Seduced by color…

tamayoRufino Tamayo was an extravagantly gifted Mexican draftsman and colorist known for his intense and beautiful color sense. His paintings seem to glow with colors inspired by the people and art of his native land where earth reds, muted greens, brilliant purple and chrome yellow predominate.

Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate, has said of him, “If I could express with a single word what it is that distinguishes Tamayo from other painters, I would say, without a moment’s hesitation: sun. For the sun is in all his pictures, whether we see it or not: night itself is for Tamayo simply a sun carbonized.”

My first discovery of Tamayo was an epiphany. I was visiting his museum ‘por casualidad’, and suddenly my eyes were blinded by color and I was seduced by both the tactile and the poetical aspects of the paintings. I waited till the museum guard turned the corner and I touched the canvas, feeling sand and pigment under my hand, longing to take in those beings lost in time and space in the universe Tamayo depicted. For the very first time in my life, an artist had awakened in me the desire to paint and I hastened back to New York to purchase canvas and colors.

“Painting is no fun,” Tamayo has said; “it has to be done with our insides, our heart, even our intestines. The painter is like a mother bearing a child. It has to hurt a lot, and the more it hurts the more healthy it is.”

Tamayo, along with the three great Mexican muralists, Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, brought international attention to 20th-century Mexican art. In large part because of his active presence years after the last of the muralists had died, that attention has been maintained.
Although he painted a number of murals around the world, Tamayo reacted against the work of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera. He felt the epic proportions and the political rhetoric of their work was unnecessary and believed that the Mexican qualities of a painting would be evident as a result of the artist being part of the culture. The mythical aspect of the Mexican personality rather than obvious social images inspired him.

Tamayo said “The trouble was that the mural painters portrayed only a surface nationalism. They painted the facts of Mexican history and culture, all leading to the facts of the revolution. But revolution is not a Mexican phenomenon. It happens all over the world. I’m not opposed in theory to what they did. But I myself felt something beyond that. I was a rebel, not against the revolution, but against the Mexican mural movement that was conceived to celebrate it…. I think in terms of universality. Art is a way of expression that has to be understood by everybody, everywhere. It grows out of the earth, the texture of our lives and experiences.”

He never forgot his struggle with official notions of art and his difficulty in gaining respect for the art he wanted to make. “You know the famous phrase of Siqueiros: ‘Ours is the only path,’ Tamayo said in 1981, before the opening of the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Mexico City.“Can you believe that, to say that ours is the only path when the fundamental thing in art is freedom! In art, there are millions of paths — as many paths as there are artists.”

The same year, he recalled: “I had difficulties with the muralists, to the point that they accused me of being a traitor to my country for not following their ways of thinking. But my only commitment is to painting. That doesn’t mean I don’t have personal political positions. But those positions aren’t reflected in my work. My work is painting.”

Tamayo’s paintings can be stark or lyrical, bawdy or extraordinarily delicate, allegorically elaborate or a feast of music and nature. Throughout his long career, his passionate commitment to the craft of painting is unmistakable, as is his feeling for animals and fruit and for the ceremonial pleasures of play and dance. Many of his paintings have a searching, experimental quality. They are occasionally dreamy and disjunctive, with objects and figures floating in space. They can also be statuesque, with simple people, like fruit sellers, suggesting the appearance and authority of pre-Columbian statues.
During World War II, his work became simpler and sometimes savage. He painted big-eyed open-mouthed animals, fearsome and fearful, including dogs that bring to mind Mexican clay figurines.
The ecstatic earthiness, the transcendent power of simple things, and his mask-like faces and statuesque figures are rooted in his Indian origins and in his study of Mexican folk art and pre-Columbian sculpture. From beginning to end, his painting is saturated with Mexican color and light.

Reviewing an exhibition of his paintings at the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan in 1977, the New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer wrote that it is the color “that wins us over: color that is unembarrassed to be beautiful.
“Indeed, even where the ‘primitive’ drawing has lost its luster in these paintings, the sheer force of color — a sensuous purple-red, a dusky terra cotta, the blues and pinks of the Mexican sky — sustain their power.”

Rufino Tamayo was born in 1899 in Oaxaca, Mexico to Zapotec parents. At the age of twelve, he moved to Mexico City. There, he worked in a city market selling fruit, a subject that would later appear in the images of many of his paintings. In 1917, he entered the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City where he received a formal European-style art training. In 1921, he was appointed to the head of the Department of Ethnographic Drawing at the National Museum of Anthropology. It was here that Tamayo learned to value the compositional qualities and the symbolism of preHispanic art. By 1926, he had his first one-artist show in which he distinguished himself as a very personal and different painter from the accepted work of the times. As his career developed, he moved through several artistic stages and his use of color evolved from dark tonalities and earth colors to a palette of violent but delicate colors. Tamayo preferred the surface of canvas and worked only in natural light. He painted with a wide variety of tools and made his own pigments.


michèle voltaire marcelin

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