Diego Rivera: The Cubist Portraits, 1913-1917 at the Meadows Museum
by James Michael Starr
That knife-in-the-back-of-the-neck might have been just the wake-up call Diego Rivera needed. Paris “she-devil” Marevna Vorobieva-Stebelska had the shiv up her sleeve, awaiting their final embrace before Diego’s return to common-law wife Angelina Beloff. Then it was “do svidanya, you cad.” As he dropped to the floor, she used it to cut her own throat, surrealist style.
Rivera said he literally heard bells. But that was probably just nerve damage, and if indeed there was a real epiphany, it didn’t precipitate his abandonment of reclining female figures but rather the end of a five-year fling with Cubism, one chronicled in Diego Rivera: The Cubist Portraits, 1913-1917, at the Meadows Museum through September 20.
Add that to his characterization in the film Frida and one might conclude Rivera (1886-1957) changed art movements like he changed wives. By 1921 he’d already moved on to the Social Realism we know him for, he was back home in Mexico painting common-law No. 2, Lupe Marín, into the thousand-square-foot mural Creation, and a teen-aged Kahlo was teasing him from behind a pillar.
But in this exhibition, totaling 31 works (23 chronologically arranged paintings with eight works on paper), the artist can be seen in a sincere search to find himself on his own canvas.
The first three paintings in the catalog, Girl with Artichokes, Girl with Fans and The Sculptor (Portrait of Oscar Miestchaninoff), all from 1913, record this search in progress. They pick up with Rivera’s first attempts at Cubist treatments after floundering for several years in what Mexican scholar and exhibition curator Sylvia Navarrete, calls “a rather insipid strain of naturalism.” Being transitional works, though, these don’t so much portray their subjects from Cubism’s different viewpoints as just shake them and then record the blurred image.
By the time Alexandre Zinoviev sat for Portrait of a Painter (1913), Rivera could at least bring himself to radically fragment his subject. However, the Russian artist (and spy for the czar) appears so mechanically split and splayed as to resemble a Joel Peter Witkin cadaver, or a trick with mirrors.
Not until Woman at the Well (1913) does Rivera appear to get it, although even that painting still echoes past reverberations. Finally comes 1914 and the kaleidoscopic Two Women (Portrait of Angelina Beloff and Alma Dolores Bastién), and it’s a horse race from there on out as he abandons fear of commitment and subscribes so fully to the Cubist canon he’ll soon pick fights with Picasso.
It may also be of interest to note that that last work from 1913 lay hidden for more than 60 years, covered by pigment on the other side of a canvas Rivera later used to paint Zapatista Landscape (1915), “the result of economizing during a period of hard times,” and only discovered by restoration efforts in 1977. The Meadows makes no big fuss about the curiosity, but displays the conjoined works in a freestanding, double-faced case atop a plinth. More than one viewer commented on examining both paintings without realizing they were two sides of the same canvas.
After his close shave with Vorobieva-Stebelska, another couple years would pass before Rivera actually abandoned cubism, departing Paris for Italy and that Picasso/Braque contrivance for socialist murals. But you can already see it coming in the catalog’s last three numbers, a distinct before-and-after as he shifts gears to accelerate his movement away from a movement.
It begins at number 29, Woman Seated in an Armchair (1917), which portrays the dangerous Marievna with pulchritude even Cubism can’t flatten, but also with Rivera’s signature and not-so-sexy Popeye wink, one eye a dot and the other a dash.
Then on her heels come 30 and 31, Seated Woman and Portrait of Madame Marguerite Lhote. And while both date from that same year, there now appear, amid all the prismatic planes, recognizably drawn facial features, delicate, Neoclassical strokes that mark his cooling towards passionless geometry.
So, in the end, Rivera snuck out on Cubism as coyly as he’d flirted with it at the start.
He describes his disenchantment in the autobiography My Art, My Life: “When it dawned on me that all this innovation had little to do with real life, I would surrender all the glory and acclaim cubism had brought me for a way in art truer to my inmost feelings.”
The Meadows exhibition is a thoughtful survey in general. Given the little recognition he actually received at the time, plus the fact that Rivera’s name is rarely connected with better known Cubists, it appears “all the glory and acclaim” he referred to must remain the legend in his own mind. And notes in the catalog and wall texts don’t claim otherwise.
Acknowledging what might be a mostly purist or academic appeal in the gathered works, Navarrete concedes, “everything would seem to indicate that Rivera’s experience with Cubism was little more than an interlude, a detour.” Still, that scenic overlook was worth the stop, happening as it did on the way to his becoming, if possible, the larger-than-life figure he is among early twentieth-century artists.
More importantly, the brevity of Cubism relative to other significant movements, the important cultural figures who were his, shall we say, fellow travelers and Rivera’s own short-term but intense devotion to the form, all come together in this exhibition to offer a rare, comprehendible and concise study of one artist’s quest for significance.
Diego Rivera: The Cubist Portraits, 1913-1917
Southern Methodist University
June 21 – September 20, 2009