehuantepec.

The women of Tehuantepec, called Tehuana, were clearly favorite subjects, as illustrated by the many views of women seen in this group of sketches. In the drawings, Rivera depicts the Tehuana in a variety of candid poses. There are portraits as well as full-figure studies showing the women at work, at rest, and in group activities.

The portraits are by far the most detailed and the most carefully executed. In "Tehuana Sketch #1," a pencil-on-paper drawing, he captures in relatively few strokes an almond-eyed young girl, her head turned to one side, revealing her braided hair. The sketch is obviously not the direct preparatory study for the painting with which it has been paired -- "Niña con Flores," an oil on board done in the early 1920s -- but it's close. The woman in the painting is older than the one in the sketch, but the pose she has taken is the same, and she is also revealing her elaborately braided hair.

Some of the most interesting sketches of the Tehuana are those that are the least detailed and the most abstract, such as "Sketch for Tehuana with fruit basket," a pencil on paper. With little more than a couple of scribbled lines, Rivera conveys a walking woman balancing a basket on her head. It's supremely economical in its execution; it must have taken less time for Rivera to draw it than it did for him to sign it.

Brilliance Before the Brush was organized by the Museo's curator, Tariana Navas-Nieves, who went to Mexico City last year and selected the pieces from a private collection owned by Gumercindo Paredes, a well-known dealer and art conservator. Paredes and his business partner, Luis Aguirre, have committed to providing work for future Museo exhibits as well. The first of these, set for late next year, will be devoted to Mexican painter David Siqueiros; the year after, the work of Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo will be presented. This impressive roster of big names in Latin American art is part of a program to boost the profile of the Museo nationally and in this way increase membership and raise funds for a complete transformation of the institution's building on Santa Fe Drive.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help