Modernism in Mexico: Rufino Tamayo and Carlos Mérida

By | September 17, 2018

Though their paintings are different in style, two artists working in mid-century Mexico—Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) and Guatemalan-born artist Carlos Mérida (1891-1985)—had much in common. Both traveled broadly, making and promoting their art in Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Both artists were of partial indigenous ancestry—Tamayo was of Zapotec heritage, while Mérida was of Maya descent. Distancing themselves from the narrative focus and committed politics of Mexican Socialist Realism, they emphasized the indigenous roots of the arts and culture of the Americas. Both artists interpreted and promoted Latin American perspectives through the international artistic languages of modernism.

Rufino Tamayo, Mexican, 1899–1991; The Dog and Serpent, 1943; oil on canvas; 34 1/8 x 44 1/4 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Morton D. May 234:1954; © 2018 Tamayo Heirs / Mexico / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The Museum recently installed Tamayo’s painting The Dog and Serpent, 1943, and Mérida’s The Three Princesses, 1955, in Gallery 212. Titled Art of the Unconscious, this gallery examines the influence of developing ideas of psychoanalysis on European and American art, particularly Surrealism. Both Tamayo and Mérida were loosely associated with this movement. Mérida was included in the 1940 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City.[1] Works by Tamayo that were exhibited at the 24th Venice Biennale were the focus of a 1950 essay by the founder of Surrealism, André Breton. Breton credited Tamayo’s vigorous use of color and form to what he considered an authentic connection to the natural world and the spirituality of ancient Mexico. While Tamayo’s The Dog and Serpent has not been on view in the galleries since 1993, Mérida’s Three Princesses has never been exhibited at the Museum.

In The Dog and Serpent, Tamayo presents the impending struggle between two animals. In a rocky landscape, a short dog modeled after a Mesoamerican, canine-shaped funerary vessel bares its teeth, ready to pounce on a fanged serpent. Spending extended time in New York City during World War II, Tamayo became keenly aware of the war, in which the United States had become involved. The incipient battle between these two animals can be seen as an allegory for the unprecedented violence then occurring in Europe.[3]

Carlos Mérida, Guatemalan (active Mexico), 1891–1985; The Three Princesses, 1955; lacquer, casein on parchment, laid down on laminated wood; 16 1/8 x 12 5/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer Jr. 167:1959; © Estate of Carlos Merida / Licensed by ARS, New York, NY

In Carlos Mérida’s Three Princesses, intersecting lines form an irregular grid of triangles, curves, and unique shapes. These colorful components form the bodies and clothing of three female figures. Mérida practiced a form of abstraction based in the bold, geometric patterns and vibrant colors of Maya textiles and other traditional Latin American arts. Here he used unconventional techniques that emphasize the work’s three-dimensionality. Instead of canvas, Mérida painted on a block of laminated wood covered in parchment, adding several coats of lacquer to the finished painting to create a glossy shine.

In Gallery 212 these paintings join two other works of modern Latin American art: Alice Rahon’s Sandstorm, 1947, and Roberto Matta’s Eggs of Rain, 1953. The Rahon, Matta, and Mérida paintings were given to the Museum by the local collector and newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., who traveled frequently to Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s, and at times purchased works of art to enrich his collection. A Mexican gallerist later remembered that Pulitzer’s “capacity to detect the talent of certain artists led him to be one of the first to purchase paintings by Tamayo.”[4] Tamayo’s The Dog and Serpent was given to the Museum by Morton D. May, Pulitzer’s friend and the chief executive of May Department Stores Company.

Molly Moog is a research assistant at the Saint Louis Art Museum, focusing on modern and contemporary art.

[1] Exposición Internacional del Surrealismo (Mexico City: Galería de Arte Mexicano, 1940). [2] André Breton, “Rufino Tamayo,” in André Breton, Antología (1913-1966) (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1982). ICAA Documents of 20th-Century Latin American and Latino Art [ID: 1126453]. [3] James Oles, “The Howl and the Flame: Tamayo’s Wartime Allegories,” in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, ed. Diana C. Du Pont (Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art in association with Editorial Turner de México, 2007), 300. [4] Jorge Alberto Manrique and Teresa del Conde, Una Mujer en el Arte Mexicano: Memorias de Inés Amor (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1987), 246.

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