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Diego Rivera, The Cubist?

Mexican artist Diego Rivera is perhaps best known for his ill-fated decision to include Soviet dictator Vladimir Lenin’s image in a mural commissioned for the lobby of the then-newly constructed Rockefeller Center — a move which so enraged the building’s managers that Rivera was dismissed from the project and the mural destroyed.

More recently, the mercurial Mexican resurfaced in the public imagination as the explosive, congenitally unfaithful husband of artist Frida Kahlo, as depicted in the 2002 Academy Award-winning biopic “Frida.”

But before the Bolshevik Revolution, before the marriage to Frida and his famous murals, there was Rivera the Mexican in Paris, who fraternized with Picasso, Mondrian and Lipchitz, had a common-law Russian wife, the painter Angelina Beloff, and experimented with one of the past century’s most revolutionary artistic techniques. All this while digesting the profound political developments playing out both in his native land and on the international stage.

It was during this expatriate tenure, spent in France and Spain, that Rivera completed the 21 works on display in “The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics, Place,” opening Sunday at the National Gallery of Art.

Coming less than three months after the closing of “Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier,” the Rivera show in some ways picks up where the Spaniard’s exhibit left off; here, Rivera expands on the more formulistic cubism Picasso pioneered. Where Picasso’s early cubism is coolly intellectual, Rivera’s bursts with vibrant color, artistic quotations and frequent references to the nationalistic Zeitgeist of the first part of the 20th century.

When it came to conveying his response to the revolution engulfing his homeland and to the onslaught of World War I, Rivera, who by 1912 had set up shop at 26 rue du Départ in the heart of Montparnasse bohemia, appeared ideally perched to begin synthesizing a response to these dual convulsions.

The result: cubism with a nationalistic twist. Pictures that tread increasingly abstract paths, without losing sight of the “mementos of Mexico,” as curator Leah Dickerman dubbed the petates, equipal and colorful serapes Rivera injected throughout these canvases. “He infuses his pictures with nostalgia and political sympathy,” said Dickerman. And even among the Timothy Leary-worthy psychedelia of his “No. 9, Spanish Still Life” — a gift to the gallery from the late Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham — Rivera manages to find a place for a trio of molinillos, the utensil used in the preparation of traditional Mexican hot chocolate.

Oddly enough, it is an enormous portrait of a fellow countryman — the elegant Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard juxtaposed against a Parisian cityscape belching crescents of smoke — with its relatively sparse cubist aesthetic, that is perhaps the most compelling reason to visit the exhibit. It is, quite simply, a flawless, goosebump-eliciting creation — the sort of work that manages to invoke Velázquez, Manet and Braque, just to name a few, while simultaneously conveying the troubled complexity of both the encroaching machine age and the expatriate existence.

But it is not just his native land that Rivera drew upon in these pictures.

By the time Europe was in the throes of the Great War, Rivera, who had temporarily relocated to Madrid, left no doubt where his new allegiances lay. Accordingly, many of the paintings are populated with the pedestrian icons of France and Spain: the Eiffel Tower, the Great Ferris Wheel of the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, a French soldier at lunch, bottles of the Spanish liqueur Anís del Mono.

The tangible sense of nationalism permeating Rivera’s works comes to a head in his “Zapatista Landscape,” painted in 1915 at the height of the Mexican Revolution. Here, Rivera, who mendaciously claimed to have fought with the fabled revolutionary’s forces, depicts in fractured form the accouterments of the peasant fighter — sombrero, serape and cartridge belt — fanning out around the central implement, a sparingly rendered rifle.

“I can’t think of any other cubist painting with a rifle in it,” wryly observed one art historian, as she previewed the works earlier this week.

And standing in the center of the single-room exhibit — so as to allow viewing of an earlier painting on its backside — the work does cast a slightly militaristic pall over the exhibition; its guerrilla imagery rendered in such vivid impasto some of it appears on the verge of leaping off the canvas. Rivera would go so far as to assert that the work “was probably the most faithful expression of the Mexican mood that I have ever achieved.” So important was this “Mexican trophy,” the hot-tempered Rivera would even sever his friendship with Picasso over charges that the Spaniard subsequently plagiarized the work.

As the roaring ’20s approached, Rivera, destined to become both a great muralist and heartbreaker of Picassian proportions, abruptly switched directions, abandoning cubism, and, not long after that, Beloff, leaving “Old Europe” in the dust to chase the promise of fresh artistic horizons in the New World.

“The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera” runs through July 25 in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. For a complete listing of events associated with the exhibit, go to

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