Picasso and Rivera: Artists Inspired By Indigenous Roots

See Picasso and Rivera: Conversations Across Time at LACMA to experience how the artists were inspired by their indigenous roots

From now through May 7, 2017, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is showing an exhibition entitled Picasso and Rivera: Conversations Across Time. The presentation chronicles a parallel expression and development by both Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Diego Rivera (1886-1957) in their artistic, philosophical, and personal discussions. Both painters rebelled against the domination of Greco-Roman art standards and methods that ruled the art world when both men were young students.

Picasso and Rivera sought ways to move beyond European Greco-Roman art as the ideal and leading form of artistic expression. Both painters looked back into their indigenous roots to find alternatives to the goals, values, and artistic rules of Western Civilization. Rivera was a Mexican, and he looked to studying and interpreting the indigenous cultures, histories, and art of the Aztecs, Mayans, and other Indigenous Peoples of Mexico and Latin America. Picasso looked to the indigenous cultures of Spain, and to the cultures and art that pre-dated the Greek colonization and Roman conquest. In both cases, the artists were influenced by pre-Christian worldviews, art, and national political identities. Rivera collected thousands of indigenous art pieces, studied the Popul Vu, a Mayan creation story, and used indigenous themes and patterns in his art.

Picasso and Rivera looked to ground their work in the roots of their indigenous ancestors and cultures. They both developed an understanding of their indigenous cultures, and wanted to express those worldviews.


Works by Picasso and Rivera at LACMA

Pablo Picasso, “Student With Newspaper,” 1913-14.

The facade of Greco-Roman art civilization was not wholly rejected, but rather seen as a late layer of human culture and expression. Western civilization tried to extinguish indigenous cultures and knowledge in history and throughout the world. Both artists rejected the total domination of Greco-Roman art. They wanted to recover art that expressed cultural continuity with indigenous cultural roots and history.

Picasso and Rivera worked out worldviews that did not hide or destroy indigenous roots and reaffirmed expressions of indigenous culture and knowledge. They rejected the mono-cultural domination of colonial Western art, but at the same time synthesized the patterns from Greco-Roman art and worldview, with patterns, variations, and extensions based on their studies and expression of indigenous concepts and artistic expression. Politically, both Picasso and Rivera were strongly democratic, and opposed to the fascist movements of Franco in Spain and Hitler in Germany.

Works by Picasso and Rivera at LACMA

Diego Rivera, “Sailor at Lunch,” 1914.

Picasso and Rivera wanted to restore the principles of indigenous being and presence to the world, and do so through their artwork. For both painters, the indigenous worldview and ways have continued presence in contemporary life, history, art, and politics. The Western political and artistic tradition wants to push the indigenous art, politics, and philosophy to the sidelines, into the dustbin of history.

While both painters are students of indigenism in their own national histories, they do not engage contemporary Indigenous Peoples and traditions. Rivera works within a pattern of Mexican Mestizo nationalism, and in part is interested in the ways that Mestizo Mexicans draw on indigenous cultural symbolism and history to help form contemporary Mexican national identity. However, the Mestizo and Mexican nationalist positions are also rejections of a contemporary indigenous position.

Picasso wants to draw on a fuller range of history, culture, meaning, and artistic expression that includes indigenous historical, cultural and artistic expressions. But he too does not engage contemporary indigenism, and tends to use indigenous knowledge as an expression of non-indigenous nation building, or civilization building, or a base for artistic expression. As Picasso and Rivera so ably express, the foundations of contemporary cultures rest on indigenous relations and knowledge. Indigenous Peoples, however, are also part of the contemporary world, and contributors to both the past and present-day artistic and cultural diversity.

Diego Rivera’s “Flower Day,” 1925.

Diego Rivera’s “Flower Day,” 1925.