While thoroughly committed to the modernist cause, Rivera was simultaneously seeking a stylistic breakthrough through the canons of art history. His legendary vitality and passion were concentrated on studying the work of one artist in particular: Doménikos Theotokópoulos, most widely known as El Greco (1541-1614). Such adherence and reverence to the old master tradition found itself in a direct collision course with recent developments in the Parisian art world: Rivera’s two works at the Salon d’Automne were hanging in close proximity to Francis Picabia's (1879-1953) radical La Source (1912), Kupka’s Amorpha, Fugue a Deux Couleurs (1912), Amedeo Modiglani’s (1884-1920) Tête sculptures and Jean Metzinger’s (1883-1956) Danseuse au Café, among others. Interestingly, Marcel Duchamp's (1887-1968) Nu Descendant un Escalier No. 2 (1912), now considered an icon of modernism, was rejected to participate in the same Salon.
In addition to El Greco, Rivera was intensely focused in studying Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Georges Seurat (1859-1891). The shock of Cézanne came abruptly. Critic and promoter of Mexican art Frances Flynn Paine noted in the exhibition catalogue of Diego Rivera at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1931 that “in February 1910, [Rivera] saw an exhibition of Cézanne’s and the impression was such that it gave him, after he spent a day in the studio, a nervous fever …/.. the doctor diagnosed Diego’s very high temperature as produced entirely by a severe nervous shock. The work of Cézanne had opened up for Diego the endless possibilities of modern art. He became almost fanatical in his admiration for his painting.” (2)
Painted in 1912, Retrato de un español (Portrait of a Spaniard) emerged within a deeply ideological and fiercely creative cultural milieu—the most consequential in the history of modern art. We now know this is a portrait of Hermenegildo Alsina, a fine books binder and Spanish decorative artist who was a close friend of Rivera in Madrid, Barcelona and later in Paris. Originally known as Portrait of Hermenegildo Alsina, the painting was exhibited under this title at the Paris Salon and at the Kunstausstellungsgebaude, Secession in Munich in 1913. After its re-appearance at Sotheby’s in 1968, it was wrongly titled Portrait of Utrillo and also as Portrait of Eduardo Chicharro, the artist’s mentor at the San Fernando Academy in Madrid. Diego himself referred to it as The Man with the Umbrella in his memoirs My Art, My Life.
Occupying the complete height of the painting, Hermenegildo Alsina, the “Spaniard,” is depicted as an elongated figure in a barren landscape. Strong echoes of El Greco’s St John the Baptist (circa 1600) at the Museo de Bellas Artes, Valencia and San Bernardino de Siena (1603) (Fig. 1) at the Prado Museum, Madrid are visible in the figure’s languid, fragile pose. Masterly rendered are the famously tormented skies reminiscent of the ones portrayed in St. John the Baptist. Professor Martín-Lozano noted an additional visual reference and possible source of inspiration: El Anacoreta (the Anchorite) (Fig. 2), a landmark painting by Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945) of 1907 now at the Musée du Quai d’Orsay in Paris. Depicting the emaciated body of a hermit, the impossibly elongated figure dominates the foreground rising upward from the earth like a grown tree, his fingers and hands crisscrossed as he vacuously stares at the sky.
Unlike in the old master paintings, Rivera’s Spaniard stares confidently at the viewer. The young man projects a carefully constructed air of nonchalance. Embodying the image of a dandy, he is casually attired in a fashionable hat and an elegant brown overcoat. A green feathered necktie complements his cultivated look as he retains the viewer’s attention with absolute finesse. As in El Greco’s painting, Rivera's composition reveals a vividly agitated sky filled with onerous grey clouds. White strokes of paint seem to radiate from the Spaniard as to symbolize a halo of earthly sanctity.
When comparing the finished work to Boceto para el retrato de un español (ca. 1912), offered in these rooms in November 2016, (Fig. 3) a number of differences arise: while Alsina hides his hands inside the pockets of his long coat, the finished version depicts him delicately holding an umbrella: a vital accessory of the fashion forward ‘man about town.’ Most striking is the recent discovery by [Spanish curator] Julio Niebla of a photograph portraying a young Hermenegildo Alsina. The discovery of this photograph belonging to the collection of Alsina’s descendants reveals two distinct possibilities: either Rivera had the model pose for him in situ somewhere in the woods near Barcelona and finish the composition in his studio at a later point, or the artist casually saw the photograph and decided to work directly from this image.
In both the photo (anonymous, undated) and the study, Alsina presents the same languid frontal pose. The study, however, reveals an immediacy lacking in the finished canvas. Alsina’s walk seems to have been suddenly interrupted as if surprised by the sudden gaze of the photographer. In contrast to the photo, his left foot appears slightly turned towards the back while in the sketch it is placed on an equal plane. Although a man of considerable height, Alsina was purposely “elongated” by Rivera in the Mannerist style of El Greco and Zuloaga. An additional difference between this photographic document and the painting is the background. As an idealized rendition of a genre painting, the Spaniard is portrayed against a barren landscape with colors reminiscent of the Castilian dry plateau. Devoid of trees and vines, a sense of vastness, of absolute infinity triumphs over the landscape thus further alienating the Spaniard from terrestrial concerns.
After exhibiting Retrato de un español (Portrait of a Spaniard) at the Salon d’Automne that fall, Diego returned to Spain to continue a dramatic series of Toledo landscapes depicting a variety of views surrounding the town's medieval wall. There he would complete another important painting: The Adoration of the Shepherds (1912-1913). The latter canvas points to Rivera’s stylistic departure from this pivotal Spanish phase, a period when he first reached artistic maturity splendidly represented by Retrato de un español.
(1) Luis Martín-Lozano, Diego Rivera, Cubista, de la Academia a la Vanguardia, 1907/1921, Museo del Patrimonio Municipal de Málaga (MUPAM), Málaga, 2011.
(2) Diego Rivera, Museum of Modern Art, December 23 1931 to January 27, New York, 1932, p. 19- 20.
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