Rufino Tamayo discovered over the course of his career that the possibilities of the watermelon as subject matter were endless; this motif held his interest and challenged him for a lifetime. He returned repeatedly to it in his canvases without becoming formulaic. When sliced open the fruit revealed to him a complex geometry shifting from ellipse, to circle, to half-circle, to triangle, to wedges cut thin or fat; Tamayo found that the repetition of its many forms and seeds could create rhythm and pattern. He made the watermelon with its red, white, and green colors that echo the Mexican flag, as iconic a symbol of Mexico and Mexicanness as Diego Rivera’s calla lilies (which ironically were not at all native to Mexico) or trenzas (braids). To Tamayo, such imagery of Rivera’s equated with folkloric indigeneity. “As a Mexican, as the Indian that I am, lo mexicano spontaneously flows from me without the need to go looking for it,” Tamayo stated. He continued, “…my problem with Mexican painters: they pretend to be Mexican simply in theme. What is paradoxical in this case is that they use Mexican themes—Indians, huaraches, etcetera—but they treat them in a foreign manner, with an Italian spirit.” Sandías evinces the artist’s commitment to pure plasticity, apolitical content, and Mexicanness defined as essence.
Tamayo produced the mid-size canvas in 1969 when he was 70 years of age and his international renown, cultural prestige, and commercial success were in full bloom; he had just participated the previous year in the 35th Venice Biennale with forty-seven paintings as well as his apocalyptic mural, Nacimiento de nuestra nacionalidad of 1952 on temporary loan from its permanent home in Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, which had recently honored him with the exhibition Rufino Tamayo: 50 Years of Artistic Work. By then he had traveled widely including throughout the Middle East and had lived for an extended period of time outside of his native country, in New York City and in Paris. Emerging from this rich, mature period is Sandías, a work that, while created using an economy of elements and geometrical forms, can in a single word be described as (incredibly) luscious.
With its brilliant color and luminosity made manifest through his sumptuous handling of paint, Sandías boasts a fixed, balanced composition, where Tamayo treated the bulky fruit as vessels navigating a field in which he exploited the range of values he could achieve with red pigment. Tamayo manipulated perspective in Sandías so that the viewer is above looking down into the painting with the watermelon arrangement stretching across the middle ground. The fruit is the focus, yet there is no single source of light here to cast shadows and anchor the watermelon triumvirate. The semicircular forms are weightless, defying any sense of gravity in their upright suspension while the table surface beneath them tilts towards the viewer becoming both a stage and void. Building up his surface with paint mixed with sand Tamayo creates the rough texture that gives the work its tactile quality. Ignoring the boundaries of form, a shower of red pigment spills over into deep pink, known popularly as “rosa mexicana,” creating transparencies and a warm, reflective glow.
Long-time Galería OMR director Patricia Ortiz Monasterio tells a story of when she was a curatorial assistant to Fernando Gamboa, then-director (1972-81) of the Museo de Arte Moderno and subsequently director of the Museo Rufino Tamayo. In 1979, Ortiz Monasterio was in charge of mounting a traveling exhibition of Tamayo’s work in Washington when the paintings were lost in Kennedy Airport. “For four days they could not find the work and I understood why Fernando insisted on painting the crates. We could not find them until I spoke with the president of American Airlines, an ex-astronaut, as I was at that point out of my wits with worry. They were five huge crates painted rosa mexicana. They sent someone to the (airline’s) warehouse and they found them because of the color. It was the great collection of Rufino Tamayo’s work.”
“Rosa mexicana” is the color of Tamayo’s Sandias. It is a prominent color in Mexico present in all kinds of arte popular (indigenous crafts), textiles, and bougainvillea, and associated with the architecture of Ricardo Legorreta y Luis Barragán. The particular shade of deep pink was made internationally known by designer Ramón Valdiosera in the late 1940s and popularized to the point of the color’s branding of Mexican identity. Tamayo’s long relationship with this color began with his still lifes of the 1920s with Naturaleza muerta of 1928 as an example; the pink hues appeared not only in his repeated watermelons, but in other objects as well, such as mannequin parts or conch shells. He then moved the color to walls and fabrics, and then to entire fields from which abstracted figures emerged. One could say that over the decades, Tamayo explored every possible shade of rosa mexicana in his art.
“Of all of the colors my favorites are earth tones. They pull me—perhaps because as a boy I lived among fruits, among the products of the earth. In the work of an artist always appears what they saw and lived—what they see, live, and hear,” recounted Tamayo. In Sandías the artist asserted the authenticity of his artistic vision of mexicanidad, that was neither representational, a historical narrative, or political in its message, but rather, that he expressed through brilliant color and abstracted form; these he related nostalgically to his origins in Oaxaca and his Zapotec inheritance, if not heritage, to the popular classes, and his childhood experiences in his family’s fruit business. As an adolescent he worked beside his aunts and uncles at their fruit stand in La Merced market in the historic center of Mexico City.
Tamayo delighted in fruit as subject matter for his canvases. Fruit served as a means to explore color, to proclaim Mexican identity, and to evoke nostalgia. With brush and palette knife in hand, fruit-as-subject made Tamayo’s possibilities for playing with light, color, texture, form, and density endless. Fruit further served his need for examining the musicality of geometrical shapes that when repeated, would bounce the viewer’s eye through the canvas. Fruit took him to memories of his childhood. “Because of that (experience) I know many of the fruits: I know when they are good and the ways of ripening them…Many of the fruits that today form part of my painting are likely the ones that I saw back then…Their forms and their colors fascinated me.” Fruit and color were synonymous for Tamayo. They connected him to his native Oaxaca, to his childhood, and to visions of strong women carrying their produce to market.
Teresa Eckmann, Associate Professor of Contemporary Latin American Art History, University of Texas at San Antonio
1 Teresa del Conde, “The Words of Others,” in Ed. Del Conde, Teresa, Tamayo (Boston: Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company), 114-117.
3 As Ingrid Suckaer points out in “Biographical Nuances,” in Ed. Del Conde, Teresa, Tamayo (Boston: Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company), 193, Tamayo first signed his work Tamayo-O, as he does in Sandías, in 1943 when he painted Desnudo en blanco dedicating the work to his wife, Olga Tamayo.
4 Author recorded interview with Patricia Ortiz Monasterio, Mexico City, November 23, 1998. My translation.
5 See for example Alfredo Martínez Fernandez, “La verdadera historia del color rosa mexicano” in the online Mexican magazine México desconocido at https://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/historia-color-rosa-mexicano.html. Accessed October 8, 2016.
6 Rufino Tamayo in a 1989 interview with Cristina Pacheco in La luz de México: Entrevistas con pintores y fotógrafos (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995), 593. My translation.
7 Rufino Tamayo in a 1980 interview with Cristina Pacheco in La luz de México: Entrevistas con pintores y fotógrafos (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995), 578. My translation.