Born in Juchitán to a Zapotec family, Francisco Toledo has for over fifty years rekindled the original primitive feeling of his Oaxacan roots in his work. Like Rufino Tamayo and Rodolfo Morales deeply imbued with the psychic mysticism of the Oaxacan universe, Toledo has powerfully revitalized the mysteries of pre-Hispanic myth through the sagacious anthropomorphic beings that reside in his rich imaginary. His paintings celebrate the animistic spirituality of this indigenous world, depicting fantastic creatures in myriad states of metamorphosis and in intimate rituals of creation and consummation. Animals were privileged and miraculous beings in Zapotec legend, the "connecting link between nature and society, mediators between man and the sacred energies of the natural ambience," Erika Billeter has explained. "Animals were the real character of the myth, the sublimation of a whole cosmic imagination."(1) Toledo's work swarms with the fauna of the natural and the phantasmagorical worlds, from the Borgesian insectarium to the primeval iguana and panther. His animals inhabit a charmed reality and have become, over the course of the artist's career, an extended metaphor for the profound and supernatural mysteries of life and of creation.
Among Toledo's acknowledged sources is the Florentine Codex, a sixteenth-century manuscript published by the Franciscan monk, Bernardino de Sahagún. A compendium of the social mores and religious ceremonies of the Aztec civilization, it includes lavish illustrations of native flora and fauna that are "kindred to many of Toledo's depictions," according to Billeter. "Especially decorative are those illustrations where fish swim in the water or snakes braid together in a plait. The illustration forms then a decoratively integrated background, which immediately reminds one of the integrated backgrounds in many of Toledo's works."(2) The watery ambiance of the present Cuatro pescados provides a suitably organic, integral background to the cosmic meeting of fish and crab--the one with mouths gaping open, the other with pincers readied--in a primal image made here strikingly monumental. Toledo portrays his eponymous subjects swimming upward to the water's surface, the brilliant ultramarine of the sea permeating their scaled bodies from the watery gills to the mouths yawning open, poised to feed on the gossamer crabs floating above. The shimmering opalescence of the water envelops the crabs as well, their glossy carapaces and spindly legs virtually translucent in the light cast upon the water's reflecting surface.
The materiality of the surface becomes itself, in Toledo's surreal underwater rendering, a proxy for the corporeal bodies of the fish and the crabs, mediating between the physical environment of these protagonists and their cosmic universality. "Toledo's work is painting transformed into a body," Verónica Volkow has remarked. "There is a materiality that acquires the expressive definiteness, the strength, and the surprising versatility of the body."(3) The somatic presence of the fish, whose four speckled bodies merge almost seamlessly into one, flows from the aqueous washes of blue pigment at the surface to the gritty sand that textures their painted flesh, imparting a tangible physicality to their bodies and connecting them to the ocean's gravelly floor. Toledo's use of material matter has a contemporary parallel with the work of Antoni Tápies and Alberto Burri, for instance, which he knew from the time that he spent in Paris during the 1960s, but in his expression the lines of sand acquire transcendent meaning, rising above the emphatic mundanity of his European peers. In the present work, the variegated patterns etched into the warm, sepia-hued bodies of the fish resemble a form of primitive drawing, imprints of an ancestral past and a visual abstraction of the natural world. The mirrored bodies of fish and crab suggest a visceral reciprocity between them, an animistic kinship firmly grounded in the materiality of the canvas surface and an embodiment of the holistic oneness and vitality of Toledo's universe.
1) E. Billeter, "In the Cosmos of the Animals--The Adventure of the Fantasy," in Zoología Fantástica: Toledo, Borges, Mexico, D.F.: Prisma Editorial, 2003, 25.
2) Ibid., 26.
3) V. Volkow, "In the Beginning, The World Became Body," in Francisco Toledo, Los Morales Polanco, México: Smurfit Cartón y Papel de México, 2002, 40.