“Toledo paints as a man who lives in harmony with nature,” the poet Luis Cardoza y Aragón, a longtime friend, once reflected. “In whose eyes the memory of time immemorial burns and continuously renews itself.”1 The beginnings of Toledo’s animistic worldview date to his adolescent years, redolent with memories of roaming the land and encounters with the storied creatures—monkeys and crabs, grasshoppers and crocodiles—held sacred within Oaxacan lore. Toledo studied lithography at the Taller Libre de Grabado in Mexico City in the late 1950s before moving in 1960 to Paris, where he met Octavio Paz and Rufino Tamayo; he returned to Juchitán, his birthplace, in 1965. Associated with the postwar Ruptura generation, which broke with the political mission of Mexican muralism in favor of experimental and sometimes abstract expressionism, his work is contemporary with such artists as Pedro Coronel, Alberto Gironella, and Rodolfo Nieto. Like Tamayo and Rodolfo Morales deeply invested in the cultural patrimony of the Isthmus and Pacific coast, Toledo based himself in Oaxaca, his work and identity richly imbricated within the region’s historical landscape and ecology. Fondly known as El Maestro, he lent sizable support to local institutions, notably the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, as well as to libraries and the cultural and environmental conservancy Pro-OAX.
Toledo drew amply from ancient American mythology and its fantastic zoology, populating his images with sagacious and otherworldly anthropomorphic beings. “The pre-Hispanic world has been a source of inspiration,” he explained. “There are certain solutions that are decorative that come from pre-Hispanic art and at the same time there is much primitive art that is refined or simple but also very modern. It also comes from what I read—many fables from the Americas and other parts of the world.”2 His paintings celebrate the syncretic spirituality of the indigenous world, depicting extraordinary 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,” art historian Erika Billeter has noted. “Animals were the real character of the myth, the sublimation of a whole cosmic imagination.”3 Toledo’s work swarms with the fauna of the natural and phantasmagorical worlds. His animals inhabit a charmed reality and they became, over the course of his career, an extended metaphor for the supernatural mysteries of the world.
“All art is a legacy,” Toledo recognized, and inasmuch as his painting is embedded in the Oaxacan universe, he acknowledged a spiritual kinship with “artists from places as far away as Africa, Australia or primitive art.”4 His corpus of work encompassed numerous species non-native to the Americas, among them the rhinoceros and the lion. Toledo likely encountered elephants in captivity in Mexico, either in zoos or in the circus, and he may have sympathized with their plight and looming endangerment. In the majestic Elephant, he paid homage to the largest land mammal on earth, honoring its mythic status around the world and its prized attributes of longevity and wisdom, royalty and power. Here, a piebald pachyderm lumbers gracefully across the canvas, its prodigious body portrayed from long, twisting trunk to tapered tail and supported by sturdy, columnar legs. Mottled with sand and pigment, the elephant’s skin gleams in sumptuous, earthy tones of red and yellow ocher and cool verdigris assimilated from its background; continuous pleats of skin define its contours, subtly articulating its massive shape and movement. Supremely sentient, the elephant turns its head slightly toward the viewer, its gaze suggestively all-seeing and worldly wise.
“Toledo’s work is painting transformed into a body,” pronounced the poet Verónica Volkow. “Surfaces become tissue, the swelling of volumes are almost pregnant. . . . There is a materiality that acquires the expressive definiteness, the strength, and the surprising versatility of the body.” The vital ecology of the painted surface “envelops us, caresses, devours, threatens, seduces, guides us,” Volkow continued, “and is always alive, injected with the body’s sap.”5 The somatic presence of Toledo’s magisterial Elephant radiates beyond its body, animated by linear rhythms of folded skin that give material shape and dimension to its profiled form. The crystalline texture of the sand glimmers across the painted surface, rendering the wrinkled, polychrome body of its eponymous subject with the mineral substrate of the natural world. In its colorful, environmental reciprocity of figure and ground, Elephant embodies the sacred oneness of Toledo’s universe, fittingly in homage to its stately subject.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park