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“Diego Rivera’s Attempt at a Modigliani In The Portrait of Miss Mary Joy Johnson, 1939” by Jennifer Langhals
In 1975 Miss Mary Joy Johnson wrote: “The portrait caused some commotion at the time, because it was such a departure from Diego’s established style of painting, and I imagine it could still be a puzzlement to the knowledgeable that Diego should have adopted [an Amedeo] Modigliani affection at that period of his life.”1 – Mary Joy Johnson, 1975
The Portrait of Miss Mary Joy Johnson (1939) (Fig. 1) appears unlike any of Diego Rivera’s (1886-‐1957) previous artworks. Johnson’s portrait does not pretend to send a message about the social and political uprising that was occurring in Mexico during the early to mid-‐1900s or Rivera’s controversial involvement in it. Instead, the painting speaks about the other side of Rivera, the one that desires the admiration and attention of beautiful women. This work’s message is one of friendship and a desire for affection. Much like Rivera’s commitment to serve the public by conveying his political ideals in frescos, this portrait serves Johnson. It is not only a reflection of her personal sartorial style while briefly living in Mexico, but also an offering of respect that shows the beauty Rivera saw in Johnson and his possible pursuit of something more than friendship in return. While there is no documentation of a love affair, the context of the painting and Rivera’s reputation suggest that he may have wanted to be more than just friends. Johnson is sitting on an orange leather and wood chair in the corner of a blue room. A slight “S” curve in her posture glides the viewer’s eyes down Johnson’s slim figure from her oval-‐shaped head and elongated neck through her arms, hands, and knees. Her fashionable 1930s hairstyle is complete with soft curls and wavy bangs. This pattern creates rhythm complementary to the larger curves within the composition. White beading and fringe that embroider the jacket highlight the use of light colors that further accentuate Johnson’s warm skin tones. The white and blue dress adds to the geometric elements giving rhythm and balance to the work of art. Most alluring is the beautiful green Bolivian
Cincinnati Art Museum, Registrar’s files, Cincinnati Art Museum. 1975
jacket Johnson is wearing which she acquired from her college classmate. These short jackets were worn by the Bolivian women of the altiplano or high plains in Bolivia and are reminiscent of Spanish Conquistador costumes. The thick velvet provides a festive and formal layer between her and Rivera. Johnson is seated in a reserved position with her body closed off to the viewer; her folded hands and crossed legs prevent the viewer from seeing her complete body. Her direct gaze, inward expression, and three-‐quarter pose suggest her awareness of Rivera’s attraction to her and communicate Johnson’s hesitation to acknowledge him with a mutual fondness. Emphasis on her distinct facial features (Fig. 2), particularly her soft eyes, slender nose, and small lips, is not characteristic of Rivera during the 1920s and 1930s, but he could paint in any manner that he chose. He subjugated his own techniques to manipulate Johnson’s figure with a Modigliani twist, at her request. It took Rivera some time to arrive as a Social Realist by the mid 1930s and even then, Rivera would revisit his common path of repeating geometric shapes, pushing perspective, and applying bold use of color. While in Europe from 1910 to 1920, he was a master of the Cubism movement, demonstrated in The Portrait of Angelina Rivera (1916 ) (Fig. 3) and he experimented with the techniques of post-‐impressionist artist Cezanne in his Spanish Still Life of 1918 (Fig. 4). But Rivera was searching for a unique form of art, one that appealed to viewers with exciting subject matter and an innovative sense of form and color. He wanted his art to be closer to the people, like the Italian frescos of Giotto di Bondone (1267-‐1337) and Sandro Botticelli (1445-‐1510), with their works in public places, including schools, and theaters. 2 Politically, Rivera identified with Emiliano Zapata (1879-‐1919), a martyr from the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Zapatistas spawned many new political parties with their own ideas of how they should be governed. The economy was very poor with low salaries and bad working conditions. Land that had been taken from the peasants was not returned, and
2 Mexican Masters (Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma Museum of Art, 2005), 94-‐97. 3
all of the wealth was concentrated in the upper class. Beginning in 1920, President Alvaro Obregon (1880-‐1928) brought positive changes to the Mexicans. Land reform, education reform, and reestablishing the artistic culture were on the top of his agenda. Obregon’s election along with Rivera’s search for meaningful art brought the artist back to his country in 1921 to begin painting the face of Mexico. Rivera received most of his fresco work from Jose Vasconcelos (1882-‐1959), a mentor to Rivera, who had direct authority from President Obregon to revitalize the nation with prideful art throughout the country.3 While Obregon was making improvements, artists, poets, and writers in Mexico were targets of the Russian Communist Party; their liberal ideas and independent thinking were thought to be the fastest way to educate others to embrace Communism. Rivera joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1921 and was a leader among his group; he led rallies to induct new members and to demand change of workforce laws. Rivera painted enormous scenes of oppressed Mexicans and their demands for equality. He also decorated the country with murals of women. The fresco, The Liberated Earth with the Natural Forces Controlled by Man, completed in 1927 (Fig. 5), is on the North wall of the Chapingo Chapel in Mexico City. It depicts the peasant having the power to change society and appoint nature to comply with the interests of the Mexican nation.4 There was disagreement about such controversial images in the Chapingo Chapel and many people wanted them destroyed. Rivera’s love affairs were in conflict with his social and political ideals of promoting the Mexican working class. Critic Alvaro Pruneda stated, “The obsession of these frescoes is the feminine nude.” 5 This controversy caused some officials to want to paint over the offensive images. 6 The figures in Rivera’s frescoes were often more than just models. Mesmerized by women’s beauty, Rivera saw his sitters as his
3 Gerry Souter, Diego Rivera (New York, NY: Parkstone Press International, 2007), 99. 4 Ibid, 151. 5 Ibid, 146. 6 Ibid.
personal targets; his winning charm engaged them in an ongoing conquest to satisfy his fascination for beautiful women. For example, in Rivera’s earlier work, The Creation (1923) (Fig. 6), he included two of his sexual partners, Carmen Mondragon (1893-‐1978) and Guadalupe Marin (1895-‐1983) in the same mural. Complete with gold haloes inspired by Giotto, the figures in this wall painting are all Mexican with Indian faces. This work symbolizes the emergence of humanity with a man opening his arms widely and offering a harmonious fusion of the native traditions in Mexico with the moralities of the Judeo-‐Christian religion and the intellectual standards of ancient Greek civilization7. Each figure represents theological virtues: Charity, Hope, and Faith; also included are the figures of Knowledge, Erotic Poetry, Tradition, Tragedy, Justice, and Strength. The models Carmen Mondragon8 as Erotic Poetry and Lupe Marin as Strength, Woman, and Song9 were both of special interest to Rivera. Painted in the fresco at different times, he had affairs with each one. In turn, the women caught him with the other. While working on frescos, Rivera considered himself a “building trades worker”10 with a skill in the arts and, in between jobs, he met his financial needs with easel paintings. Rivera states in his autobiography My Art, My Life, “For me the artist is a worker, and unless he expresses his work as a worker, he is not an artist. I must remain with the people; I must live with them, otherwise with me there is no expression.”11
7 Cynthia Helms, Diego Rivera: A Retrospective (New York, NY: Founders Society Detroit
8 Ibid, 103. Carmen Mondragon changed her name to Nahui Olin, taken from the Indian
legends of the creation and end of the world. She was the mistress of Gerardo Murillo, nickname Dr. Atl, a Mexican painter and friend of Rivera’s. 9 Ibid, 103. 10 Ibid, 121. “The Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters, Sculptors and Allied Trades called El Sindicato was created by the Mexican painters in Mexico.” They wanted their skills to be considered as equally as those who were plasterers, stonecutters, glaziers, and cement pourers.” 11 Mexican Masters, (Oklahoma Museum of Art, Oklahoma City OK, 2005), 97.
Repetitive shapes and symmetrical composition are consistent in Rivera’s portraits. Back of a Nude Woman (1926) (Fig. 7) and the Portrait of Guadalupe Marin (1938) (Fig. 8) are two of many compositions that demonstrate Rivera’s style while working on his frescoes and easel paintings. Producing art of celebrities and other high-‐class patrons not only helped Rivera financially but also provided the building blocks for his murals. Italian photographer Tina Modotti (1986-‐1942) is the subject of Back of a Nude Woman and she also sat as a study for his mural, Germination (1926). Curled up with her head down, her back faces the viewer. Modotti’s hair falls to each side of her hidden face that is tucked in with her knees and embracing arm. Rivera’s study emphasizes the organic nature of the human body; the roundness of her trunk firmly plants her on the ground and the heavy charcoal lines accentuate the symmetry of the body. Modotti was famous for her striking photographs of Mexican culture. She was linked to Rivera romantically and was among his close circle of friends in the 1920s who would hold group discussions about art and politics. Helen Yglesias wrote, “There was usually a man at the center of the changes in Tina’s life, the object of at least a passionate friendship, most often a lover. [She] embraced the then popular concept of “free love” and slipped from one sexual relationship to another.”12 The portrait of Marin, with her oversized hands and foreshortened figure, forces the viewer to respect her. Rivera builds a powerful woman by using heavy contours and light that radiates from Marin’s dress. The mirror in the background is not a symbol of vanity here but rather, a principle of Realism.13 It opens up a new space behind the subject, creating a diagonal composition. Marin and Rivera were married in 1922 but divorced just six years later. She was his second wife and they had two children. Author Gerry Souter wrote “[Carmen], Lupe, and Tina were spread across the walls of Mexico City and its
1999), pp. 19-‐20 ( Old City Publishing, Inc) http://www.jstor.org/stable/4023301, accessed 02/03/2010. 13 Diego Rivera (Institutio Nacional de Bellas Artes Mexico City, Mexico, 1999), 299.
suburbs, larger than life, nude portraits on view for every envious clerk in the Ministry of Education, [and] the Chapingo Chapel [to enjoy].” 14 Less than ten percent of women were college graduates in the 1930s and Johnson was among them. She attended a prestigious women’s college, Bryn Mawr, in Pennsylvania and soon after graduation, she began working in Mexico City as a buyer for department stores located in the United States. She lived in Mexico for four years between 1935 and 1939. Johnson and Rivera were in very different social circles; she was a twenty-‐seven year-‐old high society American woman with a career and he was a fifty-‐two-‐year-‐old working-‐class, politically active Mexican painter. Despite this social separation, they maintained a close friendship during Johnson’s time in Mexico. She visited Rivera’s studio frequently and together they discussed his philosophy on communism. She listened to his “spellbinding” tall tales15 and was intrigued by his passion for art and politics. She recalled, “He gave away at least 50% of his income and possibly much more [to the Indian followers and line of supplicants at his door]”.16 Rivera proved his generosity to Johnson and she wrote that he was one of the “goodest”17 men she had ever met. In 1939, after the completion of the portrait Guadalupe Marin, Rivera requested to paint Johnson’s portrait free of charge. Johnson had called the Marin portrait grandiose. Since Johnson considered herself a “Modigliani woman, though with a mite more expression than most,” 18 she requested that Rivera paint her in the
14 Gerry Souter, Diego Rivera (New York, NY: Parkstone Press International, 2007), 147. 15 Letter from Mary Joy Johnson-‐Brown, Prospect KY to Clay W. Pardo, Administrator of the
Cincinnati Art Museum, Registrar’s files, Cincinnati Art Museum. “He told many tall tales, and whether fact or fiction, they were spellbinding, and some of them proved to be true as time passed.” 16 Ibid. “Daily at his studio there was a line of supplicants and in my presence he never turned down one.” 17 Ibid. “He was one of the goodest (sic) men I have ever known.” 18 Ibid.
combined styles of Modigliani and the ancient Chinese masters.19 Later in life she realized how undiplomatic it was to ask him to change his style to that of another painter. 20 Without hesitation, Rivera agreed and fulfilled the request. Having briefly lived and studied with Amedeo Modigliani (1884-‐1920) while in Paris during the early 1900s, Rivera was aware of his expressionistic style. Constructing pictures rather than capturing a slice of life, Modigliani generalized his figures and expressed the inward emotions in anti-‐ naturalistic manners. His backgrounds were almost always simple sections of aquamarine, turquoise, greenish-‐gray, or brown. The Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne (1917-‐1920) (Fig.9) is similar to that of Johnson; “She appears sweet, delicate, and submissive in a languid pose. There is a pattern of oval shapes in her head and torso connected by her elongated neck.”21 Rivera also emulates Modigliani’s style in Johnson’s face. When painting A Woman (1917-‐ 1920) (Fig. 10), Modigliani stylized his subject with slender almond-‐shaped eyes, a slightly twisted nose, and small pursed mouth.22 He avoided the sculptural approach to painting and combined the faces of African masks with individual features of the Europeans.23 His sitters are refined with feminine qualities of serpentine lines, and passive and demure poses, including tilted heads. The relationship between Rivera and Modigliani was sustained through the social circle of fellow painters and writers they shared. Rivera would help the often hungry and ever-‐thirsty Italian, as he did many other starving artists.24 Rivera was also familiar with Modigliani on a personal level. “They disagreed and they drank together, disputed on art,
19 Ibid. There is no specific Asian artist named in her request. 20 Ibid. “I am now appalled by how brash, stupid (sic) and unpolitic (sic) this request of mine
21 Alfred Werner, 90. 22 Alfred Werner, Modigliani (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers 1985), 36. 23 Mason Klein, Modigliani (New York, NY: The Jewish Museum, New York, and Yale
24 Bertram D. Wolfe, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (Stein and Day Publishers, New York,
New York, 1963), 64.
and often quarreled violently.”25 Further, Rivera excited Modigliani; his monstrous persona impressed him enough that Modigliani actually altered his classic technique and created the best among the Rivera portraits, Diego Rivera (1914) (fig. 11); with thick applications of heavy lines they are savage, sarcastic, and pompous. Author Bertram Wolfe stated, “How strong must have been the impact of Diego’s personality so to alter [his] usually simple, lyrical line!”26 So why did Rivera proceed with Johnson if he needed to alter his evolving yet distinctive own style of painting? The portrait conveys his appeal to Johnson. Rivera brings his signature use of geometrical repetition to the composition. Alternating ovals, rectangles, and curvatures throughout make this a recognizable work by Rivera. He also maintains symmetry by balancing the back of the chair with the curve of Johnson’s left shoulder. Rivera’s use of warm colors depicts Johnson as a vibrant and friendly person, unlike a typical Modigliani portrait where the sitters are often solitary and dispassionate. 27 Twisting lines and her tilted head place Johnson in a submissive pose but her expression suggests a more complex personality. Where Modigliani would often remove the pupils of his sitters’ eyes, Rivera has included them, and Johnson’s direct gaze communicates with the viewer, evoking an equal playing field. Rivera’s attempt at a Modigliani composition with the Portrait of Miss Mary Joy Johnson was a success stylistically. By combining Rivera’s skill in expressive figures with a more complementary color scheme, and using a Modigliani approach, he would have the opportunity to demonstrate his interest in her. He could prove how well their two different yet compatible styles would mesh, and possibly attain another figure for one of his murals.
Alfred Werner, Modigliani (New York NY: Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, 1985), 62.
26 Ibid, 75. 27 Ibid, 36.
However, Rivera’s pursuit of Johnson was likely unsuccessful. He did use her as a model after this painting and there is no evidence of a love affair or sexual relationship. Despite the artwork being a near perfect match to her stylistic request, Johnson left the portrait in Rivera’s studio. She refused to carry it around the world and redecorate each home to accompany it.28 This indicates that her interest in Rivera was platonic. Rivera underestimated the steps necessary to pursue Johnson. His prior formula of charm, time in the studio, and a personal portrait did not result in a victorious conquest. However, the two were clearly friends because Rivera was willing to store the painting for her, and find a buyer, and he offered to paint a new portrait in the future. In 1939, Dr. J Louis Ransohoff, a prominent Cincinnati doctor, offered to buy the portrait from Johnson through Rivera as it was still in his studio, and she willingly sold it for just $500.00. The closest Johnson ever came to Rivera again was after she had settled in Prospect, Kentucky in 1975 and saw herself in his painting while attending an event at the Cincinnati Art Museum.29 Rivera continued to paint portraits of prominent people and continued his career as a muralist to send social messages to the people in Mexico. In the 1940s, with the rise and fall of Communism and his failing marriage to Frida Kahlo (1907-‐ 1954), Rivera became stubborn and often lifeless. He ventured into the surrealism movement and his work often reflected his negative emotions. Johnson was completed during a time of career and emotional transition for Rivera. There are no other known compositional or stylistic attempts at a Modigliani.
Cincinnati Art Museum, Registrar’s files, Cincinnati Art Museum. “He gave me the portrait and it remained in his studio for quite some time. One day he telephoned and said there was a man who wanted to buy it and knowing I needed the money he urged me to sell it, saying he would paint another. At that time and likewise now, I could not conceive of myself dragging a lifesized portrait of myself around the country and always having to adapt a home or apartment to it.”
Fig. 1, Diego Rivera, Portrait of Miss Mary Joy Johnson, 1939, oil on canvas, 40 x 29 in. Cincinnati Art Museum, 1977.210 Fig. 2, Diego Rivera, Details Portrait of Miss Mary Joy Johnson, 1939, oil on canvas, 40 x 29 in. Cincinnati Art Museum, 1977.210
Fig. 4, Diego Rivera, Portrait of Angelina Rivera, 1916, oil on canvas, 130 x 89 cm. Museo de Arte Alvar y Carmen T. de Carillo Gill, Mexico City, Mexico Fig. 3, Diego Rivera, Spanish Still Life, 1918, oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm. Diego Rivera House Museum
Fig. 5, Diego Rivera, Detail from The Liberated earth with the natural Forces Controlled by Man (north wall), Chapingo Chapel, 1926-‐1927, fresco, Universidad Autonoma, Chapingo, Mexico
Fig. 6, Diego Rivera, The Creation (Bolivar Amphitheater), 1922-‐1923, encaustic and gouache on leaf, National Preparatory School Mexico City, Mexico
Fig. 7, Diego Rivera, Back of a Nude Woman (Nude of Tina Modotti study for the mural Germination at the Excapilla de la Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo), 1926, charcoal and pastel on paper, 24 x 19 in. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California Fig. 8, Diego Rivera, Portrait of Guadalupe Marin, 1938, oil on canvas, 171 x 122 cm. Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico
Fig. 9, Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1917-‐1920, oil on canvas, 39 x 25 in. Private Collection, Paris, France
Fig. 10, Amedeo Modigliani, A Woman, 1917-‐1920, oil on canvas, 60 x 46 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
Fig. 11 Amedeo Modigliani, Diego Rivera, 1914, oil on canvas, 104 x 75 cm. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein, Germany
Bibliography Craft, Catherine. “Diego Rivera, Houston and Mexico City”, The Burlington Magazine, (December 1999): 776-‐777. Goldin, Claudia, Lawrence F. Katz, and Ilyana Kuziemko. “The Homecoming of American College Women: The Reversal of the College Gender Gap”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20, no.4 (2006): 133-‐156. Helms, N. Cynthia. Diego Rivera: A Retrospective (New York, NY: Founders Society Detroit Institute of Arts in Association with W.W. Norton and Company,1969) 103-‐237. Johnson-‐Brown, Mary Joy. Letter from Mary Joy Johnson-‐Brown to Clay Pardo the Curator of the Cincinnati Art Museum, Prospect, KY (May 17, 1975), Registrar’s files, Cincinnati Art Museum Klein, Mason. Modigliani, The Jewish Museum, New York, and Yale University Press, 2004, New York, NY Mitchell, Paul. “Mexican Prints: Revolution on Paper. “ International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), Jan 29, 2010, http://www.wswsorg/articles/2010/jan2010/mexi-‐j29.shtml (accessed Feb 13, 2010) O’Connor, Francis V. “Rivera, Diego” Grove Art Online (Oxford Art Online), (accessed Feb 13, 2010) Olmedo Patino, Dolores.“A Tribute to Diego Rivera Portraits”, District Federal, Mexico: Nacional Financiera, 2007 Roberts, Helene E. Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography, Vol.1. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998 Shepherd, Rowena and Rupert Shepherd. 1000 Symbols. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2002. Souter, Gerry. Diego Rivera,.New York, NY: Parkstone International, 2007. Yglesias, Helen,.“Masks and Mysteries”, The Womens Review of Books, Vol.17, No. 3, (Dec., 1999) 19-‐20, Old City Publishing, Inc, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4023301, accessed, March 3, 2010.
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