In the aftermath of the Second World War, a new generation of Mexican artists started to resist the institutionalization of the Mexican School and the didacticism of the muralist movement, felt to be too insular and propagandistic. Taking a cue from the constructive colorism of Rufino Tamayo, the young artists of La Ruptura, led by José Luis Cuevas and Pedro Coronel, reacted against what Cuevas called the "Cactus Curtain" and declared their art to be "against vulgarity and mediocrity. Against superficiality and conformity. Against the standardized opinions that are parroted over and over again." Protesting against this "crude, limited, provincial, nationalistic Mexico," Cuevas held out hope for a "true, universal Mexico, open to the whole world without losing its own essential characteristics. . . . What I want in my country's art are broad highways leading out to the rest of the world, rather than narrow trails connecting one adobe village with another."(1) Champions of artistic freedom, this nascent avant-garde opened Mexico to international trends, from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art, and catalyzed the neofiguration of the 1950s, which saw the return to an expressionistic portrayal of the human figure in the work of Coronel and his contemporaries. "All artists feel and should have an engagement with their past," Coronel pronounced in 1959. "Today as in the past, we are trying to break with academicism. The masters of the old schools (Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros, Goitia) did the same thing, and I don't see why they are trying to repress young Mexican painting, which fights for new horizons that give us an international presence."(2)
Arriving in Mexico City as a teenager in 1939, Coronel studied at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura "La Esmeralda" before traveling to Europe in 1946, where he would stay for six years. In Paris, awash in the transcendent humanism of the early postwar years, Coronel was guided by the primitivist impulse and powerful simplifications of Ossip Zadkine and, more particularly, of Constantin Brancusi, in whose studio he worked. Most at home in the language of sculpture at this time, Coronel didn't fully discover painting until he saw the work of Paul Klee in 1948 at the Musée National d'Art Moderne. "To my surprise," he later recalled, "I found for the first time in my life the great truth of art and the enormous similarity that exists between Klee's painting and our magical world. The impact of the discovery, and the marvelousness of the sensation, was such that when I left the museum, all romantic and emotional, I asked myself, 'Why not?' If this man has opened the doors, the windows, a whole new universe to me, why not? That same day I began to paint."(3) The encounter with Klee, combined with the dynamic color and chimerical imagery he found in the work of Víctor Brauner and Serge Poliakoff, encouraged Coronel in his pursuit of painting. More and more convinced that the plasticity of pure color could convey the vision of his ancestral world in new and profoundly universal terms, he returned to Mexico in 1952 fully confident in the faculty of painting to express the poetics of this oneiric world.
Coronel's painting of the following decade integrates the existential universalism of the European avant-garde with the mythic imagery of Mexico's pre-Hispanic cultures. "At the same time that he reclaimed the deepest roots of pre-Columbian Mexico," Laura González Matute has remarked, he brought together "the enigmatic expressions of the final tendencies of the universal vanguard, Cubism, Expressionism, Orfism, abstraction, and geometry" and conjugated them "with the primitivist, synthetic forms of African and Asian cultures."(4) Not unlike Wifredo Lam, who similarly adapted a modernist, syncretic visual language to primitive and magical imagery, Coronel invites us to reflect on the nature of man as he questions the origins of being, the ecstasy of passion, the rages of war, and the passage of life toward death. During this time, his painting positively distanced itself from the Mexican school and delved into the pre-Columbian past, evolving a personal mythology that takes as its subject the psychic history of his native land.
The presence of masked warriors and the intimation of a magical universe in both La guerra florida and Los alucinados (see Day Session, lot 152) metaphorically evoke the primitive instinct of man as he faces the mystery and force of nature. In a millenarian mood, Coronel takes as his theme man confronting his destiny: in La guerra florida through the ritual symbolism of the foregrounded ocelot and serpent and in Los alucinados through the unearthly masked figures that unblinkingly hold our gaze.
The mysticism of La guerra florida--as in La lucha, El regreso de Quetzalcóatl and La primavera, three companion works from this same time--draws on iconography from the ritual guerra florida of Aztec lore. In pre-Conquest Mesoamerican societies, a guerra florida was traditionally initiated both in times of drought, which upset the cyclical agricultural seasons, and in times of prolonged peace, when the blood of the enemy was less readily available to be sacrificed to the gods. Not a territorial war, the guerra florida was performed by mutual consent--by the mid-fifteenth century, between the leaders of the Triple Alliance (the cities of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan) and those of Huexotzingo and Tlaxcala--for the purpose of obtaining prisoners on both sides to be slaughtered to the gods. Institutionalized by the time Cortés arrived in 1519, the guerra florida has been blamed for weakening the Amerindian population and facilitating the Spanish conquest. In some accounts, the dead bodies of the victims were handed to the authorities, who served choice parts to the animals of the emperor: cougars, jaguars, snakes. In Coronel's La guerra florida, these animals are transformed into the combatants themselves, their mouths gaping open and their bodies tensed for battle. By contrast, the human presence is highly abstracted: a series of solemn faces forms a line behind the animals, the figures on the end clutching an emerald-green dagger and two matching spears, symbols of impending death.
Coronel takes poetic license with historical fact, but he finds a universal metaphor in the struggle for survival and the ultimate sacrifice of life--themes that resonated powerfully in the existentialism of the postwar climate. In distancing this work from the specifics of the historical guerra floridas, Coronel allows the lyricism of his abstracted forms to become the true subject of his painting. The passion and tragedy of the war is sensually rendered in lambent shades of red and orange and purple, combined in geometric patterns that amplify and draw out the tonal range of each color. His color is aggressive, saturated and intensely emotional, and it becomes for him the means by which to express the apocalyptic nature of warfare and the fate of humankind.
The penetrating faces that line the background of La guerra florida reappear in Los alucinados one year later, here magnified and reduced in number. Coronel shows his range as a colorist: the prismatic blocks of turquoise and sapphire-blue barely suggest the bodies of the figures, distending and turning in long vertical forms. The faces, scarified and uncanny in the intensity of their gaze, suggest the psychic burden of a man become aware of his human condition. Contemplative awareness becomes in this case an extreme state of hallucination, the point at which the mystical and the real collide in the ecstasy of subjective experience. It is this state of ephemeral transience that Coronel captures in Los alucinados, freezing that emotion in the faces of his figures but giving it full expression in the brilliant, lyrical color of their bodies, which blend imperceptibly into the background. We encounter the alucinados in the naked intimacy of their trance, their humanity revealed to us through their altered state of consciousness--a primitive and parallel reality well apart from our own.
This dramatization of the colors and motifs of the ancient Mesoamerican world, told through abstract and lyrical expressionism and simplified modern forms, is a hallmark of Coronel's work of the late 1950s. Color becomes a means through which to transform reality, or to imaginatively reconfigure it, so that the universal themes of melancholy and passion, pain and anxiety, life and death that pervade his painting attain new and more profound expression. "For Coronel," the poet Octavio Paz reflected in 1961, "painting is signification, which is to say matter transfigured by human creation. Coronel conceives of painting as a constellation of meanings, like a language...As in the case of Tamayo and Lam, the discovery of universal painting gave him a deeper understanding of the art of his people...Passion: sensuality, violence...That passion is also melancholy, the acute feeling of solitude and, like an unexpected flower, the delicate presence of death." (5)
1) J. L. Cuevas, "The Cactus Curtain," in P. Frank, ed., Readings in Modern Latin American Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, 192.
2) Quoted in M. C. Ordiales, "Pedro Coronel: Hombre universal," Pedro Coronel: Retrospectiva, Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 2005, 46.
3) M. C. Ordiales, 43.
4) L. G. Matute, "Color, textura y magia en la obra de Pedro Coronel," Pedro Coronel: Retrospectiva, 18.
5) O. Paz, "Presentación de Pedro Coronel," Universidad de México, XV 10, junio de 1961.