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The murals of Diego Rivera: A journey of color, class and conscience The murals of Diego Rivera: A journey of color, class and conscience

The murals of Diego Rivera: A journey of color, class and conscience The murals of Diego Rivera: A journey of color, class and conscience

NEW YORK — “Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art” on display at MoMA through May 14 is about colors and class and conflict. It’s a journey into history and imagination. Most of all: It ventures deeply into the conscience of one of the century’s most provocative artists.

The Rivera exhibit takes us places, inspires reflection. As such: It’s a travel experience of the highest order.

Rivera — painter, dreamer, Mexican; child of affluence; champion of Communism; “a revolutionary with a paintbox” — lived from 1886 to 1957. Yet the frescoes in the MoMA exhibit, created in 1931 and 1932, send messages that flare beyond the bounds of time. They reference the Age of the Aztecs, Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, New York of the 1930s and, by the extension of their social themes, the Occupy Wall Street movement of today.

As this exhibit makes clear, Rivera loved New York. He loved machines and construction. He loved the notion of New York as urban utopia, ultra-modern, ultra-technological, built by empowered American workers. Yet Rivera’s urban romanticism bumps hard against his humanitarian conscience.

In “Frozen Assets” — one of the most engaging frescoes of the exhibit — Rivera presents a glittering New York skyline juxtaposed against masses of unemployed workers in a wharf-side dormitory and an underground bank vault in which the elite store their riches. Skyline. Strata. The secret story.

Rivera wrote, soon afterward, about his desire to illuminate “the continuous struggle between the privileged and the dispossessed.” Eighty years later, Rivera’s preoccupation is at the very heart of current events in America.

Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art” references — and reunites, conceptually — eight “portable” murals the Mexican painter created for a major Rivera retrospective at MoMA in 1931. It was a big event in its day: 150 pieces in all — “oils, pastels, watercolors, black and whites,” as Rivera remembered it — featuring a living artist at the peak of his powers.

Rivera believed in murals, loved the public nature of fresco art, thought America the perfect place for such a form. But while paintings were easy to assemble for a retrospective show … it was impossible for New Yorkers in 1931 to see his best murals in person.

What to do?

In the end, Rivera and MoMA decided he would produce five portable, transportable frescoes — huge stone “snapshots” from his famous Mexican murals, focusing on themes of conflict and power. What’s more, he would create three new portable frescoes with New York themes.

The most familiar of these images, “Agrarian Leader Zapata” — Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, holding the bridle of a glorious white horse as he stands over the dead body of its privileged owner — opens the window to the exhibit. There’s no character in the entire exhibit more beautiful, more alive in the eyes, more glorious in form, than the white horse in this first fresco. The prize.

As curator Leah Dickerman points out right away, Rivera’s Mexican murals are about power relationships: Workers raise their fists against armed police; an Aztec slays a conquistador; indentured servants haul sugar cane under the control of hacienda owners. The white horse in this 8-foot-tall fresco is the only central image depicted in the Mexican murals that is not directly involved in the struggle for power. Beautiful in line and form as a piece of art, significant in that Rivera “awards” it to Zapata.

The Rivera exhibit is not at all large. But the layout of the frescoes inspires a number of journeys — into color and line; into history; into process; into the artist’s connection to the theme; into Rivera’s heart. The exhibit showcases five of the original eight murals from 1931, but even the “missing” murals are represented in the form of Rivera’s preliminary charcoal sketches or giant “cartoon” drafts. These, especially, ripple with the passion of the artist in the moment of creation.

In the gallery: The colors, so translucent; the lines, so graceful; the composition, often suggestive of the Renaissance; the stories, dominated by force — both palpable and inferred. A single fist, raised against an array of police clubs. Rows and rows of homeless bodies, without faces.

By Brad Buchholz

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