Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The legacy of Rufino Tamayo

As he finished his five hour interview with Angelica Arenal, widow of artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, the editor of Excelsior newspaper asked:  All my readers will want to know:  whose fault was it that you are in this hospital bed?"  If she hadn't had weights hanging from all her extremities I'm sure she would have patted him on the arm when she answered, "Young man, it was nobody's fault but my own.  What else could I have expected of the most nefarious street corner in Cuernavaca?  The corner of Diaz Ordaz and Rufino Tamayo?"

Angelica's husband, David Afaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), liked to say "I won".  He lived longer than the other big name Mexican artists of the 20th century.  Jose Clemente Orozco died in 1949, Diego Rivera 1957.  Siqueiros even outlived members of the younger generation of artists such as Frida Kahlo (1954) and Jesús Guerrero Galvan (1973).

But the real winner was Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991).  Tamayo wasn’t on Siqueiros' list.  He didn't adhere to a basic idea proposed by the Sindicate of Artists and Engravers formed during the Mexican Revolution: truly revolutionary art should not only be something of beauty, it should contain a social message as well.  The clearer the message, the better the art.  For Tamayo art only needed to be something of beauty.  Many members of the post-revolutionary art movement considered him a lacky sold-out to the government.  In the meantime, Tamayo's paintings, usually not available in Mexico, were purchased in Paris or New York for twenty-five thousand dollars or more.  That’s not to say that Tamayo didn’t make waves with his art.

I remember a particularly well-planned set-up Tamayo crafted.  At a cocktail party in 1988 in Cuernavaca, Tamayo approached Governor Lauro Ortega with "I see you're building a new Palace of Justice."  With that prompt, Ortega launched into his spiel about how the State of Morelos should own its buildings, not pay rent. 

Tamayo offered the governor a portrait of Father Morelos to hang in the new building. Absolutely free.  Governor Ortega accepted right then and there. 

In the privacy of his studio, Tamayo painted.  As the date approached for the inaugural ceremony he put off the portrait's delivery date and only gave the architects the dimensions of the framed canvas.  "Put up the curtain to cover the painting and drive the nail into the wall.  I'll have it ready in time."  Tamayo personally delivered the painting wrapped in a sheet, slipping it behind the curtain minutes before the distinguished guest, President de la Madrid's arrival.   With fanfare the President pulled the drawstring.  The curtains parted.  And there was the portrait of a black man wearing a clerical collar and a bandana over his head!  Caught off-guard, the President said, "it's missing the plaque with the names of the painting and the artist."  It was a reporter who shouted, "What have you done to our hero?"  To which Tamayo replied in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone present, "It would be an act of racism to not be proud of him as he was." With that he turned his back on the assemblage and departed.  Touché, Siqueiros.  

As Mexico's best known artist, Tamayo traveled the world in his nineties in the nineties, with awards lavished on him wherever he went.  In many interviews he repeated, "I've been a socialist all my life.  I just didn't think my political views should be part of my art."  Indeed Mexico City's furthest-to-the-left daily newspaper owes him a debt of gratitude for lithographs and paintings he donated for fundraising to get the newspaper started.

In the 1970's, Rufino and his wife Olga offered their large collection of other artists' contemporary art to the Mexican people if an appropriate building were built for it.  The nation donated land in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park and an award-winning museum was built.  Though named Tamayo Museum, it hasn't been a place to see much of Tamayo’s work, just as Oaxaca's Tamayo Museum does not house his work either -- it features his and Olga's collection of prehispanic art.  

Now, however, for a short time we can enjoy a very special treat.  Mexico City's recently remodeled Tamayo Museum is hosting two "chapters" of Tamayo's paintings.  The first, "Tamayo/Trajectories," will run until November.  Forty-seven paintings, mostly from private collections both domestic and foreign, many exhibited for the first time, are arranged by topics:  still-lifes, female nudes, male nudes, portraits, landscapes, and scenes from Mexicans' daily lives.  There is even a watermelon section.  Tamayo was a great painter of watermelons, his slices are usually positioned on a tabletop.  Other Mexican artists enjoy arranging watermelon slices as a star -- a red star with the colors of the flag.   

There is a magic to Tamayo's landscapes and cityscapes.  In his unusual style, which lacks clearly outlined figures, Tamayo suggests a setting which we as viewers complete in our own mind and, in doing so, we realize it is a scene only seen in Mexico.    

Don't miss it.  When Chapter 2 opens, Chapter 1's paintings will have already been returned to their homes.  Texts and informational material is in both Spanish and English.

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