Niña con geranios was painted in Mexico City 1937 when Juan Soriano was only 17 years old. It represents one of the earliest examples of the work of this esteemed artist who, along with other members of the so-called Mexican School, succeeded in transforming the panorama of Mexican modern art from the 1920s to the 1940s. Born and trained in Guadalajara, Soriano was mainly self-taught, except for his experiences in the ateliers of local painter Francisco Rodríguez and the more famous master Jesús ("Chucho") Reyes Ferreira. His first museum exhibition was in a group show at the Museo Regional at which time renowned artists María Izquierdo, José Chavez Morado and Lola Alvarez Bravo saw his work and urged him to go to the capital, which he did the following year. The period 1935-50 constituted a critical decade and a half within the development of Soriano. At this time he remained faithful to realism, although his work often exhibits a certain dream-like vision of the world that suggests affinities with the art of the émigré Surrealists who began coming to Mexico in the late 1930s, as well as that of some of his Mexican colleagues whose painting also exhibited a fascination with an oeniric approach.(1)
In Mexico City Soriano soon found that he had an aversion to artists who relied on folkloric themes as well as to those whose art was overtly political.(2) Nonetheless he developed close (although sometimes contentious) personal and professional relationships with artists such as Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, and Kahlo as well as with others who had come from his native Guadalajara (Jesús Guerrero Galván, Agustín Lazo etc.). Portraits of his friends, family members, quasi-religious allegories, still lifes, and images of children were among his most well-developed themes in this early phase of his career.
The Niña con geranios is both an appealing as well as a somewhat bemusing representation of a small girl of about two years of age. She sits in a garden amidst verdant geranium plants, their pink flowers in blossom. Her pale pink dress (which forms a strong pyramidal shape concealing her legs), hair ribbon and the rosy hue of her cheeks complement the vivid colors of nature. She holds a flower in both hands in an energetic, clasping gesture. This is not a conventionally smiling or placid image of a child, such as those in the many pictures of children by Rivera. Instead the artist portrays this girl as looking up at an unseen presence to the right of the picture plane, displaying a look of uncertainty.
Soriano was by no means the only artist of his generation to concentrate on subjects involving children. In addition to Rivera, Guerrero Galván (who, like Soriano had close ties to the Galería de Arte Mexicano and its owner Inés Amor) became famous for his many renditions of mothers and children or small girls and boys in interior or exterior spaces. María Izquierdo's depictions of young children are also well known and at times speak a visual language shared by her close friend Juan Soriano. Julio Castellanos executed equally impressive images of children. Soriano, like the other Jalisco artists had been attracted by nineteenth-century provincial portraiture to which they had been introduced in the homes of Guadalajara families. In these expressive works the drawing is often strongly linear and there is an emphasis on flat, bright colors.(3)
In his images of children Soriano often creates an aura of the unexpected or even the bizarre. His children are rarely placid, sweet creatures. Sometimes they are shown fighting, playing tricks on one another or involved in difficult-to-explain behavior. Such a curious example as the 1941 Child with a Bird (New York, Museum of Modern Art) even hints at precocious sexual activity.(4) The Niña con geranios, however, emits a sense of ambiguity while retaining an expression of the optimistic potential of later experience.
This girl appears to both emerge from and blend in with the landscape itself so as to become a continuation of it. Her figure may be read as a metaphor for the strength of nature and the youthful promise of the forces of life. Indeed, if we search for affinities between this painting and the works of non-Mexican artists of an earlier era, we may turn to some of the nineteenth-century Romantics, especially those of northern Europe, who were expressing the notion of the primal forces of nature existing within the figure of the young child. This is particularly true in pictures of children by the German master Philipp Otto Runge, whose portraits of children within fields or grasping plants are well known. While Juan Soriano may not have known such paintings (although his immersion in the history of art through his voracious reading starting in the extensive library of his teacher Chucho Reyes make it not impossible that he may have known works by English or German eighteenth or nineteenth-century artists), a work such as this beautifully lyrical Niña con geranios takes on a deeper place within modern art history when placed in such a broader context. After painting this Niña, Soriano went on to widen his repertory of images of children. His first of many post-mortem child paintings, the famous Niña muerta of 1938 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) attests to the artist's sensitive, empathetic view of the vicissitudes of life, using the child as a metaphor for the swift passage of earthly time. The Niña con geranios is one of the first steps along a very long and eloquent development of the subject of the child that became a central iconographic focal point within the work of this multi-faceted master.
Edward J. Sullivan
Professor of Fine Arts, New York University.
1) See E. J. Sullivan, Fragile Demon: Juan Soriano in Mexico, 1935 to 1950 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2008).
2) His experiences in 1935 with the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists (LEAR) is eloquently narrated to writer Elena Poniatowska in Juan Soriano, Niño de mil años (Mexico City: Plaza y Janés, 1998), 69-72.
3) José María Estrada is perhaps the best known name in this tradition but there are numerous examples of depictions of children by anonymous artists in private and public collections in Jalisco. See the exhibition catalogue Jalisco: Genio y maestría (Monterrey: MARCO and Mexico City: Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, 1993) for a repertory of such images.
4) See Sullivan, Fragile Demon, 34.