PRINT September 1986


LEAFING THROUGH A BOOK ON ancient Mexico, or strolling through the Museo Nacional de Antropología y Historia in Mexico City, one is immediately convinced, as was André Breton, that Mexico has always been the most innately surrealist of countries. Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec sculptures, and frescoes from different periods in Mexican history, repeatedly show images such as plumed coyotes, men with the shells of turtles, dogs wearing human masks, jaguars in scarves, arum flowers whose pistils are tiny men, geometrically shaped gods with large noses, and so on. All this is depicted with great freedom, whether realistically or with the maximum stylization. During the time since Hernán Cortés brought what we, surely in error, call “civilization” to Mexico, in 1519, this natural sense of the marvelous could well have disappeared. Not at all: the marvelous is tenacious when it is so deeply rooted, manifesting itself ubiquitously in popular art, and in the traditional Mexican festivals, which demonstrate an altogether different approach to life and death. Many visitors to Mexico have been struck by the common use there of skulls and skeletons in all kinds of decoration—in children’s toys, pastries, monuments, cartoons, and the plastic arts, from pre-Columbian times until today, from the friezes of skulls at Chichén Itzá to the skeletons in their tombs in the recent paintings of Juan Soriano. In Mexico, calaveras—skulls, skeletons—are not exclusively the symbols of fear that they are in the West; they are considered a part of life which, of course, has its humorous side. For a Mexican, and rather astonishingly to a Western mind, there need be nothing irreverent in the depiction of the president of the Republic as a skeleton.

“Mexico,” wrote Breton, “with its splendid funeral toys, establishes itself as the chosen land of black humor.”1 Hence the Surrealists’ interest in the woodcuts of the Mexican popular artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), in which, for example, the calaveras ride bicycles as easily as they do anthropomorphic comets. The Surrealists recognized Posada as one of their own; according to the Surrealist poet Philippe Soupault,

In woodcut, with a knife, this congenial artist engraved scenes whose atmosphere recalls that of the ballad. (Today, in the age of photography and cinema, we would call them documentaries: scenes of crimes, catastrophes, trials, which were the passion of the public.) In these prints, whose power of suggestion is still fresh, one rediscovers the origin of the evolution of universal art.2

It may seem paradoxical that Posada, who actually preferred the zinc etching to the woodcut, proved of such interest not only to muralists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, and to the members of the Taller de Gráfica Popular, the popular engraving workshop, but to the Surrealists as well. Yet the kind of imagination that the Surrealists claimed for their own can as easily appear in a popular context, where it continues to reflect the depths of the unconscious, though it makes no theoretical claims to do so. There isn’t a Mexican writer or representational painter in modern times—including the muralists of the ’20s and ’30s (Rivera, Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jean Chariot, Fernando Leal, Juan O’Gorman, and such)—in whose work cannot be found, here and there, fantastical or irrational elements. This is not necessarily to say that these artists would always be well-disposed toward or even interested in Surrealism as defined by Breton and his friends.

It was not until the late ’20s that the Parisian Surrealists would become known in Mexico. Knowledge of them was spread through those Mexican painters, and poets such as César Moro and Luis Cardoza y Aragón, who had visited Paris during the preceding decade. The arrival in Mexico of Surrealism as an organized movement and as a relatively defined esthetic was prepared by various resolute attempts at Modernism, for example by Rivera, in his abstract Cubist years (ca. 1915–16), and by the Stridentists, such as Ramón Alva de la Canal, Fermin Revueltas, and others. These artists rejected conventional realism, as did the painters of the muralist movement (including Rivera in a later phase), whose work, however, remained figurative. The painter Carlos Mérida (1893–1984) had been an example for a long time; from 1910 to 1914 he lived in Paris, where he knew the Fauves and Amedeo Modigliani, and in Mexico from the beginning of the ’20s he exhibited work very free in its interpretation of reality, its stylizations and deformations deriving from pre-Columbian traditions rather than from the recent developments in Parisian art. Little by little, Merida evolved toward an art with abstract elements, certainly but still based on representational traces—human silhouettes, schematic animals, landscapes, touched often with humor and rarely with tragedy It is possible that this distant tropical relative of Paul Klee was an influence on the younger Rufino Tamayo.

From the beginning of the ’30s on one notices surrealist elements in the work of Mexican painters who were not specifically Surrealist, such as Roberto Montenegro and Carlos Orozco Romero, in particular the latter, whose paintings of this period, with their slow- or stiff-gestured figures permuting themselves in a world of shadows, recall a crepuscular Giorgio de Chirico. This kind of occasional surrealism can also be found in the work of younger painters such as Augustin Lazo, Guillermo Meza, and Soriano. It is important, nevertheless, to avoid finding surrealism where none exists, simply as a response to something we don’t understand; José Chávez Morado’s images of bizarrely masked and costumed dancers, for example, are actually accurate, realistic descriptions of certain popular Mexican festivals. The event may be surreal, but the painter’s contribution is not.

With María Izquierdo (1906–56) and Frida Kahlo (1907–54), two artists who died relatively young, surrealism flows from its source—the unconscious—and not from a willed design. Of all the artists Antonin Artaud saw during his trip to Mexico in 1936, he was most taken with Izquierdo: the melange of mastery and naivete in her paintings—portraits, and oddly located landscapes with figures—reveal both her Indian origin and her advanced studies in art. As Artaud said, “María Izquierdo inhales whiffs of Europe as if she wished to annihilate them; she doesn’t make clear distinctions in all this, but the spirit of her Indian race speaks so loudly within her that even unconsciously she echoes its voice.”3 In an Izquierdo painting, and reminiscent of the work of Marc Chagall, weightless dancers may stand on barebacked horses that seem to laugh, and to swim rather than jump over fences; and black- or red-skinned mermaids may strum guitars and sing while ocean liners sink in the background.

The most clearly surrealist of all the Mexican artists of the time was Kahlo. Biographies and movies have taken on her difficult life: the early accident leaving her an invalid, despite several dozen operations; the love affairs with various prominent men, notably Rivera, whom she married and divorced only to remarry; her obsession with maternity, frustrated by a series of miscarriages and abortions; her unorthodox styles of dress and behavior, her political commitments, and many other details, all fascinating to the enthusiast of the kind of anecdotal biography that specializes in the picturesquely disconcerting. Ordinarily, all this would not necessarily relate to the artist’s work, yet in the case of Kahlo one cannot overlook it, since her art is openly autobiographical. Her friends, lovers, infirmities, abortions, and obsessions are part of the subject of practically all of her paintings.

Yet even while displaying the events of her life, Kahlo transcended them, avoiding the exhibitionism risked by her method: she uncalculatingly transposed to canvas her dreams and the ghosts that haunted her, assembling her diverse pictorial elements with no regard for logic, realism, or perspective. In What the Water Gave Me, 1938, for example, the waters of a bathtub hold not only the feet of the bather but a dead bird, a woman being strangled, Kahlo’s parents, a boat, a skeleton, plants, a tightrope walker, a volcano from which erupts a skyscraperlike baby bottle, two naked women on a bed, and more. When Breton visited Mexico in 1938 he was amazed at Kahlo’s paintings: “This work lacks not even a drop of the cruelty and humor alone capable of bringing together the rare affective powers that combine to create the potion to which Mexico holds the secret. The giddiness of puberty, the mysteries of regeneration here feed the inspiration, which, far from retaining them in private areas of the mind, as at other latitudes, on the contrary struts about with a mixture of candor and impertinence.”4 The disorienting but easily decipherable symbolism of this Hieronymus Bosch–ian world, springing from a modern unconscious, is responsible for the growing public interest in Kahlo’s work. Most of her strengths are extrapictorial; her work moves us, intrigues us, but we don’t look to it for the formal qualities that one discovers in a Tamayo or even a Mérida.

To complete a panorama of surrealistic Mexican art before World War II, we should mention the photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Important photographers like Edward Weston and Tina Modotti had already worked in Mexico, but their efforts to capture reality in a striking way, and eventually with certain elements of mise-en-scène, didn’t really interest Alvarez Bravo. He preferred unusual scenes, fragments of reality removed from their habitual context. This same focus led some of the Parisian Surrealists to an interest in the “hasard objectif” and the “merveilleux quotidien,” the “objective chance” and the “marvelous in the everyday:’ which they sought in the bric-a-brac of the flea market. Alvarez Bravo presents what Octavio Paz calls ”enigmas in black and white":5 in one photograph a group of dressmaker’s dummies on a sidewalk seem to perform a mysterious rite, while in another a little girl watches something in the distance that we cannot see.

By the eve of World War II, the Parisian Surrealists were well aware of what was going on in Mexico. In 1937, Artaud was able to find a Paris gallery for Izquierdo, and in 1939 Breton wrote a statement to accompany a show of the work of Kahlo and Alvarez Bravo. If Mexicans visiting Paris, including Moro, Cardoza y Aragón, Alejo Carpentier, and Manuel Maples Arce (the latter two associated with Robert Desnos), followed the course of Surrealism, they also informed Parisians of Mexican developments. As a result, the Surrealist painter Wolfgang Paalen and his wife, Alice Rahon, went to Mexico in 1939 to organize, with Moro, an international exposition of Surrealism, at the Galería de Arte Mexicano, Mexico City. The show, which opened in January 1940, showed Mexican painters like Kahlo as well as foreigners such as Yves Tanguy. While the war raged on in Europe, Paalen and Rahon decided to stay in Mexico. They were not the first European émigrés; the Spanish Surrealist painter and poet José Moreno Villa, for example, had arrived there during the Spanish Civil War. And a further number of exiles would be brought to Mexico by World War II, including the British painters Gordon Onslow-Ford and Leonora Carrington, the French poet Benjamin Péret, and the Catalan painter Remedios Varo. (With the exception of Péret, all these artists stayed in Mexico after the war.)

As if on home ground, Surrealism quickly gained converts and sympathizers, principal among them the Mexican painter Günther Gerzso. After New York, where Marcel Duchamp, Andre Masson, Breton, Kurt Seligmann, and others were to be found, Mexico City became the main Surrealist gathering place. The groups in the two cities maintained good relations, yet Paalen found it important to distinguish himself and the Mexican Surrealists from Breton’s orthodox Surrealism. For one thing, he didn’t see reason and imagination as irreconcilable opposites. With the help of Moro, Rahon, and Onslow-Ford, he founded the French/English magazine Dyn, which published six issues between 1942 and 1944. Besides those of its founders, the magazine also published texts and reproductions of works by Merida and Alvarez Bravo, as well as by Henry Miller, Alexander Calder, and Chagall.

Paalen’s was a singular career. Born in Vienna, in 1907, by the early ’30s he was part of a Parisian group of abstract artists, “Abstraction-Création,” then turned to Surrealism in 1936. Still, he retained a taste for colored forms that were nonfigurative but suggestive of figures and objects as if in a state of genesis; he coupled these with experiment with textures, as in his applications of smoke to canvas or paper in a technique called fumage. During the ’40s, on rough paper made by Mexican artisans, he made astonishing paintings and drawings in which colored forms interacted with the unevennesses and irregularities of the paper. Breton observed Paalen’s “will to attain total lucidity through the osmosis, not only of the visual and the visionary, but of all that brews, full of mysterious attractions, in primitive works of art.” Indeed, the images and plastic forms Paalen dug from his unconscious are not unlike the designs and shapes favored by “uneducated” Indian artists. Paalen died in 1959, ending his days living on a plateau in the Mexican desert.

The styles of Rahon, Carrington, and Varo are figurative where Paalen’s is abstract, and their work is also more minutely detailed than his. The best-known among them, Carrington, an English artist born in 1917, studied in Paris, Florence, and London before becoming involved with Max Ernst and exhibiting with the Surrealists from 1937 on. At this point she began to write, and henceforth would work as both writer and painter. Her texts, which are among the best of Surrealism, describe the same world as her paintings: fairies and animals inhabit fantastical scenes that are both erotic and edged with humor. “The Furies,” Carrington once wrote, “who have a sanctuary buried many fathoms under education and brain washing, have told Females they will return, return from under the fear, shame, and finally, through the crack in the prison door, Fury.”7 The atmosphere of Carrington’s work is related to that of Varo’s, and the lives of the two artists also followed like paths: Varo, born in Angles, Spain, in 1913, had an interest in Surrealism that grew more active when she met and married Peret, who had come to Spain in 1936 to fight in the Civil War. The two settled in Paris, where Varo exhibited with the French Surrealists until World War II forced them into exile. Much of her earlier work has been lost, and it is the work of her last six years—she died in 1963—that is best known: mysterious scenes of magical rituals and experiences, without violence or danger, in which the characters engage with the aid of complicated imaginary apparatuses and vehicles, all imbued with a sense of enchantment, and all rendered in subtle tonalities and with the precision of a medieval miniaturist.

Gerzso, born in 1915, is an important Surrealist painter who still does not have the reputation outside Mexico that he deserves. His work during the Dyn period is interesting, but still of an orthodox Surrealism, relying on imaginary landscapes and unlikely juxtapositions. Retrato de Benjamin Péret (Portrait of Benjamin Péret, 1944), for example, shows a locomotive whose funnel spews an enormous cloud of smoke, upon which lies a gigantic nude. Some years later Gerzso abandoned figuration to paint compositions of clean planes, generally hard-edged, which recall the interwoven bas-reliefs of certain Aztec and Mayan architectural forms. This form of abstraction does not reject traditional pictorial conventions such as perspective and the play of shadows; the planes form mighty architectural structures of inconceivable function, or landscapes one sees only in dream. Paz was right to say that “Gerzso has abandoned surrealist style but not surrealist inspiration.” 8

And what of Tamayo? Since his great fluidity throughout his long career (he is now 87, and still active) has permitted him to use a series of diverse styles one after another, he could on the basis of different periods be classified as a Mexicanist, an expressionist, even an abstractionist. It is most usual, however, to identify him with Surrealism. Poets such as Breton, Soupault, and Péret were not interested in Tamayo without reason. As a young man he was pulled by contradictory influences: by the folkloristic Mexican painters, by the muralists (though he would soon abandon this direction), by the European painters—Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Klee—whose work he saw in New York on a visit m 1926. It wasn’t until the early ’40s that he emerged as a powerful painter in his own right. After a period marked by the appearance in his paintings of vicious-looking dogs among bones (around 1941), Tamayo discovered a new imaginative freedom in figurative work that described general, everyday themes quite unlike the epic subjects of the muralists. These works were also dissimilar to the Surrealism of Carrington and Varo. If one must compare the Tamayo of these years to another painter, perhaps it would be Mérida; both artists have a closeness to pre-Columbian art, where their kind of Surrealism has its source.

If it is true, as Paz says in connection with Tamayo, that “Mexicans are not privileged with an understanding of pre-Columbian art by virtue of their birth,”9) then it is also true that culture does not exist only in relatively organized concepts like Breton’s Surrealism. Culture and knowledge are wider than that: the Indian peasant with his donkey who passes a Mayan pyramid may never have read a book about it, but nevertheless he knows it, in as real a way as an art history professor, though very differently A cultural manifestation such as the surreal imagination is not the invention of one person, nor is it the possession of the person who recognizes it and names it. It may appear in many places, in many forms, at many times, among people who may or may not be aware of each other. Tamayo is not only an artist who has studied the, works of the European masters, he also understands the way of knowledge of the craftsman, as the peasant knows the earth in a way not that of the engineer or the geologist. Nothing is simpler than his themes: a man looking at the sun, a grotesque figure sticking out its tongue, a woman wanting to fly to the stars, a volcano, a jaguar, a feathered serpent like those of Aztec steles—but displaced, transformed and transfigured by the vision of the artist. “Tamayo’s ferocity is not intellectual,” Paz remarks, “it is satire and ritual, popular raillery and magic ceremony”10 It is color that rules his forms; color comes first, and line comes independently to inscribe in it a figure, the sun, watermelons, for the pleasure of our eyes and our imaginations.

Many other Mexican painters may be connected with Surrealism, for example Soriano, born in 1920, who began to exhibit in the ’40s. His work is capricious in that he obeys only himself, or whatever within himself governs his imagination and thence his art; he does not follow the dictates and suggestions of any group or school. Many of his paintings reveal, if not Surrealism, then something fantastical that is close to it. Carlos Fuentes has remarked on how the work is based on the elements: "air and fire, water and earth; angels and serpents, gods and cyclists, lovers and toads, bulls and women, vases and coffins, lions and skeletons, saints and fish. We always see them through, in, with the primitive elements. 11 As with Tamayo, we must add here a sense of humor, present in a work with a troubling, traditionally Mexican theme (for example, Serpent bleu [Blue serpent], of 1974) as much as in a painting with a modern subject like Tour de France, 1954, which whirls around so gaily and absurdly.

Since the ’50s, several Mexican painters have been traveling companions to Surrealism. The first Paris show of José Luis Cuevas, born in 1934, was mounted by Soupault in 1955, and the painter has expressed sympathy toward certain Surrealists; one can understand how his aggressively distorted figures would appeal to the artists of the Surrealist movement. Alberto Gironella, born in 1929, has shown several times in a Surrealist context, particularly with Phases, a para-Surrealist group whose work leans toward abstraction. Gironella’s painting shows a restless draftsmanship and an iconoclastic temperament; the mood of his “Reines” (Queens) series of the ’50s and ’60s, inspired by Diego Velázquez, is as Ubuesque as it is Surrealist. At the other end of the Surrealist spectrum from Gironella is Pedro Friedeberg, born in 1937, who, in a curious juxtaposition of geometry and the most scrupulous realism, of mandalas and animals, composes carefully planned architectural structures which refer to kinetic and Op art. For Surrealism has not contented itself with the earlier attempts to define it, but has spread out to other fields—including the applied arts, as can be seen in the objects and furniture that Gironella also creates. His chairs in the shape of an open hand remind us of the bateau-berceau (boat-cradle) made by Carrington and Jose Horna in 1945, a work actually usable by an infant; in the marvelously fresh eyes of Surrealism in Mexico is an astonishing continuity.

Serge Fauchereau is an art critic who lives in Paris. A professor at the Institut des Hautes Etudes en Arts Visuels, Paris, he was recently one of the directors of the “Futurismo & futurismi” exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, until October 12. His latest book, on Georges Braques, is about to be published.

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.

1. André Breton, Anthologie Je l’humour noir, Paris: Editions du Sagmaire, 1940, p. 11.

2. Philippe Soupault, Vingt-mille et un jours: entretiens avec Serge Fauchereau, Paris: P. Belfond, 1980, p. 252.

3. Antonin Artaud, Messages révolutionnaires, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1979, p. 150.

4. Breton, Le Surréalisme et la peinture, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1965, p. 144.

5. Octavio Paz, Sombras de obras, Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1983, p. 211.

6. Breton, Le Surréalisme et la peinture, p. 78.

7. From the catalogue for “Leonora Carrington: A Retrospective Exhibition,” at the Center for Inter-American Relations, New York, and the University An Museum, Austin, Texas, 1976, p. 23.

8. Octavio Paz, El signo y el garabato, Mexico City: Joaquín Morn, 1973, p. 191.

9. Paz, Rire et penitence, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1983, p. 224.

10. Ibid., p. 217.

11. From the catalogue for the exhibition “Juan Soriano” at the Palais des Congrès, Brussels, 1985, n. p..