CreditsDirector: Hector Tajonar Presenter/Narration: Octavio Paz
Catalog number # 611
56 minutes Color
Age Range: 14 to Adult
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Modern Mexican painting begins with Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jean Chariot, Roberto Montenegro, Alva de la Canal and the other Muralists. This first period, however, cannot be reduced to one form of artistic expression, even though Muralism was the distinguishing mark. Many of these artists were also easel painters and they cultivated oil painting with talent, as well as engraving and other art forms including sculpture.
Around 1930 the appearance of a new group of artists signaled a break in continuity with the movement begun by the Muralists: Rufino Tamayo, Manuel Rodriguez Lozano, Carlos Merida, Julio Castellanos, Maria Izquierdo, Frida Kahlo and others. As always in the history of art, this break also represented a kind of continuity. Why did the break occur? A passionate style always ends in self-destruction. To repeat Jose Clemente Orozco would have been an unbearable mystification. Diego Rivera's nationalism tended towards mere decoration and picturesque surfaces. The dogmatism of Alfaro Siqueiros implied an unacceptable subordination of free artistic inspiration to the aesthetics of so-called "socialist realism", which was neither realist nor socialist.
The break was not the result of the organized activity of a group but rather the isolated and individual response of several incompatible temperaments. There is nothing more removed from the constant inventiveness and searching of Carlos Merida and Jesus Reyes than the slow maturing of Julio Castellanos; nothing more opposed to the explosive poetry of Frida Kahlo than the dream-like world of Agustin Lazo. Yet all of them were moved by the desire to find a new sense of plastic universality, without having to resort to "ideology" and, at the same time, without betraying the legacy of their predecessors: the discovery of our people as a fountain of revelations.
Rufino Tamayo is one of the first to refuse to follow the path mapped out by the founders of modern Mexican painting.
Rufino Tamayo's art is not ideological. The historical importance of his work consists in having questioned with exemplary radicalism the ideological and didactic art of the Muralists and their followers. But Tamayo's real originality, his pictorial originality, resides in his conception of painting as an investigation into the relations between line, color and volume. Tamayo quickly assimilated the lesson of twentieth-century avant-garde plastic art, especially that of the great masters such as Picasso and Miro, but also that of our Mexican heritage, derived from popular art and from pre-Hispanic Mexico.
Tamayo's rigor imposes upon him a very strict limitation: painting is primarily and most of all a visual phenomenon. The subject matter is a pretext; the painter's intention is to leave his painting in freedom: it is the forms that speak, not the artist's intentions or ideas. Form is the source of meaning. Ideas and myths, passions and imaginary figures, the forms we see and those we dream of: all of these are realities the painter has discovered within his painting. It is something that should spring up from the canvas instead of being imposed by the artist.
These concerns have led him to a slow, constant and stubborn pictorial experimentation, an investigation into the secret of textures, colors and vibrations. An exploration of color: "at the same time as we use fewer colors", Paul Westheim once said, "the richness of possibility grows. In pictorial terms, it is better to exhaust the possibilities of one color than to use an unlimited variety of pigments." It is constantly said that Tamayo is a great colorist; we should add that this richness is the result of moderation. Color, for Baudelaire, was harmony: an antagonistic and complementary relation between a warm color and a cold one. Tamayo carries the search to an extreme by creating harmony within one color. He thus obtains a luminous vibration of more limited yet more intense resonance.
The reflexive element is one half of Tamayo; the other half is his passion. This restrained, self-absorbed passion never shatters or degenerates into eloquence. This controlled violence, unleashed upon itself, is a sign of both attraction towards and estrangement from Expressionism. Tamayo: the passion that stretches out forms; the violence of contrast; the humor; the energy that gives life to certain figures; the brutal exaltation of color, the fury of certain brush-strokes and the blood-drenched eroticism of others; the sharp contrasts and the unusual alliances.
All the critics have pointed out the importance of popular art in his work.
This is undeniable, yet it is also important to examine the nature of this influence.
The links between Tamayo and popular art should be explored on the deepest level: not only in terms of form but also in the region of the life-giving subterranean beliefs. Like a channel of transmission, Mexican popular art links Tamayo with the world of his childhood. Its importance is emotional and existential: the artist is the man who has never completely buried his childhood. Popular forms are like channels of irrigation through which there is a flow of ancient wisdom, age-old beliefs, the unconscious though not incoherent thought that animates the world of magic. This irrigation or circulation of the primordial spirit is a flow of energy that penetrates everything from insect to man, from man to ghost, from ghost to plant, and from plant to star. Tamayo has drunk the water of this spring and savored its secret, not through the brain, the only way in which modern man can have access to it, but through the eyes and hands, through the body and the unconscious logic of what we inaccurately call instinct.
In addition to popular art we have the art of ancient Mexico. The understanding of pre-Columbian art is not an innate privilege of Mexicans. It is sometimes the fruit of an act of love and reflection, as in the case of the German critic Paul Westheim; or, yet again, a creative act, as in the English sculptor Henry Moore. In art nobody inherits: there are discoveries, conquests, affinities: recreations that are really creations. Tamayo is an exception. The modern aesthetic, from Picasso to Miro, opened his eyes and made him see the modernity of pre-Hispanic sculpture. Later, he conquered and transformed these forms with the violence and simplicity of a true creator. From this starting point he painted new and original forms.
If we bear in mind that the two defining poles of Tamayo's painting are the plastic rigor and the imagination that transfigures the object, then we can instantly comprehend how his encounter with pre-Columbian art was really a conjunction. The most immediate and striking qualities of pre-Columbian sculpture are the rigid geometrical conception, the solidity of volume, and the admirable fidelity to the raw material. These were the qualities, which from the beginning impressed the modern artists and the European critics. Tamayo's attitude had a similar motivation: Mesoamerican sculpture, like modern painting, is above all a logic of forms, lines and volumes.
In contrast to what occurs in the Graeco-Roman and Renaissance tradition, this plastic logic is not based on the imitation of the proportions of the human body, but rather on a completely different conception of space. For the Mesoamericans, this conception was religious; for us, it is intellectual.
As well as revealing to him a logic and a grammar of forms, the Mesoamerican tradition showed him that the plastic object sends out high frequency signals like arrows charged with polysomic meanings and images. This is the dual lesson of pre-Hispanic art: firstly, the fidelity to raw material and to form (to the Aztec, the stone sculpture is sculptured stone); secondly, the sculptured stone is a metaphor. Geometry and transfiguration.
If one could sum up in one word everything that distinguishes Tamayo from the other painters of our time, I would say without hesitation: the sun. It appears visibly or invisibly in all of his paintings. For Tamayo the night itself is simply a charred sun.
As I said earlier, between 1930 and 1940 there is a reaction against Muralist. Tamayo is one of the central figures but he isn't the only one. A group of painters explore alternative routes, each one by himself and without any collective declaration: Carlos Merida, Jesus Reyes Ferreira, Agustin Lazo, Alfonso Michell and others. Among them there are two remarkable women: Frida Kahlo and Maria Izquierdo. Mexican painting is alive thanks to these heterodox figures. Another tradition begins with them. It was inevitable: art is adventure, exploration and sometimes discovery. The only form of artistic inheritance I can conceive of is one of a point of departure, not a home for the weary. Did the Muralists not have disciples? They had something much better: contradictors.
From the beginning Carlos Merida demonstrated an attitude of intelligent artistic independence from the ideological art of Rivera and Siqueiros, and from the Expressionism of Orozco. Even in his formative period, Merida held a very different conception of mural painting, as can be seen in several works and notably on the walls of the Benito Juarez Housing Development, destroyed in the 1985 earthquake. In the work of this great connoisseur of the European avant-garde and of pre-Columbian art, especially Mayan (Merida was of Guatemalan origin), we witness the invariably opportune conjunction of these two traditions: universal twentieth-century art and pre-Hispanic art. Two words define this excellent painter: intelligence and sensibility, expressed in precise drawing and sharp color.
Merida, the convinced avant-gardist, is almost the exact opposite of the classical temperament of Julio Castellanos. In the short essay he dedicates to this painter, Villaurrutia perceptively identifies the traces of two great European painters in the work of Castellanos: Picasso and Ingres. Indeed, the Picasso that interested Castellanos was the one of the Neo-classical period, or in other words the Picasso that suffers the influence of Ingres. Gide used to say that "each artist has the influences he deserves" and Castellanos truly deserved his. Like Picasso and Ingres, he was an excellent sketcher. He also painted murals and, above all, several oil paintings of delicate and complex composition, whose sense of balance could be called classical without any exaggeration. Among these works a small masterpiece stands out: The Day of Saint John.
Jesus Reyes, Chucho Reyes, was an artist from the state of Jalisco who had a great influence on two highly talented Mexicans: the architect Luis Barragan and the sculptor Juan Soriano. Many years ago, in 1946, when he lived in Paris, the writer Rodolfo Usigli and I went to visit Picasso in his studio on the Quais des Grands Agustins. Chucho Reyes had given Usigli one of his gouaches as a present for Picasso and as a small token of his admiration. If my memory serves me well, it was a gouache that represented one of the well-known little horses painted by Chucho Reyes. Picasso looked at Reyes' small painting and said: "This young man has a lot of talent". I quickly pointed out to him: "This young man is the same age as you". Picasso's quick reply was: "Well, he is a very young old man". The praise was deserved.
One of the memorable things about this period was the appearance of two great women artists: Frida Kahlo and Maria Izquierdo. This is a unique occurrence in the history of Mexican painting. Even though they lived at the same time, their personalities were very different and their work developed in two completely different directions. Both of them are indebted to Surrealism: Frida looks towards Dali; Maria towards de Chirico. Both of them also showed a preference for Mexican themes. In Maria we can see the additional influences of Chagall and Rufino Tamayo. In Frida the academic tradition was decisive. In Frida the explosive element of Surrealism, dreams, eroticism and the forces of subversion, is more violent than in Maria. The design and composition of Frida's painting are the hallmarks of a sophisticated artist trained by an academy, whereas Maria has a more popular and instinctive vein: her design is imprecise and her sense of composition is naive, but her vision is more immediate and more powerful. Frida strived passionately to be Mexican, yet her Mexicanism was rather superficial. The important element in her is the poetic genius, that strange blend of fantasy and humor that enthralled Breton in 1938, when he saw Frida's famous painting "What water has given me". Maria, on the other hand, never strove to be Mexican. She achieved it instinctively. In Frida there is more sense of elevation; in Maria, more sense of earth.
Andre Breton provides the best definition of Frida's art: "Her painting is a bomb wrapped up in a silk ribbon". Yes, an embroidered ribbon, blue or pink, a ribbon on which a spiteful girl has written in bird writing a message full of sharp words with wings. Maria's work is derived more from the body and the instinct than from the brain. It has the same spontaneous fascination as a party at night in the central square of a small town. Maria represents the triumph of color: her reds and yellows are solar, her greens are like vegetables, her ochers are earthy, her blueness belongs to the water and sky. Still lives, valleys, hills, portraits, animals from daily life, women, children: a world that exists outside history, a time outside time: the time of a childhood circus with acrobats, magicians, clowns and beautiful trapeze artists. The time of a small square with its bandstand and church, ringed by ash trees. The time of horses and cows and bulls in the valley circled by hills. The time of voices and laughter coming from women who bathe in the river. The silence of the girl who walks in the path of moonlight. Reality made more real by Maria Izquierdo: the reality of legend rather than that of history.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo is one of the great artists of modern Mexico. Like Rufino Tamayo, he has an international reputation. Compared with the solar fan of Tamayo's painting, the photographic work of Alvarez Bravo can be likened to a subtle and at times dramatic dialogue between white, black and grey. Some years ago, I tried to express in a poem the admiration I felt for the work of this great artist. My poem is called "Facing time", because I think of Alvarez Bravo's work as a portrait of time, that fleeing substance from which human life is made. I shall read a few fragments:
The face of reality,
the face of every day,
is never the same face.
Blood that eclipses:
the murdered face of the worker,
a planet grounded in asphalt,
Under the sheets of laughter
with their faces hidden
One imagines the washerwomen
hanging out huge clouds on the rooftops.
Keep still! - for one moment.
A portrait of the infinite:
in a dark room
a cluster of sparks
against a black stream
(the silver comb
electrifies straight black hair).
Reality always bears another face,
the face of every day,
the one we never see,
the other face of time.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo:
lend me your little wooden horse
to cross over to the other side of this side.
Reality is more real in black and white.
Around 1950 a new group of Mexican artists emerged. All of them prolong the independent attitude adopted by Tamayo, Merida and other painters towards the ideological art of the Muralists. At the same time these young artists assimilate with great speed and sensibility the universal tendencies of post-war art. But before dealing with this I must mention very briefly one circumstance that favored the birth or emergence of these new artistic tendencies. I'm thinking of the presence in Mexico of a group of European artists who sought refuge in our country during the Second World War. Some of them belonged to the Surrealist group: Leonora Carrington, Paalen, Remedios Varo, Alice Raho. One of them, Matias Goeritz, was closer to Dadaism. In the case of the Surrealist painters, their influence consisted above all in a silent example. Matias Goeritz, on the other hand, had a direct influence on artistic life in Mexico, while his personality and his daringly inventive temperament did not take long to make a deep impact on several areas of Mexican art, especially on sculpture and architecture rather than on painting.
The Austrian painter Wolfgang Paalen settled in Mexico during the War and died here in 1959. He belonged to the Surrealist group and became interested in the art of ancient Mexico. He published a magazine (Dyn) that opened a space for dialogue between scientific thought and the artistic theories of the avant-garde. Paalen's life was a series of spiritual struggles, possessed and finally torn apart by opposing forces. Fascinated by the infinite possibilities of modern physics and by the landscape of totemic ancestors, the painter falls into the vast center of an agate, lost in the solitude of the cosmic night or in the whirlwind of a sea-shell turned to stone.
The Spanish painter Remedios Varo was also a Surrealist. The work she has left us is not extensive but it has an unusual poetic quality. She did not paint time but rather those instants when time slumbers, and dreams. In her world of stationary clocks we can hear the flux of substances, the circulation of light, the slow ripening of every minute. Her paintings are voyages to the center of a precious stone where time is crystallized.
The painter and writer Leonora Carrington belongs to several mythologies: Celtic and Mexican mythologies as well as that of surrealism in one of its wildest moments, and also to that of Alice in the land of mirrors. She is not a poet; she is a poem that walks, smiles, opens and closes its eyes, opens an umbrella that turns into a bird, a bird that becomes a fish that disappears in the bottom of a lake. Leonora's paintings are musical enigmas: we have to hear the colors and dance with the forms without trying to decipher them. Instead of mystery, her paintings irradiate marvels.
Gunter Gerzso was born in 1915 in Mexico. His childhood and part of his youth were spent in Europe. When he returned to our country in 1942 he began to paint in a style far removed from the dominant tendencies of the time. All solitary creatures share the nature of contemplative souls, according to Saint John of the cross. Each painting by Gerzso carries a secret. What is there behind this presence? Gerzso's painting is an attempt to provide an answer to this question which is perhaps the key question of eroticism and, of course, the source of sadism. There is violence but also, at the other pole, geometry and the search for equilibrium. The very rigor and exquisite purity of this painting is sustained over a rift in time. These geometries of fire and ice are poised over a disintegrating space.
I cannot speak about the painting of Juan Soriano without talking about the man. I met him over forty years ago when he had just arrived from Guadalajara. I sensed he was a being from another world. Not from another planet, but from the depths of time. An ancient yet at the same time extraordinarily young creature. A boy a thousand years old, an old man of twenty. He came from the most ancient antiquity yet he was born just yesterday. What was he like? What is Juan Soriano like? The answer is easy: then and now Soriano is like a rocket. He shoots up and pierces the night sky, like a spark that scratches the darkness, or like a shooting star that soars up only to explode into a shower of tiny stars of every color that burn and shine and then fall back into the great primeval night.
Soriano's work is both extensive and varied. From each of his journeys of exploration he returns with a unique work. One aspect of his talent that is not as well known as it should be is his sculpture. Soriano is a remarkable portrait painter because he is fascinated by all the manifestations of life. This love for living creatures has led him to practice with an unusual mastery and tenderness the portrayal of animals, something quite unique in our tradition.
Pedro Coronel began as a sculptor. In 1946 he visited Paris for the first time and since then he has devoted himself more and more to painting. His first visit resulted in the revelation of modern art. Many of his canvases - though not the best ones - show the monumental and often vivid influence of the art of ancient Mexico. His inspiration, however, comes from another region: his personal world. His best paintings are quite different from ancient art or popular art. They are resurrections that summon up ghosts. The artistic act here bears a clear relationship to exorcism. The artist wants to get rid of his obsessions, but as soon as he achieves this he realizes he has become a creator of ghosts. Yet the word "obsession" does not really suit Coronel's painting, it is closer to passion, sensuality, violence, a tragic and solar sense of happiness.
The sculptor and painter Manuel Felguerez completed some powerful mural works between 1960 and 1970. The striking quality of some of these compositions owes as much to their rigor and novelty of technique as to their dimensions. I am thinking especially about the remarkable composition in the Concamin building: a vast and complex network of levers, screws, wheels, lathes, axes, pulleys and washers.
Felguerez's contributions are not limited to mural art. As a sculptor he has created artistic objects in metal and wood, objects whose strict geometry and daring forms are quite astounding. In his easel painting we find those two qualities that define the art of Felguerez: intelligence attracted towards geometry, and passion that transforms all symmetry. Painting governed by reason and by passion. A constant dialogue that is sometimes a battle and sometimes an embrace between the cube and the wind, between the triangle and the flame.
Gironella's painting enters into a dialogue with certain works from the past: Velazquez, Valdes Leal, Antonio Pereda, Solana, Picasso, Monet. It is perhaps imprecise to call this relation a dialogue, since it is closer to erotic passion than to mere conversation. Like all great passions this one takes on the ancient forms of worship and abuse, incense and spitting. Painting conceived of as a sacrilegious ritual. Gironella's art is an art of deformation, an art that comes down directly from Valle-Inclan, Gomez de la Serna and Bunuel. Disfigurement is the absurd in painting just as the grotesque is the absurd in literature. Rather than a style, the absurd is a form of rebellion; it is man's protest against his absurd destiny and against the greatest absurdity that ends all absurdities: death. Yet death is also life, and this is why in Gironella's work death appears crowned with the radiant and somber attributes of the female body. Woman is the great tamer of life and death. All Gironella's painting can be seen as a deformation and a transfiguration of this great mystery. Jose Luis Cuevas is as popular as a film star, a footballer, a boxer or a singer. The danger of fame is that it changes those it elects into caricatures of themselves. Fortunately, the work of Jose Luis protects him against the dangers of fame. We should also remember that as an artist he has been able to swim against the tide. At a time when abstract art was triumphing all over the world, he had the nerve to explore in an independent and talented way the world of Expressionism. Thirty years later, Neo-Expressionism has now become the fashionable tendency in the galleries of New York.
Cuevas' Expressionism is more of an innate vision than a style or an aesthetic manner. If one is born as a Classicist or a Romantic, Baroque or Expressionist, then Cuevas is Expressionist not through choice but through fate. There are artists who seem to demand a critical judgment; others provoke our enthusiasm. As homage to Cuevas I wrote a poem, from which I quote these verses:
Jose Luis draws
on each page of each hour
like a howl
from the depths of time
from the depths of childhood
Jose Luis draws our wound
The pictorial work of Vicente Rojo is both vast and meticulous. His early love for textures seemed to suggest he would dwell on the richness of paste, material and color. Later, however, the material took on the proportions of lines, and from the lines geometrical objects were constructed. Later still, the same firm instinct led him to break up this geometry and go back again to a material density, but now this material seems to be alive.
Brian Nissen, a painter of English descent who has incorporated himself into the art of Mexico, is an inventor of solid forms that suddenly begin to fly into a state of ecstasy when propelled by a gust of enthusiasm: sudden, multicolored pollen. Nissen is also a very competent sculptor. He has been described by Eliot Weinberger in these terms: "Nissen is a maker of fetishes and idols whose attributes nobody can fully remember: models for the monuments of a future civilization, altars for a domestic sanctuary. Objects one could be buried with."
Like Tapies and other modern artists, Antonio Pelaez has experienced the fascination of the wall. In his case, it was not an aesthetic choice but rather something psychically determined. Like all true artists, Pelaez has transformed this determinism into freedom, and has used this freedom to construct his work.
The work of Arnaldo Cohen is not governed by what Baudelaire called "irregular vegetation", but by geometry: cubes, spheres, cones, shadows and polyhedrons. This paradise belongs to geometry rather than to nature. Yet the paradise has been invaded by the fatal liana of desire: woman with her army of enchanting and terrible monsters.
The painter, engraver and sculptor Francisco Toledo closes this period. In his work, forms of precision and solidity coexist with an enthusiastic and often violent sense of fantasy. Desire grows claws, tusks, nails and tweezers. His sources derive from the traditions of Mexico and from those of European avant-garde art, from the indigenous art of Australia and from his own sensibility brimming with fury.
These programs dealing with Mexican art are drawing to a close. Looking back on them I become aware of their gaps and omissions. But it was never my intention to write an objective history of Mexican art but rather to voice certain tastes and affections. I haven't talked about every single artist: only about those who for one reason or another have stimulated me to write on a certain occasion. Among the conspicuous absences in the contemporary period: Ricardo Martinez, Anguiano, Vlady, Rafael Coronel, Corzas and others. I can only repeat that a history or objective chronicle of Mexican art was not my intention. I wanted to express preferences and affinities. My judgments are not really judgments: they are the expression of my enthusiasm and taste.
I haven't mentioned the younger painters either. The youthful wing of Mexican painting is important, but I don't feel authorized to talk about work in progress. This task should be carried out by the young critics.
After voicing these provisos, I think it is only fair to make a personal declaration.
Modern art was born almost simultaneously in Paris and Milan, in Munich and Berlin, in Petrograd and Moscow. This movement soon conquered other continents. In 1913, for example, a great exhibition (Armory Show) was held in New York. There, European avant-garde artists including Picasso, Matisse, Picabia and Marcel Duchamp displayed their work for the first time outside the old continent. We had to wait for over thirty years, however, for North American art to free itself from European models and cease to be a mere provincial reflection. The same thing happened elsewhere. The exception was here in Mexico where a form of modern art arose around 1920 with its own very specific distinguishing characteristics. The different centers of modern art gradually died out: first in Russia, then in Italy and Germany. Paris, the last and greatest center of the universal avant-garde, was finally extinguished by the Second World War. In New York, after the war, the powerful personalities of North American art appeared as the direct heirs to the European avant-garde. New York replaced Paris as the focal point, yet the differences between them were and still are enormous. Apart from the first great moment of North American art, for some time now New York has really been the theatre, or rather the circus, of a decomposing avant-garde. After becoming an academy (in other words, style frozen into mannerism), in less than thirty years the avant-garde has become a fashion, a kind of self-imitation. This aesthetic decadence corresponds to the transformation of the work of art into an object of financial speculation. In New York and in other great cities, art galleries in close alliance with financial consortiums direct and openly promote artistic movements. This results in the domination of museums and the confiscation of the functions previously performed by critics. The great rebellion in art and poetry began with Romanticism; a century and a half later, the artists have been assimilated and integrated into the peculiar logic of the market place. They have become one more piece in the financial machinery. The only way to rebel against the impersonal dictatorship of the financial market is to create national centers of art. In every epoch artistic creation has rebelled against both uniformity and centralization. By its very nature, artistic creation is universal, so I'm not preaching an anachronistic kind of nationalism: I've always believed that art transcends all the frontier posts and all barriers. Yet I also believe that art is an essentially independent and individual attitude towards life. The remedy I propose would be difficult to put into practice, but it seems to me that it represents the only road to health. If Mexico is to become once more a great land of art, it must become an independent center, just as it was in the twenties and later in 1930 and 1950. In the recent past the state was the great protector of the arts. Today, this task is the responsibility of the whole of society and involves all of us.
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