Largest solo collection of Diego Rivera’s works in two decades explores personal and national identity, hopes for future at Crystal Bridges

Largest solo collection of Diego Rivera’s works in two decades explores personal and national identity, hopes for future at Crystal Bridges
April Wallace

Works by the great international artist Diego Rivera have arrived at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and they are a rare sight to behold.

“Diego Rivera was the most significant artist of the 20th century, he was prolific,” says Amanda Horn, senior public relations director for the museum. “This is the first exhibition of his work focused solely on his work in more than two decades, and we are thrilled to bring this opportunity to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — and more importantly, to the heartland.”

This is the second and final stop of “Diego Rivera’s America,” which was co-organized by Crystal Bridges and the San Francisco Museum of American Art and curated by James Oles, guest curator, and Maria Castro, assistant curator at SFMOMA. It was coordinated at Crystal Bridges by Jen Padgett, the museum’s acting Windgate Curator of Craft.

Visitors can look through more than 130 of Rivera’s works in this exhibition that hosts a wide variety of media, including drawings, easel paintings, frescoes, book illustrations and even representations of his murals, among others. They depict scenes of everyday life and labor.

The works, from both private collections and museums, came to Bentonville by way of Mexico, Argentina, England and all across the United States, Padgett says. They’re organized by theme and largely in chronological order.

“It goes from the moment in the 1920s when Rivera received his first major public commission to the 1940s,” Padgett says. The earliest works in the collection show the visual attention to detail of Rivera, who at the time was driven by observing the world around him, but he was also thinking on a larger scale. “What is it that makes up personal identity? What creates national identity? How do we across the globe find points of collaboration and connection? He was actively thinking about all those things.”

What’s special about the show, Padgett says, is how many different media are represented. Preparatory drawings are shown just ahead of the murals they were created in anticipation of. Pastels, watercolors, illustrations for magazines, all there.

The portable frescoes were relatively easy to travel in comparison to showcasing the ambitious, large, permanent mural works that exist in Mexico City, California and other destinations. But they are such an important part of the artist’s career that the curators felt they had to find a way to show them off.

Three of Rivera’s murals are projected within the exhibit, with videos that are trained on the mural site and occasionally include people walking by or taking it in. One is on a five- or 10-minute loop, but Padgett warns not to be waiting for anything to happen. The video is just to give the experience of seeing the mural itself.

While taking the first of these expansive works in, a mural created in the 1920s for a preparatory school, it can be helpful to think of the figures in the mural as symbolic, Padgett says.

“What Rivera did was to think about local and universal meaning, so looking to these big visions and themes,” she says. “In this mural, he uses figures as different allegories for music, for hope and for all of these different ideals that are embodied in individual figures.”

Alongside the first mural is a series of Rivera’s preparatory drawings for the hands and a couple of the heads depicted in the image. The arrangement and positioning of the drawings match the mural and should give viewers a sense of the overall composition of the piece through that assortment of images, Padgett says. In the final mural, a vibrant large-scale production, Rivera uses gold leaf for certain elements on the ceiling, such as hair.

Following his first major mural commission, Rivera began to think about Mexican national identity more broadly and examined more closely the regional cultures and traditions in his travels. Among the more formative of those trips was one to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in south Oaxaca. Rivera depicts the traditional dress of the Tehuanas, women of that city, in his works. The women in these scenes are of diverse social and ethnic backgrounds and embrace that by wearing garments that indicate their Indigenous roots.

“Tehuana (Aurea Procel)” features a prominent Mexico City doctor in a ceremonial garment that frames her face in white lace. “Dance in Tehuantepec” (1928), an iconic work of Rivera’s, is also featured in this exhibition.

Situated roughly in the middle of the exhibit are three major paintings by Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo, herself a famous Mexican painter. These paintings were created in San Francisco, and one of them is a self portrait of her standing next to Rivera.

Though some may think of Rivera primarily as a muralist, it was his portraits that earned him acclaim first, but that work was responsible for setting him up for the next phase, in murals. One section of the exhibition explores that earlier work, featuring primarily portraits and images of mothers and children.

Rivera had a large practice creating individual oil paintings for wealthy collectors, many of whom were in the U.S.

“It might not seem like it just by looking at the individual paintings, but this is setting the stage for that … his time in California,” Padgett says. The wealthy patrons and their networks were conduits for Rivera receiving mural commissions.

One of the portraits that seems to be in a jungle setting was owned by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s wife, an important collector and one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art. She was involved with Rivera’s commission for the mural at Rockefeller Center.

A couple of videos in the galleries will give greater insights into Rivera’s artistic process. In one, an animation lends further detail into the mural making, step by step, from original conception and drawing to grinding of pigments, finishing coats and layers, all the way to the finished project. The other is a historic video of Rivera himself in action. Watching it gives viewers an idea of what a fast painter he was and the collaboration those projects took.

By the time you take in Rivera’s works of the 1940s, you might notice bigger changes. The images are more indicative of pop culture, with the influence of movies and TV, and stylistically they’re quite different.

“We can see the murals developing from very simple compositions to increasingly more complex (ones) with more figures, then shifts of scale and time and space,” says guest curator James Oles. The best way to understand Rivera’s more complicated murals is to internalize that they are not easel paintings. They’re not single scenes of anything. “The images are taken from different realities, different spaces and times that have been cut out and pasted together to create a new scene to depict something that no human eye would ever (see naturally).”

Rivera came into that collage-style perspective through his time in Paris, in the 1910s, as a cubist. That’s where he learned that the modern artist didn’t have to resort to roles of Italian Renaissance perspective to create a believable space, Oles says.

“That was not the responsibility of the artist, to mirror reality,” he says. Essentially these later works are the result of studying lots of things from many perspectives over a longer period of time. “This is multiple realities of multiple times. It’s (influenced by) what Rivera’s reading, thinking, what’s going on in the world, history, films he’s watching, archaeology he’s studying, his time in San Francisco and Mexico, and taking all those elements to bring them together into one space to see them at once.”



‘Diego Rivera’s America’

WHEN — Through July 31

WHERE — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 600 Museum Way, Bentonville

COST — $12 per adult; members, SNAP participants, veterans and youth ages 18 and younger are free

INFO — or 657-2335

Categories: Galleries