Gunther Gerzso (1915-2000)
Gunther Gerzso (1915-2000)
Gunther Gerzso (1915-2000)
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Gunther Gerzso (1915-2000)

Espejo (Autorretrato)

Gunther Gerzso (1915-2000)
Espejo (Autorretrato)
signed and dated 'GERZSO 88' (lower right) signed and dated again and titled 'GERZSO VI-88, ESPEJO AUTORRETRATO' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
32 x 25 ½ in. (81 x 65 cm.)
Painted in 1988.
Galería López Quiroga, Mexico City.
Private collection, Switzerland.
Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Risking the Abstract: Mexican Modernism and the Art of Gunther Gerzso, 12 July - 19 October 2003 (illustrated).
Further details
1 Lotte Mendelsohn, “A Conversation with Gunther Gerzso” in Gunther Gerzso: In His Memory (New York City: Mary-Anne Martin/Fine Art, 2000), p. 7.
2 Wolfgang Paalen, “Gunther Gerzso” reprinted in in Gunther Gerzso: In His Memory (New York City: Mary-Anne Martin/Fine Art, 2000), p. 4.
3 Marie-Pierre Colle, “Interview with Gunther Gerzso,”in Gunther Gerzso: 80th Birthday Show (New York City: Mary-Anne Martin/Fine Art, 1995), p. 10.
4 The indigenismo movement in Mexico was advanced by the archaeological and sociological work, and writings of Manuel Gamio at the turn of the 20th Century. Visual artists in the post-Porfirian era looked to the contemporary indigenous figure and the pre-Hispanic as means to aesthetically and thematically renovate Mexican art.
5 The contracorriente or Countercurrent was so named by Mexican art historian Jorge Alberto Manrique. The term refers to those modernist Mexican painters who worked on an easel with personal themes rather than following the public, monumental, and social realist path of the Mexican muralists.
6 Diana C. Du Pont, “Introduction” in El riesgo de lo abstracto: El modernismo mexicano y el arte de Gunther Gerzso (Madrid: Artes Gráficas Palermo, 2003), p. 16. My translation.
7 Excellent chronologies recreated by Gunther Gerzso and his wife Gene Cody are detailed in Amy J. Buono, “Cronología” in El riesgo de lo abstracto: El modernismo mexicano y el arte de Gunther Gerzso (Madrid: Artes Gráficas Palermo, 2003), pp. 297-307 and Octavio Paz and John Golding, “Cronología” in Gerzso (Griffon: Neuchâtel-Suisse, 1983), pp. 111-119. The range in number of total films that Gerzso worked on reflects the numbers put forth by different scholars.
8 Examples of Gerzso’s exquisite corpse drawings are reproduced in Diana C. Du Pont, “Gerzso: Pionero del arte abstracto en México” in El riesgo de lo abstracto: El modernismo mexicano y el arte de Gunther Gerzso (Madrid: Artes Gráficas Palermo, 2003), p. 98.
9 Lotte Mendelsohn, “A Conversation with Gunther Gerzso,” p. 7.
10 Diana C. Du Pont, “Gerzso: Pionero del arte abstracto en México,” p. 115.
11 As described by Gerzso to his interviewer in Margaret Sayers Peden, “Gunther Gerzso” in Out of the Volcano: Portraits of Contemporary Mexican Artists, p. 74.
12 Dore Ashton, “Gunther Gerzso,” in Gunther Gerzso: 80th Birthday Show (New York City: Mary-Anne Martin/Fine Art, 1995), p. 18.

Lot Essay

“I live in Mexico and I’m a Mexican citizen, even though I am not Mexican by blood…there should be something that I can interpret about this country and everything that it offers visually and aesthetically, in a new way.”1
When Gunther Gerzso presented his first solo exhibition at the Galería de Arte Mexicano (GAM) in 1950, his good friend Wolfgang Paalen wrote the catalogue essay advising that Gerzso’s “titles are not labels, but secret keys.”2 As such, Espejo (Autorretrato) or Mirror (Self-Portrait) begs the question, “How does this non-figurative painting, which is highly representative of the artist’s refined, signature abstraction, reflect his identity, his self-image?” Earlier portraits of himself in a figurative mode, and others’ portraits of him in his likeness, whether the often-reproduced group photograph of Gerzso standing amidst the Surrealist exiles in Mexico captured by Kati Horna in 1946, or the soft drawing by Julio Castellanos of 1940, echo writer Marie-Pierre Colle’s physical description of the artist, by then in his late 70s as, “a large man of impeccable demeanor; his long face is without wrinkles, and has the dissecting glance of a surgeon…His posture is upright, austere, parsimonious, and when he sits down he rests his enormous hands on his knees.”3 Merging a cosmopolitan outlook with a focus on pre-Columbian architecture to produce his labyrinthine landscapes, Gerzso redefined the language of Mexican modernist indigenismo (indigenism) from folkloric, figurative, and narrative, to geometric, abstract, and poetic.4
Gerzso was born during the Mexican Revolution. He was a full decade, or more, younger than Julio Castellanos and Carlos Orozco Romero, artists working parallel to the Mexican Muralist movement within the contracorriente, whose styles Gerzso initially emulated when he began to paint in his mid-20s.5 He did not form part of the figurative indigenismo that emerged from the Open Air Schools or Adolfo Best Maugard’s Pro-Mexican Art Movement in the 1910s and 20s, when students rebelled against the Academia de San Carlos’ Eurocentric pedagogy, turning to the indigenous body and material culture for formal and contextual inspiration, as a vehicle to renovate national art. His unusual last name acquired from his Hungarian biological father, who died during the artist’s infancy, and his facility for German learned from his Prussian, Berlin-raised mother Dore Wendland, step-father Ludwig Dienner, and the Colegio Alemán high school, coupled with his tall stature and light skin, marked him as an outsider in his native Mexico. Referred to as a “foreigner” in the daily newspaper Excelsior, Gerzso publicly proclaimed his mexicanidad, “Allow me to inform you with all due respect that I am not a foreigner. I was born in Mexico City and have been a Mexican citizen since birth. I understand, that at times it is difficult to comprehend that a person can be Mexican if they do not have a name of Spanish or pre-Hispanic origin.”6 And yet, it was his early European education and worldly experience that in part allowed him entry into the close-knit Surrealist group of political refugees in Mexico.
Sent at age 12 to live in Europe when his parents divorced, his uncle, art dealer Dr. Hans Wendland trained Gerzso in art history and collecting at his expansive mansion in Lugano, Switzerland. Visitors to the estate, the likes of Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, and Paul Klee were common. After meeting summer house guest Fernando Taberlani, set designer for Milan’s La Scala operas, Gerzso, then 15, decided secretly that one day he too would become a set designer. Securing an apprenticeship at the Cleveland Playhouse in Ohio, between 1935-1940 he worked his way up from stage hand to the paid position as the theatre’s set designer while there meeting and marrying aspiring actress, Gene Cady. Together they moved back to Mexico City settling into a house they purchased from Julio Castellanos built by Juan O’Gorman. Struggling financially in his intention to paint full-time, Gerzso accepted the invitation by Francisco de P. Cabrera to create set designs for the film Santa, drawing him into a 20-year career at the Churubusco studios where he designed sets for some 180-250 films while working with renowned directors Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, Luis Buñuel, John Ford, and Jacques Gelman, among many others.7
Steady work, and his strong work ethic gave him the freedom to develop his painting practice in solitude, without pressure. Responding to the violence of World War II, Gerzso’s canvases of the early-to-mid-1940s (such as Personaje and El descuartizado) dialogue with the biomorphic abstraction of André Masson and Joan Miró, for example. One day, Gerzso knocked on the door to the dilapidated apartment on Calle Gabino Barreda where Surrealist poet Benjamin Perét and his wife Remedios Varo had taken refuge. There Gerzso would attend the weekly gatherings they hosted, form lasting friendships with Paalen and Leonora Carrington, and produce cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse) drawings8; visually recording that experience, he painted the unparalleled Surrealist group portrait, Los días de la calle Gabino Barreda of 1944. Gerzso’s art developed quietly over the decade of the 40s until Inés Amor convinced the self-taught painter to exhibit at GAM.
Included in that first solo exhibition at GAM was Gerzso’s architectonic painting, Tihuanacu of 1946, which embodied a new compositional strategy for the artist, and an abstract, non-narrative approach to indigenismo; the artist proclaimed Tihuanacu “the papa of all the paintings I have done since then.”9 He had taken inspiration in Peruvian Martín Chambi’s photographs of the pre-Hispanic ruins of Cuzco, built on the foundations of the Tihuanacu Empire, that were published in the surrealist journal DYN, a copy of which Gerzso owned.10 His travels throughout Mexico as scenographer awakened his interest in the pre-Columbian past (particularly the Mayan monuments of the Yucatán: Labná, Kabáh, and Uxmal); the structuring of scaffolded, layered planes became his visual vocabulary. Set design further informed his painting as he methodically constructed pencil mock-ups on bond paper, often with cut-outs and pop-up11 elements reminiscent of a theatre’s fly system of cycloramas, scrims, and backdrops. These complete preparatory sketches, at times fully colored, served Gerzso as maps to execute each canvas, where he built up complex tapestries of trapezoidal fragments, broken, torn, and jagged, and strategically shaded to create the illusion of varying depths. A seductive, luminous color palette, or as Dore Ashton described, “smouldering colors, brilliantly heightened,”12 that he obtained through thin transparencies, produced the vibrancy typical of his painted constructions.
Modernist and non-objective, Espejo (Autorretrato) nonetheless evokes that pre-Columbian past, which the artist identified with, admired, and collected; the symmetrical, totem-like arrangement of planes suggests an abstracted Olmec mask, or a bird’s-eye view of an ancient temple. Exemplifying Gerzso’s mature, mastered technique and signature style, the meticulously painted canvas is testament to his indeed having accomplished the goal he has set for himself in the epigraph; with Espejo (Autorretrato) Gerzso has visually reinterpreted indigenismo and the Mexican landscape, while simultaneously reflecting his own fascinating life’s trajectory.
Teresa Eckmann, Associate Professor of Contemporary Latin American Art History, University of Texas at San Antonio

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