Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Painting by the Square Foot

As painters, we often go our merry way churning out dozens of modest size easel paintings--portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, abstracts--congratulating ourselves, patting ourselves on the back for a job well-done, reasonably satisfied by our artistic efforts, sales, and critical acclaim. If we challenge ourselves, we usually do so in terms of technique, or color, or subject matter. And except for a few abstractionist among us who sometimes let the dimensions of their paintings get a little out of hand, most of us never challenge ourselves in terms of size. How many of you ever completed a painting over a hundred square feet?  I figured as much. Neither have I. I'd like to sometime though, before I get too old to climb the scaffolding.

Cubist Self-Portrait, 1913-17, Diego Rivera
Mural painting brings to mind the geniuses of the Renaissance. On this side of the ocean it brings to mind (first at least) the inimitable Mr. Diego Rivera. Born in 1886, Rivera was a contemporary of Picasso and Matisse, except that he was born on the wrong continent, Guanajuato, Mexico. He began by studying sculpture at the academy of Jose Guadalupe Posada in Mexico City before winning a four-year scholarship which took him to Spain. There he studied with Eduardo Chicharro, a realist painter. However it also served to introduce him to Picasso and Cubism. Both influences stuck. He also picked up a little Ingres, some Cezanne, and a generous helping of Renaissance murals to season the mix.

Alegory of California,
Diego Rivera
In returning to Mexico, Rivera began to emulate the Renaissance masters decorating churches. Eventually, he managed to acquire a government position in the arts allowing him to do his large-scale best all over the country, mostly for the Department of Education. Briefly he served as director of the Academy of San Carlos but was soon booted from that position when his ideas of what an art curriculum should look like turned out too be a little to radical for that institution. It was just as well.  The freedom allowed him to marry fellow-artist Frida Kahlo (who often appeared in his creations as seen in the bottom mural) and pursue more lucrative commissions north of the border during the 1930s, first in San Francisco, where he left behind An Allegory of California (left) for the stock exchange there, then to even more prestigious commissions in Detroit for Henry Ford, and New York for the Rockefellers. He died in 1957 at the age of 71, celebrated as Mexico's greatest artist, and the distinction of probably having covered more square feet with painted images than any artist since Michelangelo.

Pan American Unity Mural, 1940, Diego Rivera, San Francisco Community College,
features his wife (they married twice), Frida Kahlo, holding the palette.