Crystal Bridges’s Diego Rivera Show Is Long Overdue, But Shies From His Politics

Northwest Arkansas is not the first place you would think to stage the first major exhibition of work by Mexican artist Diego Rivera in two decades.

Yet, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is uniquely suited for Diego Rivera’s America. It’s a museum specifically for American art  (unfortunately people often forget that the United States and Mexico are both part of North America) and Bentonville, where the museum is located, is among the fastest growing cities in the U.S. and the surrounding area has a rapidly growing Hispanic community. Sadly, the exhibition only hints at Rivera’s politics, which championed the working class and dreamed of a more equitable world, a missed opportunity in a society so focused on diversity and inclusion.

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A group of workers on top of a scaffold painting an image of a mural.

With over 130 works including easel paintings, pastels, watercolors, illustrations for print magazines, and of course the murals on which Rivera’s legacy is built, the show has the weight of a full-on retrospective, but that is definitely not what it is. Here, Rivera is presented fully formed. The works, as the title suggests, were all made in either Mexico or the United States between the 1920s and the early 1940s.

“There have been two major retrospectives of Diego Rivera, one in Detroit in the ’80s, and one in Cleveland in the ’90s,” James Oles, the exhibition’s curator, told ARTnews. “I didn’t want to repeat those models, so I chose to focus on about the period between 1921, when he returns to Mexico after this extended time in Europe and paints his first mural, to the beginning of the Cold War, when Rivera’s impact and influence in the United States in particular begins to wane because of the shifting political climate.”

Diego Rivera, La Tortillera (The Tortilla Maker), 1926, oil on canvas,
42 3/16 x 35 3/16 in. University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine Dean’s Office at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. © 2022 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Because of the specific nature of the exhibition, those unfamiliar with Rivera’s work would very much benefit from reading the labels, which give a great deal of arguably-needed context about Rivera’s life before the years covered in the exhibitionWithout a doubt, the show is anchored by Rivera’s murals. It’s a tricky thing, showing murals anywhere other than on the walls where they were painted, but Oles found a way around that obstacle: projections.

The projections are a novel idea, giving visitors a life-sized view of Rivera’s most gripping stuff in more ways than one. That’s because they aren’t just projected stills but short films with accompanying sound. It’s so simple, so smart. But, as most creative types know, it’s often the simple things that are most difficult to get right. 

“I kind of timed it so that if you walked into the room, you might see nothing. But if you were a little patient, then suddenly somebody would appear or some action would happen,” said Oles. “One of the big things that a museum curator wants is for people to stop and look, instead of just walking by, looking at the label and moving on to the next work of art. But, with these videos people stop and look … kids just come in and sit on the floor and watch the film. There’s no story, no plot. But that someone can enjoy watching the whole thing for three or four minutes, that’s a huge success story.” 

Unfortunately, the projections just slightly miss their mark, sadly taking away from the grandeur of Rivera’s murals. To give these short films life, to show scale, and to inject some narrative, Oles hired actors that appear randomly during each loop. A preteen ensemble duo sits in front of one, sawing away at their instruments on an otherwise empty stage. During another, chicly dressed women and tuxedoed waiters walk up and down a set of stairs while in the background floats the clamor of a Roaring ’20s themed party. But it’s clear we aren’t at the party. And the people walk by so infrequently that one gets the feeling there actually isn’t a party at all, or a concert. It’s all a slightly distracting put-on that draws the eye aways from the murals.

Diego Rivera, La Ofrenda (The Offering), 1934, oil on canvas
48 3/4 x 60 1/2 in. Art Bridges. © 2022 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The first projected mural you come across (the one with the string duo) is Creation (1923). Commissioned by José Vasconcelos, the first secretariat of public education after the revolution, it was Rivera’s first important mural. Heavily biblical, the fresco is aesthetically inspired more by Rivera’s time in Europe than the later murals, but his unique style is fully present. Thick, almost cartoonish hands and limbs that somehow project a solemn dignity and, at its center, a man who represents the “mestizaje,” that mixture of Indigenous and European cultures that makes Mexico unique.

Where the projected murals are beautiful and slightly awkward, the preparatory sketches and ephemera throughout the exhibition are elegant, subtle, and as powerful as the finished works. They provide a glimpse into Rivera’s mind, his processes, and reveal that Rivera was not just a singular painter but also an exceptional draftsman, illustrator, and storyteller. The chalk and charcoal studies for Creation are a grad school seminar in anatomy, and the chalk-on-paper version of The Corn Seller, which hangs right next to the oil-and-canvas version are worth the trip down south alone.

The exhibition is organized into thematic galleries, which put the objects, scenes, and cultural intricacies that set Rivera’s imagination to work in pleasant, digestible portions. A room dedicated to pictures of mothers and daughters not only shows Rivera’s gentle touch but also, if you’re paying attention, his revolutionary hope in a generation that at the time was still counting on their fingers and braiding each other’s hair. Another is focused on the rural customs and idyllic culture of Tehuantepec, a municipality in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Rivera first visited the area in 1922, shortly after joining the Mexican Communist Party, and like many before and after romanticized the area’s pastotal customs and traditions, which fell in line with the Communist goal of an economic system that would lead to an equitable society that still embraced cultural diversity.

Throughout the show, especially in the murals, is Rivera’s idealized version of Communism. As strange as it sounds now, in the 1930s, when the US economy was crippled by the Great Depression, the idea that Capitalism as an economic system was on its way out was commonly held and Communism seemed like a viable alternative. Throughout the exhibition, the labels hint at Rivera’s Communist ideals with words like “workers” and “working class” but there isn’t much mention of his political leanings until the gallery dedicated to “the proletariat.”

This feels another slightly missed opportunity in that the explanation of what Communism meant back then (as opposed to what it means in a post-Cold War society) feels like an afterthought, or worse, something that was intentionally avoided. Oles explained, however, that apart from the murals not much of Rivera’s work had overtly political themes or images, in large part because he survived on commissions from wealthy patrons who were (gasp!) more interested in “tranquil and idealized images of traditional life in Mexico” then radical left-wing imagery. And, of course, like Rivera, museums often rely on the whim of generous patrons and Oles pointed out that “that there simply aren’t many images that one can borrow with that [radical] theme.”

(Incidentally, another reason Crystal Bridges is so perfect for this Rivera exhibition is that the museum is a public non-profit founded by Alice Walton of the Walmart family, exactly the kind of patrons that Rivera relied on throughout his life.)

Still, the proletariat room highlights Rivera’s illustrations for magazines like Fortune and reminds viewers that, back then, communists and capitalists were united against fascist threats like Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain. And, it would be remiss to leave out the studies and cartoons made in preparation for the mural Man at the Crossroads, a fresco commissioned by the Rockefellers in 1932 for the lobby of the RCA building at Rockefeller Center. The work was harangued by the media as “anti-capitalist propaganda” before it was completed, which ultimately led to its destruction.

In his day, Rivera was considered equal to modern art giants like Picasso and Modigliani, a reputation that has undeservedly waned. An exhibition of this magnitude and depth is well deserved and will hopefully encourage not only an interest in Rivera’s work but also in his revolutionary ideals, class consciousness, and his cultural empathy.

Editors note: a previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Crystal Bridges as a private institution.

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