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Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art
This discussion of "Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art" by Ariella Budick was originally published in the Life & Arts section of The Financial Times. The exhibit runs at MoMA through May 14.
After 80 years of separation, five Diego Rivera murals have got back together at the Museum of Modern Art in a celebratory reunion that recalls the institution’s early days. With their Renaissance poise and glowing stillness, their graphic intensity that withers in reproduction but hits you at architectural scale, these huge panoramas of Mexican history and New York life have the same vividness and power that they did in 1931. The newly minted MoMA, now one of the top museums in New York, devoted its first one-man show to Matisse that year, but its second – a mid-career Rivera retrospective – was the bigger sensation. And it only materialised because of the strange three-way symbiosis among connoisseurs of modern art, a family of oil tycoons and a roving Mexican leftist.
The story goes back to 1927, when the Mexican Communist party sent Rivera to Moscow for the 10th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Alfred Barr, MoMA’s founding director, also happened to be in Moscow, where he was on the look-out for the latest trends. He was determined to meet Rivera, whose murals he knew only by reputation. It was an auspicious encounter. Barr described Rivera as “a large, hearty, rather Rabelaisian character”. He hinted at a future retrospective, which was a bit of a stretch, as MoMA didn’t yet exist. But at that Moscow rendezvous, the communist artist flirted with establishment affluence, and both were smitten.