The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics, Place

Introduction | Early Life | Montparnasse | Sojourn to Spain | Nationalism | Return to Spain | Paris during WWI | Revolution | Image List | Exhibition Information

Return to Spain and Outbreak of World War I

image: Diego Rivera, Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower), 1914In the summer of 1914, as the European political situation was reaching a crisis point, Rivera, Beloff, Lipchitz, and several other artists and writers traveled to the Balearic Islands off the Spanish coast for a walking and sketching tour. While executing naturalistic landscapes, Rivera also, as he would write, "continued my experiments with Cubism. I had attempted to achieve new textures and tactile effects by mixing substances like sand and sawdust in oils." These tangible surfaces illustrate Rivera's apparent pursuit of a Bergsonian premise: that experience is filtered through memory and sense perception, with the two interrelated.

While Rivera and his friends were in Mallorca, the largest of the islands, their sojourn was dramatically interrupted by the news of the eruption of World War I. Rather than return immediately to France, Rivera and Beloff remained in neutral Spain, traveling to Barcelona and from there to Madrid. There Rivera became reacquainted with the Spanish writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna, as well as fellow Mexican expatriates, including the architect Jesús Acevedo and the writer Alfonso Reyes.

Rivera also became a central figure of a larger, international artistic community transported from Montparnasse to Madrid, and he openly proclaimed his patriotism for France during the period. As Reyes wrote, "Rivera was all fired up for getting back to France and going to war." The artist later told of attempting to enlist several times, only to be rejected by the French army. Though a notoriously unreliable narrator, Rivera may have in fact been truthful in his account, for he had flat feet and his weight, at times, exceeded three hundred pounds.

The painted record of his patriotic fervor, a work entitled Eiffel Tower, was executed in Spain in November 1914. Rivera's innovative composition highlights the Eiffel Tower, merging its structure with the Great Wheel. The preeminent emblem of Paris, the tower was also an appropriate symbol for France during the conflict, as it functioned as a radio transmitter and flashed electric light in the blue, white, and red of the French tricolor. In Rivera's painting, these symbolic colors appear in the background at right and are repeated in a flag-like form just below the wheel and tower, which in contrast are rendered ghostly pale. The ethereal forms of these icons of Parisian modernity intimate Rivera's distance from the city. Characteristically, Rivera was not content with simply creating an homage to his adopted homeland, but added another banner on a building at lower right that echoes the Mexican national colors of green, white, and red.

Rivera shared an interest in cultural nationalism with his boyhood friend Jesús T. Acevedo, whom the artist painted in early 1915. Acevedo--an architect and art critic in political exile in Madrid--discussed at length with Rivera the question of whether Mexican art could intrinsically communicate its identity. They were also committed to creating works that were both Mexican and modern, as is evident in The Architect (Jesús T. Acevedo), in which the subject is presented as both. Perhaps in reference to his subject's occupation, it is a study in precision, the overall trapezoidal structure of Acevedo's face and head itself constructed through a sequence of geometric forms. Here, Rivera subtly specifies the Mexicanidad of both sitter and artist through Acevedo's attire, composed from a palette based on the green, white, and red of the Mexican flag.

Pictorial devices often repeat from one painting to the next, creating a close harmony of form between Rivera's portraits and still-life paintings. The representation of Acevedo neatly parallels perhaps the most complex of all Rivera's cubist still-lifes, No. 9, Spanish Still Life. In addition to the simulated wood-grain table and tiled floor, the paintings share a vortex of shifting planes, with solid, transparent, and ghost forms that whirl around a central element. In this case, the earthenware vessel receives particular emphasis: its heavily worked surface calls to mind not only the tangible presence of the jar but the substance of which it is made. Its form conjures Rivera's earlier Toledan representations of women with water jars, and it appears here as a distilled emblem of Spain. For Rivera, however, memories of place were not isolated. Within this Spanish still life appear three long, pointed molinillos--a familiar Mexican utensil used to grind cacao beans and whip the traditional drink chocolate de agua, which was brought to Spain by the conquistadors in the sixteenth century. The inclusion of a domestic Mexican object within a Spanish still life serves as a reference to home from afar, as well as a reminder of the exportation of ancient Mexican customs to Spain.

image: Diego Rivera, Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower), 1914image: Diego Rivera, The Architect (Jes™s T. Acevedo), 1915image: Diego Rivera, No. 9, Nature morte espagnole (Spanish Still Life), 1915

1. Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower), 1914
2. The Architect (Jesús T. Acevedo), 1915
3. No. 9, Nature morte espagnole (Spanish Still Life), 1915

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