Tamayo's dual residence in New York and Mexico, beginning in the mid-1920s, provided a critical spark to the intercultural trajectory of his painting as it developed over the next twenty years. By the beginning of the 1930s, Tamayo had evolved a hybrid visual language that consolidated the constructive example of the European avant-garde with the lyricism of modern Mexican painting. It was during these years that "Tamayo discovered the metaphorical powers of color and form, the gift of language that is painting," his longtime friend Octavio Paz has remarked. "The picture became the plastic counterpart of the poetic image. It was not the translation into plastic terms of a verbal poem but a metaphor already in plastic form, something closer to Miró than to Max Ernst."(1) The evocative stillness and enigmatic subjects of Noche clara resonate with the dreamscapes of Surrealism, which Tamayo first encountered in New York, but the poetics of this desolate, nocturnal landscape are more deeply universal in their expressive reach.
"The voyage Tamayo embarked on during the 1920s and 1930s," Karen Cordero Reiman has observed, was one of evolving a mature visual language able to combine "the deliberate emulation of an innocent, primitivist, antiacademic stance in his drawing and brushstroke with a clearly analytical, intellectualized, sophisticated point of view in his compositional and conceptual devices."(2) During this period, Tamayo drew productively upon the pictorial components of contemporary European avant-gardes, from the "new Classicism" explored by Picasso and de Chirico in the early 1920s to the uncanny metaphor and metaphysics of early Surrealism. There are certain echoes of de Chirico, for instance, in the long diagonal perspective established by the mottled, moon-lit wall that reaches toward the horizon of Noche clara. Here Tamayo defines a space but leaves it puzzlingly unexplained; the distant skyline and low-hanging moon lend a melancholy and suggestively cryptic aura to the shadowy landscape. "Enigmatic shadows and stains articulate or question the physical relationships between the objects," Cordero Reiman has remarked. And while the ambiguous relationships between these objects seem "to allude on the one hand to the arbitrary juxtapositions that characterize Surrealism," they acknowledge a source in the "complexity of material culture in contemporary Mexico" on the other.(3)
Tamayo came of age during the years of the Mexican Revolution, at a time when the construction of a new, national identity was of vital importance. Taking a productive distance from the indigenous social realism and mural arts of that time, he found more profound sources in the national Escuelas de Pintura al Aire Libre and in the personal example of Adolfo Best-Maugard. Tamayo's adoption of a "deliberately 'primitivizing' naiveté in his drawing style and a rougher, more intense quality in his brushstrokes," seen here in the chalky, rough-hewn bark of the tree, may have an indirect source in the teachings of the Escuelas de Pintura al Aire Libre, according to Cordero Reiman. The increasingly simplified abstraction of his landscapes and their saturated, subdued colors may also reflect the persistence of the Best-Maugard method, which Tamayo taught in Mexican public schools, into the 1930s. "The 'staged' quality of many of the works generated by Best-Maugard's method persist in slightly transformed guises in much of Tamayo's work of the late 1920s and the 1930s," Cordero Reiman notes; "the paintings seem theatrical or scenographic in structure."(4) The scenographic presentation of Noche clara--the clarity of its perspective, the stillness of the captured image--lends a brooding, atmospheric feeling to the landscape, amplifying its cerebral and enigmatic appeal.
"Nature here is not stilled, but magnetized," Luis Cardoza y Aragón has remarked of the landscapes of this time, praising Tamayo as "one of those men who senses the voluptuousness of objects with particular delicacy."(5) The explicit lyricism of his paintings by the beginning of the 1930s reflects Tamayo's more and more confident and fluid synthesis of European and Mexican models of modern painting. In Noche clara, Tamayo presents landscape finally as a metaphysical universe. As an imagined construct, his landscape achieves a complexity and richness of meaning through the poetics of color and plastic form, eschewing a mimetic realism for a more integral truth of expression. Painting was for him, as Paz understood, "an operation that ravaged reality and at the same time was its metamorphosis."(6)
1) O. Paz, "Geometry and transfiguration," Rufino Tamayo, New York: Rizzoli, 1982, 8.
2) K. Cordero Reiman, "Appropriation, Invention, and Irony: Tamayo's Early Period, 1920-1937," Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2007, 167.
3) Ibid., 177.
4) Ibid., 171.
5) Quoted in ibid., 176.
6) Paz, "Geometry and transfiguration," 8.