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The ‘ancient language’ of Francisco Zúñiga

Virgilio Garza, Head of the Latin American Department in New York, discusses the sculptor’s examination of indigenous culture and a landmark work offered in the Latin American Art sale on 24-25 May in New York

Through the use of materials such as wood, stone and bronze, the art of Costa Rican-born Mexican artist Francisco Zúñiga explores the timeless beauty and existential qualities of the human condition, often through the lens of the feminine form. Zúñiga’s emotive and poetic masterpieces ‘speak to a universal audience’, says Virgilio Garza, Head of the Latin American Department at Christie’s.

Zúñiga used models to develop his powerful repertoire of representations of indigenous women; he called one of his models, Evelia, who was from Veracruz, a ‘universal native type’, even though photographs reveal she was a more of a mestiza

Other photographs taken by Zúñiga in Patzuaro and the Yucatán in 1970 demonstrate that his representations were also based on travels, yet his titles often only offer vague characterisations:  Yucatecas, Yalaltecas, Chamulas, Juchitecas or provide no ethnic descriptors. 

Here in Grupo de cuatro mujeres de pie  the women become powerful updated versions of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais — projecting Zúñiga’s conception of universal femininity rooted in notions of regional identity types. Scale, proportion, context and grandeur of ambition make it one of his most complex sculptural groupings.  Indeed, this grouping graces the cover of the first volume of his catalogue raisonné, which is devoted to his sculptural ouevre

Francisco Zúñiga (1912-1998), Grupo de cuatro mujeres de pie, 1974. Bronze. 80 x 86½ x 45⅛ in (203.2 x 220 x 115 cm). Edition two of three. Estimate $1,500,000-2,500,000. This work is offered in the Latin American Art sale on 24-25 May at Christies in New York

Francisco Zúñiga (1912-1998), Grupo de cuatro mujeres de pie, 1974. Bronze. 80 x 86½ x 45⅛ in (203.2 x 220 x 115 cm). Edition two of three. Estimate: $1,500,000-2,500,000. This work is offered in the Latin American Art sale on 24-25 May at Christie's in New York

When Zúñiga made Grupo de cuatro mujeres de pie  it coincided with a period in which he received numerous individual exhibitions, especially in the United States.  In 1969 he had a solo exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, followed by individual exhibitions in the early 1970s at the San Diego Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Phoenix Art Museum. 

His success abroad allowed him to stop working for the state and to create more regularly in bronze. His son, Ariel Zúñiga claimed that bronze allowed Francisco to remit ‘to a remote past’.  The exaggerated geometric forms of Zúñiga’s women recall the swelling and bulk of the pre-Columbian vessels he painted and drew as a young man, while the artist claimed that ‘sculpture is an ancient language… it is important that it should be representative of a culture’. 

The four peasant women symbolise the different stages of life: adolescence, pregnancy, middle age, and old age

He continued by noting the resonance of the pre-Columbian in his commanding sculptural figures: ‘I am very interested in the pre-Hispanic world. Despite the terrible colonization that our peoples were subjected to, the strength of their culture succeeded in filtering through, and we have an intuitive sense of who they were, thanks to their sculpture. This perhaps explains a certain self-containment that exists in my figures… their will to resist.’

Defining his conception of universal femininity and beauty through his study of indigenous cultures, the artist effectively and imaginatively manipulated scale, proportion and context, earning this complex masterwork its elevated status in both Zúñiga’s oeuvre and art history. As Garza states, Zúñiga simply ‘makes materials like bronze and stone come to life’.