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Recent Work By Diego RiveraBy Francis Hamilton
( Orginally published June 1944 )
If a writer on modern art were asked to name the ten outstanding modern artists of the present time it is practically certain that whoever the other nine might be, one of them would be the Mexican painter, Diego Rivera. An artist of international reputation, Rivera has known three periods in his career, and now, at the height of his powers, gives no indication that the third is to be the final one. The first was the European period, or specifically, a Parisian one. The second and third have seen the execution of his murals far institutions in America and Mexico, which have gone forward together and do not follow in chronological sequence. We in America began to hear of Rivera first as one of the leading exhibitors among the group of French modern artists including Picasso, Bracque, Derain, Gris, Metzinger, Dufy, Matisse and others who in the very early days of modernism used to be called lc s f fauves, the wild ones, although the term seems ridiculous today, now that all of these artists are represented in museums, and great collections are built up just to represent them.
Rivera was born at Guanajuato in 1886. His first art training was at the San Carlos Academy and at the age of seventeen he left his native country for Spain. He travelled extensively in Europe and finally became associated with the most significant group of French artists of our time. He returned to Mexico after the triumph of the Revolution and soon became recognized as a leader in mural painting. His first work of this kind, which was executed in encaustic, was the decoration for the Bolivar Amphitheater of the National Preparatory School. He painted the frescoes in the Ministry of Public Education, also the stairway in the Agricultural School at Chapingo, 1930-1936, and did the decorations in the Governor's Palace at Cuernavaca. His strong social interests, his sympathy with the common man, and his knowledge of his country's struggles were all summed up in one particularly striking work, the paintings for the monumental stairway in the National Palace in Mexico City.
Rivera has received a great deal of recognition in America. In spite of the fact that a few people remember him only for the notoriety which the removal of the great panel he executed for one of the buildings in Rockefeller Center brought him, his reputation with serious students is not affected one way or the other by the fact that on that occasion he introduced the figure of the elder Rockefeller in no flattering light. His real relation to mural decoration in America is based securely on a series of extensive works. Some of his best decorations are in the stock exchange of San Francisco and in the School of the Fine Arts in that city. His murals are also seen in the Detroit Institute of Arts and in the New Workers' School of the City of New York. In December, 1931, a large retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was probably the largest "one-man show" ever given for a living artist.
Rivera is undoubtedly not only one of the leading Mexican artists of today, but he is also a leader in an international sense. Because of the respect with which every phase of his art is received in all centers of art, it was a significant triumph for the Fifth Floor Galleries at Gimbel's to be able to present. recently a large selection of the latest water colors and drawings by Rivera in conjunction with the work of his almost equally well known contemporary, Jose Clemente Orozco. Rivera's water colors are not the usual modest little sketches which generally appear in water color exhibitions. He uses large sheets of paper, about the size an artist would select for an oil painting. He is essentially a mural artist and thinks in terms of space. His water colors, even where the subjects are slight, are filled with the feeling of the third dimension. His colors are clear and fresh, and he is fond of selecting a few tones for his palette and, by using modulations of the same color and a bit of contrast, working out something that has an arresting sense of pattern. Outlines are apt to be sketched in freely with crayon or chalk. These water colors and drawings, as may be seen from the subjects illustrated, have a breeziness about them, an effect of having been set down with gusto. The material consists of impressions of the scenes of every day life and every day people. Women washing laundry at Santa Clara, a peon family sitting on the floor for lunch, a street scene with loungers wearing broad brimmed hats-the subject matter is drawn from the life around him and presented without idealization or prettiness, but with a deep, human sympathy. Rivera is an accomplished designer of patterns; he sees things in balances of light and dark, grasps the essentials and lets the rest go. There is so strong a racial quality in his art that his paintings seem part and parcel of the soil of Mexico itself.
The paintings exhibited looked particularly well in their modern framing. They are mounted on top of wide mats of monks' cloth and surrounded with natural wood frames. We can think of no better decoration for a room which embodies the ideas of a modern architect than these paintings by Rivera.