The curator of a new Christie’s-sponsored exhibition at LACMA explains how these two friends, rivals and giants of Modernism not only looked to the future, but also embraced the ancient art of their respective cultures
Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera were friends, rivals and two of the mightiest artists working in Paris in the early 20th century. Both were outsiders — Picasso hailing from Malaga in Spain, Rivera from Guanajuato in Mexico — and both were pioneers of Cubism. The duo are now the subject of an exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), sponsored by Christie’s, featuring more than 100 of their paintings and prints.
Cubism was a profoundly progressive movement, but what Picasso and Rivera did subsequent to it was perform one of art’s ultimate volte-faces — they looked back. In the 1920s and 1930s, by which time Rivera had returned to Mexico to support its recent Revolution, both men were embracing the ancient art of their respective cultures: Mediterranean and Pre-Columbian.
For Diana Magaloni, curator of Picasso and Rivera: Conversations Across Time, this was in many ways as radical a move as Cubism had been. Here she discusses the pair’s highly charged relationship — and how, together and apart, they helped change the face of modern art.
The exhibition reunites Rivera and Picasso, two compadres from the former’s decade in Paris between 1911 and 1921. Their friendship wasn’t straightforward, though, was it?
Diana Magaloni: Not at all. They were highly charged, macho characters who also happened to be two of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Their paths first crossed at the start of World War One, as non-combatant artists in Paris, when their French peers were at the Front. Having come to Europe to immerse himself in the continent’s art, Rivera was now developing a name for himself about town, and an intrigued Picasso sent out a request via his friend, the artist Manuel Ortiz de Zarate, for Rivera to visit him immediately. The pair ended up conversing all night — in Spanish — about the future of art, and becoming firm friends.
But is it true that they also came to blows on one occasion, when Rivera accused Picasso of copying one of his paintings? He once said of Picasso, ‘Everything he does is based on the work of somebody else’.
DM: These were proud, passionate men at the forefront of the Cubist movement, which was transforming art as anyone knew it. Rivera thought he’d done his most audacious painting in that style yet — a masterpiece called Zapatista Landscape — only to visit Picasso’s studio one day and encounter a painting by the latter called Man Seated in Shrubbery. The two works had a lot in common, including a pyramidal structure.
Rivera, a giant of a man, was absolutely furious. Picasso tried to assure him that his painting had been completed months earlier. But when the Mexican rubbed a hand over the canvas, he smeared away newly added paint. Let’s just say Rivera wasn’t impressed.
Is one of the objects of the exhibition to highlight that their connection actually extended far beyond their years together in Paris?
DM: Yes. We trace their shared beginnings, doing their studies in an academic tradition. Then came Cubism, before Rivera returned home to spearhead the Muralist movement in support of Mexico’s Revolution. Even on separate continents and in very different circumstances, they follow similar paths in their embrace of the past. They both had great respect for the art of their ancient ancestors: Mesoamerican in Rivera’s case, Classical Greek in Picasso’s. This was the genesis of our exhibition.
They both looked back in order to move forward?
DM: Yes. I remember seeing Rivera’s Flower Day (1925) in the LACMA collection a few years ago and thinking how much it was influenced by Aztec aesthetics.
Just as his famous murals were?
DM: Indeed, and you could say a similar thing about the (Greek) influence on Picasso in works such as Three Women at the Spring (1921), Guernica and his superb etchings series, The Vollard Suite. The pair’s dialogue with the past changed the course of modern art.
Why do you think Picasso’s relationship with Rivera tends to be less widely heralded than those he had with, say, Matisse or Braque?
DM: In part, I suppose, because the relationship was shorter, at least in terms of the time they physically spent together. After Rivera returned to Mexico, there wasn’t too much contact, apart from the occasional letter. But, as we try to show in the exhibition, artistically speaking the pair both travelled across centuries and millennia, acting as would-be ambassadors for ancient art, bringing its power and its glory into the 20th century.
In Rivera’s case, wasn’t there slightly more at stake? A political agenda?
DM: In line with the Mexican Revolution, Rivera was keen to bring Pre-Columbian culture to everyone’s attentions, to show that its art — long suppressed under Spanish colonial rule — was for the Americas what Greco-Roman art was for Europe. But what he and Picasso had in common was a belief that Modernism needn’t be defined by breaking with the past. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the show’s final rooms, we’ve displayed the pair’s works with various sculptures from the ancient cultures that inspired them — and we are hoping it will be a seamless mix.