Rufino Tamayo (Mexican 1899-1991)


Rufino Tamayo (Mexican 1899-1991)
signed and dated 'Tamayo, 41' (upper right)
oil on canvas
40 1/8 x 30 1/8 in. (102 x 76.5 cm.)
Painted in 1941.
Valentine Gallery, New York (1942).
John D. Archbold collection, Upperville, Virginia.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 14 May 1996, lot 32 (illustrated in color).
Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
"Rufino Tamayo" in Magazine of Art, Washington D.C. April 1945, Vol. 38, no. 4, p. 139 (illustrated in color).
R. Goldwater, Rufino Tamayo, New York, The Quadrangle Press, 1947, p. 74, no. XXXII (illustrated).
J. Fernández, Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City, Imprenta Universitaria, 1948, p. 26.
"El drama de la pintura: La exposición de Tamayo" in Mañana!, Mexico City, 3 July 1948, año IV, Vol. XIX, no. 253, p. 61 (illustrated).
"La obra de Rufino Tamayo" in Revista de Revistas, Mexico City, 11 July 1948 (illustrated).
Rufino Tamayo, Colección Anáhuac de Arte Mexicano, Vol. 24, Mexico City, Ediciones de Arte, S.A. 1950, no. 50 (illustrated).
L. Cardonza y Aragón, Pintura Mexicana Contemporánea, Mexico City, Imprenta Universitaria, 1953, no. 15 (illustrated).
P. Westheim, Tamayo, Mexico City, Ediciones Arte de México, 1957, p. 74 (illustrated).
J. Gómez Sicre, L'Oeil, 'Tamayo,' No. 38, Feburary 1958, p. 43 (illustrated).
O. Paz, Colección de arte no. 6, Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City, Universidad Autónoma de México, 1959, no. 10 (illustrated).
J. Gómez Sicre, "Tamayo" in L'Oeil Revue d'Art Mensuel, No. 38, Paris, 1958, p. 43 (illustrated).
O. Paz and R. Tibol, Tamayo: Paintings and Graphics, Leningrad, The State Hermitage, 1990, p. 90 (illustrated).
Exhibition catalogue, Rufino Tamayo: del reflejo al sueño: 1920- 1950, Mexico City, Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo, Fundación Cultural Televisa, 1995, p. 37, no. 72 (illustrated in color).
T. del Conde, ed., Tamayo, Grupo Financiero Bital, Américo Arte Editores, S.A. de C.V., Mexico City, 1998, p. 81 (illustrated in color).
J. Oles, 'The Howl and The Flame: Tamayo's Wartime Allegories,' in exhibition catalogue, Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2007, p. 307, fig. 143 (illustrated in color).
Eden Park, Cincinnati, Cincinnati Art Museum, The Cincinnati Modern Art Society, Exhibition of Paintings by the Mexican Artist Rufino Tamayo, 10 January- 3 February 1947, no. 12.
Mexico City, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Tamayo: Veinte años de su labor pictórica, June- September 1948, no. 27.
Mexico City, Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo, Fundación Cultural Televisa, Rufino Tamayo: del reflejo al sueño, 1920-1950,
19 October 1995- 12 January 1996, no. 72.

Brought to you by

Jessica Katz
Jessica Katz

Lot Essay

We are grateful to Art Historian Juan Carlos Pereda for his assistance in cataloguing this work.

"I'm the first of a new modality of Mexican painting that tries to have a universal voice," Tamayo reflected in the early 1950s, distancing himself from what he felt to be the provincial chauvinism of the Mexican art scene, still dominated by the Muralists.(1) Restaging the particularized iconography and indigenous roots of his national heritage through universal allegories and modernist pictorial stylizations, Tamayo's paintings of his great creative period in the 1940s sensitively render the humanist ethos of the war-torn world. Tamayo lived out the war years in New York, working as an art teacher at Manhattan's Dalton School, and his time in the milieu of the emerging artworld capital inflected his work with cosmopolitan and broadly existential values. He would return years later as Mexico's prodigal son, having powerfully and prolifically demonstrated the cogency of this brand of syncretic image-making and its expressive power. But it was during this crucial middle period, spanning the long decade of the 1940s, that Tamayo consolidated his idiosyncratic and original contribution to Mexican modernism, charting an independent course between arte puro and arte social-político.

A critical turning point in Tamayo's modernist evolution was the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition Picasso: 50 Years of his Art, a sweeping retrospective that brought the artist's iconic anti-fascist mural, Guernica, to New York at the end of 1939. A powerful indictment of war channeled through avant-garde aesthetics, Guernica was a revelation to Tamayo and others, who found in Picasso's primitivized figures, flattened forms and apocalyptic vision a blueprint of how to render the tragedy of the modern world through contemporary visual metaphor. "There is no question that Tamayo saw in Guernica a model for his own practice," James Oles has observed, and while the paintings of the early 1940s may "lack explicit didactic reference to the armed conflict, they nonetheless reflect his oft-repeated belief that the 'artist must portray the moment in which he is living.'"(2) Tamayo's wartime paintings of animals number among his most angst-ridden and hauntingly psychological works, and his series of birds--of which the present Pájaros is the first--traces both a visual and a meditative dialogue with Picasso's manifesto.

Animals already featured prominently in Tamayo's work of the early 1930s, but the allegorical birds of the following decade were intended more expressly to personify an increasingly pervasive sense of foreboding and anxiety. Within the series, birds variously symbolize entrapment, as in Woman with Bird Cage, 1941, which quickly entered the Art Institute of Chicago's collection, and outright hostility, as in the Museum of Modern Art's devastating Girl Attacked by a Strange Bird, 1947. Pájaros embodies what Oles has described as a "dreary scene" evocative of an "evil world of scavengers and spies. Although painted before Pearl Harbor, these birds seem to represent looming, ominous forces on the horizon: 1941 was a time when many were anxiously waiting for the storm to break."(3)

Four of the five birds that comprise Pájaros perch watchfully on the limbs of a leafless tree, their piercing gazes warily confronting the viewer and crisscrossing the picture plane; the fifth bird takes flight into an inert, bleakly asphyxiating background. There is little air within the image at all, the flat two-dimensionality of the canvas and dark, earthen palette registering a static immobility; only the splaying geometric patterns that demarcate the birds' features animate the pictorial space. Members of different species, the birds are formally integrated through close color harmonies of richly textured grays and blacks, punctuated by accents of red that range from bright vermilion to the red-brown of the Mexican tezontle, a native volcanic rock. The taut plastic structuring of the painting, with its pronounced linearity and synthetic color, is unmistakably modern in feeling, as are the poignant psychic undertones that transfigure this motley flock of birds into harbingers of the atomic age. Not unlike Picasso's Minotaurs, Tamayo's brooding Pájaros portend the savage pathos and rank bestiality of modern warfare, their palpable melancholy a grim sign of the tragedy that lay ahead.

1) Tamayo, quoted in D. C. du Pont, "'Realistic, Never Descriptive': Tamayo and the Art of Abstract Figuration," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2007, 34.
2) J. Oles, "The Howl and the Flame: Tamayo's Wartime Allegories," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, 294, 298.
3) Ibid., 302.

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