We are grateful to María Ramos Martínez Bolster, Margarita Nieto and Louis Stern for their assistance in confirming the authenticity of this work. It will be included in their forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's paintings to be published by the Alfredo Ramos Martínez Research Project.
A slightly profile view of a dark-skinned female figure from the neck up, La india by Alfredo Ramos Martínez focuses on the racial features of the woman. Her black hair is tightly woven into side braids, which mimic the plaited structure of the background against which the figure is isolated. She balances a woven charola on her head, which is filled with stylized yellow-colored fruit-lemon cucumbers. As is typical in Ramos Martínez's work, the palette is mostly warm earth tones, which serve to reinforce a metaphorical connection between the indigenous subject and the land. Though the painting is characterized by the use of chiaroscuro and traditional modeling techniques, it also bespeaks an overall flatness associated with the melding of figure and ground, a result of the figure's placement in the shallow foreground plane. The artist creates a tension between abstraction and depth, which is enhanced by the play of textures in the work--the model's skin, her hair, the basket, and the background.
La india is a product of the artist's California period (he moved there as a result of seeking medical treatment in the United States for his sickly daughter in 1929) when he radically shifted the style for which he was known in Mexico. Moving from the Impressionism that he introduced to Mexico in the 1920s after his return home from Paris, in California he developed a more up-to-date art deco style which consists of hard-edged ornamental lines, faceted geometric forms, a realistic yet severe figural style, all conjoined within a Cubist-inflected armature. Although Ramos Martínez had depicted native Indians in his Mexican work--to be sure, he was one of the first to advocate working outdoors and with live Indian models (as opposed to copying classical plaster casts) as well as cultivating native Mexican subject matter--it is in the United States that he almost exclusively called upon images of indigenous populations.
Ramos Martínez left behind a tremendously influential career in Mexico City as the Director of the Academy of San Carlos, where he heeded student protests against the outdated pedagogical methods and tastes of the school and founded the Open Air Schools or Escuelas de Pintura al Aire Libre (EPALs). The Academy opened the first EPAL in October of 1913 at Santa Anita Ixtapalapa on the outskirts of Mexico City. This effort cemented Ramos Martínez's role as a crucial figure in negotiating artistic styles between academic art and the post-Revolutionary period. According to Karen Cordero Reiman, Ramos Martínez "is a figure who, as an educator and artist, forms a bridge between the Porfiriato and the epochs of the Revolution and post-Revolution.(1) And Margarita Nieto has stated that the open air painting schools "were probably the single most important influence on the School of Mexican Painting, for through them the study of art became available to everyone."(2)
From a visual standpoint, as Jean Charlot has written, Ramos Martínez's Impressionist-based aesthetic--producing works that emphasized light and color effects--"opened the doors wide for reform" in Mexico.(3) Ramos Martínez adapted a European aesthetic to the concerns and urgencies of the local environment. As such, he was a leader in the widespread modernist endeavor to reconcile Mexican subject matter and international styles.
During his voluntary exile in Los Angeles, Ramos Martínez developed imagery that Fausto Ramírez has called "a harmonious and organic utopia, a village populated by indigenous Mexicans."(4) These subjects appealed to his U.S clients, specifically the Hollywood film community who became significant patrons of Mexican art, a group including: Jo Swerling, Dudley Murphy, John Huston, Corinne Griffith, Edith Head, Alfred Hitchcock, and Beulah Bondi. In both murals and easel paintings for such clients, Ramos Martínez created a series of Gauguinesque primitive female heads. For example, George Small noted that the painting the artist created for Hollywood couturier Edith Head's home was made "in the tradition of the larger-than-life-size heads observed in the fresco painted over the mantel on Shoshone Avenue [a now-destroyed mural that Ramos Martínez painted in a former lecheria]."(5) The artist developed this theme in various subsequent paintings and it served as the prototype for his unfinished murals at Scripps College in Claremont, California.
As occurred with many Mexican artists who traveled north, Ramos Martínez became an orthodox Mexican as he adapted to his context in the United States, his new clientele, and the expectations for rural subject matter from Mexican art. Unlike Siqueiros's images of Indian subjects, Ramos Martínez's are not contemporary figures, but vigorous expressions of a timeless identity. Working outside of the state-sponsored aesthetic of indigenismo, but informed by its transplantation in the United States, and the general vogue for Mexicana, the artist eschewed subjects that did not focus on indigenous populations like the mestizos or middle class interiors that he occasionally painted in Mexico.
When images by Mexican artists became popular in the United States, figurative and socially engaged art rivaled abstraction as a viable form of modernist expression. During the turbulent 1930s, the cultural nationalism of artists such as Ramos Martínez formed part of the discourse on hemispheric concerns about "Americanism." A rural and folkloric vision of Mexico in the United States fueled the expectations of the general public for "simplicity" and folk values in modern Mexican art. Writers and activists such as Stuart Chase looked to Mexico for spiritual guidance. His A Study of Two Americas, a 1931 romantic idyll, proposed a return to simpler times and a more "authentic" peasant culture.
In this work, Ramos Martínez also responds to the new found interest in folk art itself. Los Angeles was home to the first major exhibition in the United States of Mexican folk art. In 1922, U.S. writer Katherine Anne Porter helped organize the exhibition, Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts, and wrote its accompanying catalogue. The exhibition established a precedent for pairing Mexican folk art with modern art in an exhibition intended solely for U.S. audiences, which was later adapted by institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Furthermore, the interest in folk art and Mexican crafts spurred the revival of the craft industry in interior design. U.S. decorating magazines featured articles about Mexican tiles, colonial architecture, and lacquerware, among other subjects.(6) La india, its manufacture, and circulation within the United States, must be understood within this broader context, a significant episode in cultural relations between the two nations.
Dr. Anna Indych-López, The City College of New York.
1) Alfredo Ramos Martínez: Una Visión Retrospectiva, Mexico: Museo Nacional de Arte, 1992, 63.
2) M. Nieto, "Mexican Art and Los Angeles, 1920-1940," in On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900-1950, ed. P. J. Karlstrom, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, 129.
3) J. Charlot, The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920-1925, New York: Hacker Art Books, 1979, 47.
4) F. Ramírez, "Alfredo Ramos Martínez: A Stylistic Itinerary," in Un homenaje a Alfredo Ramos Martínez, 1871-1946, Monterrey: Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, 1996, 57.
5) G. R. Small, Ramos Martínez: His Art and Life, California: F&J Publishing, 1975, 103.
6) See House and Garden, January 1928; Frances Flynn Paine, "La Casita en Cuernavaca: The Mexican Home of Dwight W. Morrow," House Beautiful (October 1931).