At LACMA, Picasso vs. Rivera

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Diego Rivera (1886-1957) –– two great artists whose creativity greatly defined the art of the 20th century. Both were larger-than-life, difficult personalities. Both were born –– five years apart –– at the end of the 19th century. But it was the tumultuous 20th century, with its wars and revolutions, that informed and shaped their art.

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(L) Man Attacked by a Lion. Iberian, Osuna, 6th-5th century BCE
(R) Pablo Picasso, "Self-Portrait (Autoportrait)," 1906
Oil on canvas

The new blockbuster exhibition at LACMA, Picasso & Rivera: Conversations across Time, not only presents a number of the major works of both artists, but also juxtaposes their artworks with excellent examples of Greco-Roman antiquities along with Pre-Columbian Aztec sculptures. There is a must-read scholarly catalogue with a treasure trove of information about both artists. It's fascinating to see their early drawings, where both of them were making studies of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures –– exactly the way all art students around the world did at the time.

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(L) Pablo Picasso, "Man with a Pipe," 1915
(R) Diego Rivera, "Sailor at Lunch," 1914
Oil on canvas

The most surprising aspect of this exhibition for me was learning about the friendship and collaboration between the two of them: both outsiders, living in Paris, still young and struggling, one from Spain and the other from Mexico. And when you have a chance to look at some of their Cubist paintings hanging side-by-side, try to guess –– without looking at the labels –– which is Picasso and which is Rivera.

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(L) Seated Standard Bearer. Mexico, Aztec, Veracruz, 1250-1521
Sandstone, laminated
(R) Diego Rivera, "Frida's Friend (El Amigo de Frida)," 1931
Oil on canvas

Another aspect of this exhibition that allows you to learn a lot is seeing and understanding that through their long careers both artists continued to be in dialogue with ancient art. The design and installation of this exhibition made me think about the logistics of seating big-time celebrities at a dinner party, hoping that they will hit it off instead of giving each other the cold shoulder. Looking at Rivera's painting "Frida's Friend" (1931) next to a sandstone Aztec sculpture of a seated man, one becomes aware that Rivera is not just inspired by the ancient work, but absorbs and digests it –– and ultimately liberates himself.

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(L) Male Torso. Roman, 100 CE
(R) Pablo Picasso, "The Pipes of Pan," 1923
Oil on Canvas

The difference between Picasso and Rivera, as this exhibition demonstrates, is that Picasso achieved his greatness at a relatively early stage in his career. His genius is already there, even in his early self-portrait (1906). And then we see his large 1923 painting "The Pipes of Pan," with its two semi-nude male figures displayed next to an ancient Roman marble male torso. And once again, here's Picasso at his absolute best. And he continues to be great through most of his career, from "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" to "Guernica" and beyond.

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(L) Macehual (Commoner). Mexico, Aztec, 1250-1521
(R) Diego Rivera, "Flower Day," 1925
Oil on Canvas

One thing this exhibition doesn't allow us to experience is Diego Rivera at his absolute best –– his famous murals in Mexico City and at the Detroit Institute of Arts here in the US. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is the lucky owner of the iconic 1925 painting by Rivera, "Flower Day" with its image of a person selling huge amount of calla lilies. Looking at this great painting, one starts dreaming of seeing Rivera's frescos next to Picasso's greatest hits. Obviously, that would be more than a 'conversation across time'… it would be a battle between two heavyweight champions, two genius artists.

All photos by Edward Goldman.



Benjamin Gottlieb