Diego Rivera in Paris: The Crucial Years

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Between 1911 and 1921, the painter and muralist not only delved into Cubism and Futurism but also developed a style that was independent of fashions and the market.

In rue du Départ in Paris, there are no longer any traces of the building where Diego Rivera lived for almost a decade. Nor are there any plaques to evoke his presence in the Montparnasse district of Paris, whose life at the beginning of the 20th century revolved around a railway station, workshops of artisans and painters. The legendary café La Rotonde, where he used to converse until dawn with painters like Amedeo Modigliani and art critics and poets like Guillaume Apollinaire, is no longer that small and cozy place of bohemia and debate, which its owner attended until the French capital was besieged by the German army in 1914.

At 25, Rivera chose a modest space in an old building. From the third floor, he could see the trains that scattered the smoke of burnt coal, forcing him to move his already hefty frame to close the windows and prevent intoxication. The fine painter from Durango, Ángel Zárraga, also 25 and known among Mexicans as the “first occupant” of Paris, advised the man from Guanajuato to take that room that served both as a workshop and home, where there was usually coffee, tea, and wine, which he shared with his first wife, the Russian from Saint Petersburg, Angelina Beloff, 31 years old. Each had moved to Paris on their own, wishing to study in the city of the Belle Époque and Impressionist aesthetics.

That tall young man, notable for his bulging eyes and a discreet smile, had a certain charisma among colleagues and soon found a place in La Rotonde, holding revolutionary ideas and telling cruel stories that earned him the nickname “tender cannibal.” That’s why an Andalusian named Pablo Ruiz Picasso, who at 30 was already a leader in the workshops of the Bateau Lavoir on the hill of Montmartre, called him to exchange ideas about art.

Cubism was an emerging movement that Rivera would eagerly assimilate, eager to experiment with new techniques, but reluctant to be an imitator. Picasso had surprised in 1907 with the geometry of his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Around 1912 and 1913, painters Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, art critic André Salmon, and Apollinaire published texts that would patent Cubism, breaking with the rigid schemes of the academy.

Like Rivera, other artists from Montparnasse were immigrants. With their work, they would influence a significant change in art and transform the marketing system, which included new marchands or sales representatives, modest gallery owners, organizers of exhibitions in alternative salons, collectors, influential theorists, art critics, editors of specialized magazines, and newspaper columnists who would give the public a media exposure.

Marc Restellini, a French art historian and recognized specialist in the life and work of Modigliani, agrees that “the system changed with these painters. The typology of the merchants was no longer the same. The marchands of the previous generation were bourgeois, rich, from good families: Paul Durand-Ruel, Ambroise Vollard… The people who collected the Impressionists came from very rich families. The painters of the École de Paris were poor painters, while the Impressionists were rich, bourgeois. Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Gustave Caillebotte, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet had money. Modigliani was a foreigner; Chaim Soutine, Moïse Kisling came from a kind of diaspora. The marchands who hired these artists were also poor, so the economic system changed.”

With some Russians, Rivera formed a compact group, and his home became a point of reference for other Europeans and Mexicans. When the Germans besieged Paris, many businesses closed, and Mody, another twenty-something, found refuge in the home of Rivera and Beloff. She recalled it in her memoirs: “Modigliani came to our studio; he spoke little, almost always drawing sketches of portraits of Diego; he often arrived drugged, but even in that state, he behaved like a fine and charming person. He lived in terrible misery.”

One of the portraits of Diegovich, as Angelina called him, was painted by Modigliani in the studio on rue du Depart in 1916, highlighting the yellow and black of the color palette. Rivera himself confirmed it in a letter dated September 2, 1953, addressed to the São Paulo Museum of Art, its current owner. Another oil painting from 1914 in blue and gray tones belongs to a venue in Dusseldorf. For some time, it was part of the collection of Paul Guillaume, one of the marchands who started in the trade for the love of art, outside the Parisian elite, when he was a twenty-something like the painters he represented, mainly Modigliani.

Despite its demolition in 1970, there are plenty of graphic evidence of the building on rue du Départ. The studio window appears in two paintings. One of them is Cubist and is titled Knife and Fruit in Front of a Window, from 1917, but the most notable is a portrait from 1913 of a 22-year-old Mexican, Adolfo Best Maugard, somewhat forgotten, which belongs to the National Museum of Art in Mexico City.

A Cubist portrait of Martín Luis Guzmán was made there as well. The Chihuahuan and Villista in exile, 26 years old, left testimony of a visit in 1913. Another restless young man, José D. Frías, a poet from Querétaro who wrote chronicles of Paris for El Universal during the Great War, knew the studio at 24. There, David Alfaro Siqueiros, ten years younger than Diego, went looking for him. Ramón Gómez de la Serna, leader of an intellectual cenacle in Madrid before turning 30, and correspondent for El Imparcial de Madrid, Ramón del Valle Inclán, this one older, debated in the Rivera refuge.

When the Great War broke out, Rivera’s colleagues and interlocutors left Paris for a while. Seen from a distance, the period from 1911 to 1915 constitutes the first and luminous stage of Rivera in the City of Light, sealed with his first individual exhibition in the small gallery of Berthe Weill, a legend in Montmartre. The conflict caught Diego in Spain, where he stayed longer than expected, giving him the opportunity to paint his best Cubist work: Zapatista Landscape, with its distinctive Saltillo sarape. In the next phase, crucial days would come for his person and his profession, a sudden entry into maturity.

On August 11, 1916, Angelina Beloff gave birth to a baby named Diego. The Spanish flu pandemic would cause his death at a year and a half, plunging the couple into an almost terminal crisis and Diego Rivera into what he describes in his 1947 autobiography as a “deep depression.”

Then Marie Vorobieff Stebelska, a 24-year-old Georgian, quickly befriended the Russian and the Mexican. She called herself Marevna or “Little Princess of the Sea,” a nickname given by Maxim Gorky, her old friend. As an artist, she did not miss the opportunity to record in charcoal the hours of confinement in 1916 under the title Quand finirá la guerre? where Rivera, Modigliani, and Ilya Ehrenburg, another Russian migrant, author of Julio Jurenito, a novel based on Rivera’s childhood, appear.

Marevna thought Rivera “was not handsome, but he was impressive,” according to her memoirs published in 1962. Diego painted a Cubist portrait of her in 1915 and later they would live a six-month romance that ended with a fight in which the princess wounded him in the neck with a knife and tried to commit suicide, according to Rivera’s recollection. The stormy relationship was resumed without sharing a home in 1919, and she would give birth alone to a girl named Marika, for which she exhibited Diego as irresponsible in the cafés of Montparnasse.

In 1963, Bertram Wolfe published the most detailed biography of Rivera, asserting that he was a prolific painter. However, years earlier, in a letter dated September 10, 1915, Paul Guillaume expressed his disappointment to Apollinaire about the high prices, arguing that Diego produced “one per month” and charged up to 400 francs per canvas. During those days, Rivera had a contract with a marchand from the old Parisian elite, Léonce Rosenberg. However, his reluctance to adhere to Cubism infuriated his representative, and in 1918, the relationship was terminated. Discrepancies also emerged between Rivera and Picasso, and worse yet, with art critics Pierre Reverdy and André Salmon.

At a dinner, Diego slapped Reverdy for an opinion he found offensive. In retaliation, the writer published an article that became known as “L’Affaire Rivera,” referring to Diego as the “savage Indian.” Later, in 1920, Salmon sarcastically referred to Rivera’s “scientific Cubism” in a book. In his autobiography, Rivera claimed to have been the target of sabotage. He recounted that Apollinaire had given him a novel that alluded to pressures imposed by marchands on artists. According to Diego, the manuscript was purchased by Rosenberg and art critics but was never printed or was edited and mutilated, which aligns with popular versions of the writer’s lost works after his death in 1918. Rivera judged the muralist leader as “incapable of conceiving that I was on the path to creating something whose value could not be calculated in francs, paintings, or years.”

In June 1921, Diego Rivera returned to America. Angelina Beloff lived alone in Mexico for 37 years until her death in 1969. Marika received financial support from her father for years and pursued a career in drama. Marevna, who abandoned commercial art, painted “Los amigos de Diego” without resentment in 1958. La Rotonde is now a famous bistro, favored by some French politicians, filled with copies of Modigliani’s paintings, who died in 1920.

Source: Milenio