Breaking Ranks: Rufino Tamayo and Mexican Modernism

Rufino Tamayo, Joyful Man, 1968, oil on canvas. Collection Museo de Arte Moderno / INBA / México. © D.R. Rufino Tamayo / Herederos / México / 2015 / Fundación Olga y Rufino Tamayo, A.C / SODRAC (2016)

Ask most people to name a famous Mexican artist, and odds are they’ll say Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, or David Alfaro Siquerios. And they’d be right. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, when Mexican nationalism was on the rise, artists such as Rivera, Orozco and Siquerios painted traditional Mexican themes, often in large government-commissioned murals.

Enter Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991). Although he participated early on with this highly successful group, Tamayo was the first to break away from their political rhetoric, deciding instead to express the essence of Mexican life through the lives of everyday people. “Do not set out to make Mexican art,” he once said, “or American, Chinese or Russian art. Think in terms of universality.”

In the new exhibition, Tamayo: A Solitary Mexican Modernist, opening on June 25 at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), Tamayo’s unique vision is on breathtaking display. Featuring eighteen paintings and a set of twelve lithographs from the museum collections of the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City, along with a watercolour from the NGC, Tamayo is Canada’s first-ever solo show on the artist’s work. Marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the artist’s death, the exhibition covers some sixty years, revealing Tamayo as a master of reinvention, and an enduring symbol of modernity.

Rufino Tamayo, Athlete, 1930, oil on canvas. Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno / INBA / Mexico. © D.R. Rufino Tamayo / Herederos / México / 2015 / Fundación Olga y Rufino Tamayo, A.C / SODRAC (2016)

Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Tamayo began his art studies at the School of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Moving to New York City in 1926, he became enamoured of the work of European artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Georges Braque. “He was most influenced by Surrealism and Expressionism,” Marisol Argüelles, exhibition curator and Deputy Director of the Modern Art Museum in Mexico City, told NGC Magazine. “Influenced by the European avant garde, he introduced such elements as the fragmentation of space and Cubist representations of the human form into his work.”

By the early 1930s, Tamayo had become well-known on the Mexican art scene, but continued to avoid overtly political work. Instead of showing ranks of marching peasants or Indigenous workers grinding corn, Tamayo depicted a man and woman smoking, an athlete who doesn’t look terribly athletic, and a storefront filled with women’s foundation garments. Tamayo understood, perhaps better than many, that a country’s lifeblood is best expressed in mundane details, rather than in grand rhetorical gestures.

An acknowledged master of the use of colour, Tamayo’s paintings bristle with hues both brilliant and subtle. Often deliberately limiting his palette, Tamayo was of the opinion that by reducing his choice of colours, he actually expanded his compositional possibilities.

Tamayo was also inventive in his use of media, developing a printmaking style he called “mixografía.” Although his layering of paint and various other materials would be familiar to any mixed-media artist today, at the time it was unusual, placing Tamayo yet again outside the Mexican mainstream.

Rufino Tamayo, Corset Advertisement,1934, oil on canvas. Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno / INBA / Mexico. © D.R. Rufino Tamayo / Herederos / México / 2015 / Fundación Olga y Rufino Tamayo, A.C / SODRAC (2016)

“The monumental and universal are already there in his early career,” Erika Dolphin, coordinating curator of the exhibition and Associate Curator at the National Gallery of Canada, told NGC Magazine. “He has an interesting way of making his human figures more mysterious — less individual, and more part of the background — while also making the mundane quite compelling, as in works such as Corset Advertisement (1934) and The Smokers (1931).”

Many of Tamayo’s preoccupations come together in Two Tehuanas (1935), a watercolour from the National Gallery of Canada collection. “Interestingly,” says Argüellas, “in works such as Two Tehuanas and even Watermelons,” both in the exhibition, “you see not only the influence of artists such as Braque, Matisse, Picasso and de Chirico on Tamayo’s work, but also the influence of the Mexican School of Painting.” 

Rufino Tamayo, Watermelons, 1968, oil on canvas. Collection of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Internacional Rufino Tamayo / INBA / Mexico. © D.R. Rufino Tamayo / Herederos / México / 2015 / Fundación Olga y Rufino Tamayo, A.C / SODRAC (2016)

Although he often travelled back to Mexico, Tamayo and his wife Olga — who features in a number of works in the exhibition — lived in New York for extended periods. In 1948, despite Tamayo’s apolitical artistic stance, which remained controversial particularly among his fellow Mexican modernists, his first major retrospective was held in Mexico City. Uncomfortable with the continuing controversy over his work at home, Tamayo and Olga moved to Paris in 1949, where they remained for the next decade.

“After the Second World War, with the arrival of the Space Age,” says Argüellas, “there is a moment when Tamayo starts painting the cosmos in works such as The Great Galaxy (1978). But he is also thinking about humanity, which is mortal and finite within a universe that is eternal and boundless. That is why he often painted human beings with unnatural shapes, while also recalling the ancient cultures of Mexico — people who were in contact with both the natural world and the sky above.”

After his paintings were exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1950, Tamayo finally achieved international recognition. In 1964, he and Olga returned to Mexico, and in 1974 donated their large collection of Precolumbian art to the city of Oaxaca, founding the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art. In 1981, they donated their collection of international art to the people of Mexico, forming the basis for the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City.

Rufino Tamayo, The Great Galaxy, 1978, oil on canvas. Collection Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Internacional Rufino Tamayo / INBA / Mexico. © D.R. Rufino Tamayo / Herederos / México / 2015 / Fundación Olga y Rufino Tamayo, A.C / SODRAC (2016)

“He had a long and varied career,” notes Dolphin, “and his later work takes on a mystical and abstract quality. In the end, it was also quite an independent career, breaking away relatively early from the more forceful and political work of his fellow Mexican modernists.”

The exhibition ends with two images. One is the painting Man at the Door (1980), which brings together many of Tamayo’s recurring artistic preoccupations, including colour, composition and archetypal human forms. The other is a series of lithographs featuring Precolumbian figures belonging, as Argüellas says, “to the Classical period of Mexico’s history. It is our past, our origins, touched by the modern ways of the artist: a brushstroke combining the ancient with the modern.”  

Tamayo died in Mexico City in 1991, at the age of 91. Throughout his long career — from early depictions of Indigenous people to the abstracts of his later years — Tamayo remained preoccupied with the place of humanity in the universe.  

"If I could express with a single word what it is that distinguishes Tamayo from other painters,” wrote Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz of the artist, “I would say without a moment's hesitation: Sun. For the Sun is in all his pictures, whether we see it or not."

Tamayo: A Solitary Mexican Modernist is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from June 25 until October 10, 2016, in Gallery B109. 

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