Roberto Montenegro (1885-1968)
Roberto Montenegro (1885-1968)

L'epicerie du bon poète

Roberto Montenegro (1885-1968)
L'epicerie du bon poète
signed 'R. Montenegro' (lower right)
oil on canvas
20 1/8 x 24 1/4 in. (51.1 x 61.6 cm.)
Painted in 1939.
Perls Galleries, New York.
Private collection, Wyncote, Pennsylvania (acquired from the above 2 June 1941).
By descent from the above to the present owner.
M. Helm, Modern Mexican Painters, New York, Dover Publications, 1941, p. 165, no. 67 (illustrated).
Exhibition catalogue, Julio Galán, Pastels, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 1992, p. 52 (illustrated).

Lot Essay

A remarkably gifted painter, Roberto Montenegro was also an enthusiastic pioneer in the Mexican muralist movement; brilliant illustrator and printmaker whose works graced the pages of numerous literary and arts magazines such as Revista Moderna, (Mexico), Blanco y Negro (Spain), and others; set and costume designer for international theatre and dance companies as well as films; and a passionate promoter of Mexican folk art and traditions. Montenegro was born into an elite family in the city of Guadalajara which encouraged his artistic pursuits and allowed him to apprentice with the Brazilian painter Felix Bernardelli at the age of twelve. The precocious talent stayed at the artist’s workshop for five years learning about diverse European artistic currents but also literature and poetry. He would eventually come under the aesthetic and literary spell of the Symbolists and also the work of the renowned Modernist poet, Amado Nervo who was his cousin and for whom he would produce illustrations for his book Los jardines interiores.1

When Montenegro enrolled at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City in 1905, he became part of a group of young students who were at the center of a new art world. He met and studied with Diego Rivera, Saturnino Herrán, Ángel Zárraga and, like them, he travelled to Europe on a scholarship to immerse himself in the continent’s exhilarating art and culture, and enhance his professional training. He traveled to and stayed in Madrid and Paris meeting writers, artists and performers such as Rubén Darío, Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris, and others. He also journeyed to Italy, The Netherlands, and Belgium. His imaginative vision won him commissions, provided an income, and gained him early recognition during his years in Europe while allowing him to frequently travel back home where he participated in other artistic endeavors and projects. By 1919, Montenegro had worked as graphic artist, theatrical and costume designer, portraitist, and was finally persuaded to return to Mexico at the onset of the nation’s ambitious muralist enterprise under the direction of José Vasconcelos who admired his work.

The American writer and collector, MacKinley Helm, described this Surrealist masterpiece by the Mexican master as a continuous narrative of “successive acts of a tragedy.”2 Two lovers—a bride and groom, whom the artist has first portrayed as sculpted busts on marble pedestals are part of the lower scene. The lovers are subsequently depicted as the woman still dressed in white at the balcony and the man on the left by the tree. A ghostly purplish shadow which looms at the center of the composition is an unexpected guest and the central figure of the unfolding mystery. Noticeably, the red door is ajar suggesting someone has left or perhaps it is an invitation to come in. The entire composition bears the comparison to a stage set. The façade indeed resembles a wooden prop but seems unreal or surreal as part of it dissolves inexplicably into clouds. A discarded bridal bouquet lies on the red-tiled floor while a lyre and crown of laurel leaves, attributes of the ancient gods and symbols of poetry and purification of the soul, hang from a nail from which a “for rent” sign dangles. The narrative is perhaps a dream, a scene from an enigmatic tale of human frailty as denoted by the tiny infant in the jar but one from which we can wake up or curiously contemplate closely in search for the truth.

Margarita J. Aguilar, Doctoral Candidate, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

1 E. Balderas and C. Monsiváis, Roberto Montenegro: La sensualidad renovada, Coyoacán, Mexico: Fondo Editorial de la Plástica Mexicana, 2001, 105.
2 M. Helm, Modern Mexican Painters, Toronto: Harper & Brothers, 1941, 165.

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