Diego Rivera's 46 sketches at the Museum of Latin American Art are not the most beautiful things in the world. They're full of scribbles, and they're often just faceless hulks. The ones that do have purity of line and recognizable subjects (girls' and women's faces on fields of uninterrupted white) show no more obvious skill than the sketches of millions of unknown artists. But goddamn if there isn't a good-sized thrill in seeing Rivera's penciled signature slashed boldly into the scenes.
Rivera may share top billing with other Mexican artists like Tamayo and Orozco, but his skill and passion and the grandeur of his works make a mockery of any other artists' claims. He trained throughout Europe, breathing in the lessons of the Italian frescoes and French Impressionism. But when he returned home, he rejected their ether and elegance for the more earthbound: he incorporated his nation's humble style and modest subjects into sweeping calls for justice. You'd be hard-pressed to find a color in a Rivera painting that didn't evoke Mexican fields.
"The Brilliance Before the Brush" may be an awkward title for Rivera's sketches, alliterating as it does like a doe-eyed romance novel or an overearnest prog-rock album. But it's helpful, too; it would be easy to write these sketches off as unimpressive, until the boastful title reminds us of what came after. In some places, small post cards have been placed next to a relevant sketch to show the work that resulted. And the works that resulted were uniformly magnificent. In Market Scene Sketch Number 31, for instance, there is a rough outline of two women sitting placidly, their undefined chins on their undefined hands, which look as though they have socks on them. Next to it is a post card of Seated Women from 1936. Though I'm not sure that Number 31 is indeed the sketch from which Seated Women was painted—how can you tell, when the sketch has no features?—there's a similarity if not an exact match in composition. And in Seated Women, their hands are meaty, huge and beautiful, just like their arms, thighs and noses. Their fingers are plump like sausages and gracefully rounded. Everything is heavy, carrying the extra 10 pounds added by a television camera plus a good 20 more. And nothing goes undefined.
The market sketches are the oddest. Even sitting figures are covered with slashes and squiggles, imparting frenetic energy even though they're not moving. People sit jumbled together, one shawl merging into the next. One, Sketch for Tehuanas Conversing Number 27, carries a hiccup from Rivera's days in Europe; they're grouped in a triangular formation, like Da Vinci's Madonna of the Rocks (and a host of his other Madonnas, actually). But all that's delineated is the shape.
Rivera finally gets fascinated enough with people's faces with the women of Tehuana. There, it's face after girlish face. They are simple in line, but with just a few slashes Rivera conveys alertness, intelligence and almond-eyed, bow-lipped beauty. The most exquisite of these portraits belongs to a toothless crone. Tehuana Sketch Number 13 shows a monstrous woman who looks like the walking undead. Her nose is cleft at the bottom like a cartoon dog bone; wide bags lurk under her gaunt eye sockets. Her brow furrows. She is every old beggar woman (but she's not denied her own distinct beggar-woman face), just as The Flower Carrier (another hiccup from Europe, with its echo of Les Glaneuses) is every toiling peasant. Rivera may have left the elite of Europe behind him, but he gives us a richer, more potent majesty in the terrifying faces of the old and the broad, strong backs of the poor.
"The Brilliance Before the Brush" at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689; www.molaa.com. Through April 7. Open Tues.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. $5; students/seniors, $3; members/children under 12, free.
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