Among the many artists that helped shape modern art in Mexico in the first half of the twentieth century, Roberto Montenegro remains one of the most enigmatic. This is in part due to the fact that there has yet to be a systematic study of his more than five-decade career, during which he created illustrations for books and magazines, theater scenography, prints, and murals, in addition to the easel paintings for which he is most well-known. Montenegro was similarly able to move easily between styles, producing works early in his career that reveal the influence of Mexican Symbolist painting and later exploring themes in a figurative style in line with the work of the Mexican muralists. He was also heavily influenced by Surrealism throughout much of the second half of his career, although he never publicly identified himself with the movement.
Montenegro was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco to a family that belonged to the upper tier of Mexican society during the Porfiriato, the nearly thirty-five-year presidency of Porfirio Díaz. Little is known of his childhood in Guadalajara and he relocated to Mexico City as a young man, eventually enrolling at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1904. There he would form relationships with a number of key figures who in the ensuing decades would have significant influence on the visual arts in Mexico, among them Gerardo Murillo (also known as Dr. Atl) and Diego Rivera. Montenegro traveled to Europe in 1905 and, although he returned briefly to Mexico in 1910, would spend much of the next fifteen years traveling throughout the continent, visiting galleries and museums in pursuit of his studies of both historic and contemporary European painting.
Returning to Mexico in 1919, Montenegro soon became involved in the cultural activities of the new post-Revolutionary government and was commissioned by the Ministry of Public Education to paint an early cycle of murals at the at the Iglesia de San Pedro y San Pablo. It was during this period that Montenegro’s passion for Mexico’s native visual culture begins to emerge most forcefully, reflecting the wider interest of the era’s artists to create an aesthetic that was imbued with mexicanidad – the distinctly Mexican character of their national history and traditions. Montenegro became a writer and art critic as well as an artist, authoring several works on Mexican popular art, and acting as one of its earliest promoters in Mexico. In 1934, he was briefly Director of the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City in 1934 and later organized the section devoted to popular art in the famous 1940 exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The artist’s interest in traditional Mexican culture is at the forefront of this stunning work, which shows six women dressed in ceremonial lace headdresses from the city of Tehuantepec, in the state of Oaxaca. Known as a huipil grande, or sometimes as a resplandor, the women’s bodies are covered by a flowing, cape-like garment and each woman’s face is encircled by starched folds of white cloth. This version of the huipil grande would have only been worn for a formal occasion, a fact which seems supported in this painting by the women’s somber expressions. Nevertheless, in their hands each woman clutches a small colorful bouquet of flowers and their overlapping positions give the impression of a crowded procession, recalling the rich array of festivals and religious celebrations that occur annually throughout Mexico.
Montenegro explored the diverse costumes and traditions of the various regions of Mexico in a number of his easel paintings and murals. A group of Tehuana women in typical garments appear in his mural Reconstruction (1931-33) at the school of the Iglesia de San Pedro y San Pablo. They stand alongside a group of Mayan women from the Yucatan, their depiction in the mural adapted from an earlier painting on canvas, Mayan Women (1926) that is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Mayan Women shares some formal and compositional similarities with the present painting, such as the use of overlapping and interlocking figures, which may suggest the present work is from the same period in Montenegro’s career.
Despite his wider interest in the native cultures of Mexico, Montenegro frequently returned to the women of Tehuantepec and their distinctive costumes as a subject for his paintings. He was not alone as numerous Mexican artists, including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, incorporated elements from this region in their works. Montenegro painted several portraits of female friends dressed in Tehuana garments, including the painter Rosa Rolanda, wife of the artist Miguel Covarrubias. He also produced a series of anonymous Tehuanas between 1930 and 1940, often depicting them with Pre-Hispanic masks or sculptures, as a means of referencing the ancient cultural roots of his scenes of contemporary peoples and costumes.
Mark A. Castro