Julio de Diego (1900 – 1979) was born on May 9, 1900 in Madrid, Spain. At the age of 15 he was an apprentice to a set designer at an opera company. His first exhibition was held in a gambling casino when he was only 17. Due to the opposition of his family to his art career, de Diego moved to Paris in 1922. He studied there and in Rome before moving to the United State in 1924.
Arriving in New York City at age 24, de Diego began the difficult process of establishing himself in a new city and country. His first efforts were in fashion design and cover illustration for magazines. A short time later de Diego traveled to Tampa, Florida where he designed sets and costumes for The Wild Cat at Centro Asturiano.
From 1931 until 1942 de Diego lived in Chicago where he began to exhibit widely, including at the various annuals of the Art Institute of Chicago where he won a prize in the 1935 Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture. Other exhibition venues included the Chicago Renaissance Society, the Whitney Museum, the Carnegie Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Associated American Artists, Bonstell Gallery and Nierendorf Gallery.
An important work from his Chicago period was Homage to the Spanish Republic of 1938. De Diego loathed war and man’s willingness to destroy himself. In this poignant and powerful early work, the artist laments the destruction of his native country which was the tragic and terrible result of the Spanish Civil War.
De Diego first traveled to Mexico in 1939 where be began a lifelong friendship with artist Carlos Merida. His works were also exhibited in the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the Golden Gate Exposition of 1939 and the exhibition Artists for Victory at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1942. While visiting Mexico in the summer of 1945, de Diego discovered a new form of landscape. Each altitude gave me a definite feeling. Objects, land, people, and water have definite and mysterious meaning, which had to be treated topographically.
In 1943 and 1944 de Diego painted his Reconstruction paintings. In the April, 1951 issue of Art in America, the artist said: These works are my reaction to the political powers who are converting peace into something inhuman and tragic. The cloak-and-dagger boys of high politics, in their gold-braided robes, plot the new world while standing amidst the ruins of the classical world they had helped destroy. Art News chose the exhibition of this series as one of the ten best shows of 1944.
In 1948 de Diego married Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous actress and burlesque entertainer whose 1957 memoir was made into the stage musical and film Gypsy, but they eventually divorced sometime in the 1950s. He was subsequently married to and divorced from Rosalind Mallery. Few people remember that de Diego played the small part of “Miguel” in the 1958 movie, The Buccaneer, which was directed by Anthony Quinn and starred Yul Brynner, Claire Bloom, Charles Boyer, Inger Stevens, Charlton Heston and Lorne Greene among many others.
De Diego’s extraordinary creative talent is difficult to quantify as no comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work has ever been presented. If such an event were to occur, it is likely that the artist would leapfrog past many lesser talents and land in a place at the highest echelon of American art. De Diego’s technical virtuosity, inventiveness, and willingness to push beyond the established boundaries of the art world resulted in an artistic legacy which is at first difficult to comprehend. The artist easily moved from the personal to the ideological and he managed to eschew the artistic fashions of the day.
Julio de Diego died in Sarasota, Florida on August 22, 1979.
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