We are grateful to art historian Juan Carlos Pereda for his assistance cataloguing this work.
Los comediantes, painted by Rufino Tamayo at the age of 87 in 1986, can be considered in light of art historian Laura González Matute’s emphatic statement, “Rufino Tamayo is a painter who truly crosses the entire twentieth century like a comet, for to be born in 1899 and die in 1991 is practically the entire century; he lives everything that emerges in this century of art making, which is extremely rich.” A trailblazer, Tamayo’s vision touched every period of Mexican twentieth century artistic production: Tamayo modernist, Tamayo muralist, Tamayo Ruptura artist, and, Tamayo contemporary artist.
Los comediantes, painted late in Tamayo’s long career, offers an opportunity to consider the artist in relation to artistic (and political) developments in 1980s Mexico, specifically the tendency in painting christened “neo-Mexicanism” by Teresa del Conde. As emerging artists of the decade, this young 1950s-born generation that included Rocío Maldonado and Germán Venegas among others, renewed approaches to Mexican figurative painting creating large-scale, neo-Expressionist artworks in which they re-defined Mexican identity as multi-layered and complex; they resonated with Tamayo’s interest in the human figure and animals, everyday objects, saturated color drawn from arte popular, craft, sculptural form, anti-academism, formal experimentation, love of texture, a sense of internationalism, and in appropriating and questioning official versions of Mexican history. Here too Los comediantes celebrates a syncretic Mexico as Tamayo merges references to the pre-Columbian, to dance, the Mexican landscape, and popular culture on his canvas. Upholding his life-long stance against a closed nationalism, but rather consistently proposing universalism as an artistic language, Tamayo’s Los comediantes in its composition and theme, conjures up Pablo Picasso’s Women Running on the Beach of 1922, just as easily as it materializes Carlos Merida’s ethnographic prints such as Danza de los Moros of 1937, or the Yaqui Danza de los Matachines of 1945. Tamayo’s constant goal, as Los comediantes evidences, was to abstract regional references and avoid direct narrative, in favor of a universalist expression.
A pair of male figures, with well-toned, athletic lower extremities, and lithe upper bodies, spring toward the viewer; they move like the dynamic tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers, one plié-ing, his leg in a low back attitude, his torso upright and elbow bent in a stiff, closed stance, while his partner exuberantly raises his hands with a freedom indicative of African dance. Both wear masks referencing the pre-Columbian, one jaguar-like, the other suggesting lizard scales reminiscent of Tamayo’s fellow Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo’s fractured, zoomorphic self-portraits. The men’s dress—matching open front jackets, shirts and leggings—is precise, as if documentary in nature; as such, it recalls Merida’s aforementioned ethnographic series of prints depicting paired figures clothed with detailed regional costumes. The two men are framed by a stylized maguey cactus, which, set against the surrounding atmospheric reds, suggests the national colors of the Mexican flag and a sense of place. Los comediantes brings to mind earlier Tamayo paintings of the figure in motion: these joyful performers contrast sharply in mood with the anxious post-WWII era Niños jugando con fuego of 1947; are more naturalistic than Danza de la alegría of 1950; and are similarly celebratory, but more sober than the ecstatic Brindis de la alegría of 1985.
Tamayo had much reason to celebrate at the time he painted Los comediantes. The artist was victorious after having waged a long battle against the corporate giant Televisa to regain control of the Museo Rufino Tamayo de Arte Contemporáneo Internacional (est. 1981, Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City) and to have Televisa return to the museum walls his 300-piece collection of international modern and contemporary art from the off-site warehouse storage where Televisa had placed it. His threat to carry out a hunger strike on the Museo’s front steps was effective; in May of 1986 President Miguel de la Madrid nationalized the Museo Tamayo, restored the Tamayo Collection, and thereby forcibly retrieved the institution and its collection from privatized (corporate) hands.
The artist affirmed in 1988, “…I have lived many years outside (of the country): 20 in New York, 12 in Paris. I know most of the world, and yet, here I am, in Mexico. It is my place.” The Tamayos had left Paris in 1969 returning to Mexico City to settle permanently, building a home and studio on Santísima #12 in the San Ángel neighborhood. There, up to age 91, he worked ‘as a laborer does’ religiously maintaining an 8 hour workday. Tamayo’s late work, of which Los comediantes is a strong example, incorporates the lessons, experiences, and passions that he assimilated over the course of the century; the canvas speaks of Tamayo the synthesizer: from the teachings he imparted in the early 1920s as a young ambassador of the Método Best Maugard (an arts education program that valued the designs of indigenous artesanía), to his early, close observations of pre-Columbian objects as head of the Department of Ethnographic Drawing at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía and as a collector of more than 1,000 pre-Columbian objects that he amassed during his lifetime, to his insertion into the New York City art world of the 1930s and 40s, to his cannibalism of French modernism, especially Picasso, to his love of dance and music, and more. Whereas Mexican Neo-figurative painting emitted a sense of disillusion, catastrophism, and challenge to the status quo in response to the socio-economic tragedies of the 1980s to include multiple peso devaluations and the devastating earthquake of September 19, 1985, conversely, Tamayo responded to the decade in much the same way as he had countered the political oppression and social crises of 1968 with his exuberant Hombre radiante de alegría painted that year; his late paintings, including Los comediantes, embodied an outlook of hope, optimism, and humor.
Teresa Eckmann, Associate Professor of Contemporary Latin American Art History, University of Texas, San Antonio
1 Canal Once. Historias de la Vida: Rufino Tamayo. Television film. Mexico City: Instituto Politécnico Nacional, 2017. 28 min.
2 Tamayo in the 1960s (along with José Luis Cuevas and Juan Soriano, for example) epitomizes the “Ruptura (Rupture)” artist who, embracing various directions within abstraction, rejects the dominant language of the Mexican School of Painting as professed by José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
3 For more on neo-Mexicanism see Teresa Eckmann, Neo-Mexicanism: Mexican Figurative Painting and Patronage in the 1980s (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010).
4 Such as the portfolios Carnival in Mexico of 1940, Dances of Mexico of 1937, Mexican Costume of 1937, and Trajes Regionales Mexicanos of 1945.
5 See Raquel Tibol, “Rufino Tamayo hacia la huelga de hambre,” in Proceso no.455 (July 22, 1985): 55-58.
6 Cristina Pacheco, La luz de México: Entrevistas con pintores y fotógrafos (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económico, 1995), p. 604
7 Ibid., p. 566.
8 See the recent publication and exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Rufino Tamayo: The New York Years by E. Carmen Ramos (London: D Giles Ltd, 2017).