We are grateful to art historian Juan Carlos Pereda for his assistance cataloguing this work.
One of the most enduring subjects in the history of art, the still-life has been continually re-imagined from the vanitas paintings of the Dutch Golden Age that attempt to precisely portray reality to the turn-of-the-century apples of Paul Cézanne that privilege the representation of the artist’s technique over his subject. To this illustrious tradition, Rufino Tamayo added his own distinct interpretation of the genre with his minimally rendered red watermelons. An iconic subject for the artist, watermelons appear throughout Tamayo’s oeuvre from the 1920s to the late 1980s. While his depictions of the fruit from the 1920s and 1930s illustrate an indebtedness to European vanguards, Tamayo’s mature watermelons evince an increasing experimentalism. Often depicted with an extreme economy of forms, these later fruits are shown as half circles of pink enveloped by blurred lines of white and green that teeter on the edge of turned up table tops which defy conventional perceptions of space. In these evocative works, Tamayo transforms the sedate still-life into dynamic compositions that examine painting’s inherent principles.
Tamayo’s process of reducing the watermelon to its essential components recalls Cézanne's working method. The eminent French master famously explained that he sought to “deal with nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone,” 1 a statement which Tamayo no doubt intended to invoke when he declared, “The artist must take elements from nature, not to be used in a literal manner but to be remade so that the final result is creation not imitation.” 2 Cézanne's practice of converting nature's complexity into basic geometric forms enabled him to break with what was then western art's entrenched commitment to mimesis and to develop his own revolutionary approach to representation. In Plate of Apples, for example, Cézanne divides his composition into two planes: the flat patterned ocher wall in the background and the sharply sloping triangle in the foreground meant to depict a tabletop. Precariously placed on this steeply slanting triangle of a tabletop, is a plate of apples, yet these fruits, much like the surface upon which they sit, bare only a modest resemblance to that which they are meant to represent. Composed of a patchwork of loosely woven red, orange, yellow and green brushstrokes, these apples appear more as spheres of vibrating colors illustrating volume and mass than they do recognizable fruits.
Tamayo's spare still-life Sandías translates these Cézannian tenets into a decidedly twentieth-century modernist vernacular. Four pink slices, defined only by thin outlines of deep green, and one golden-hued circle, presumably an apple or orange, balance on an excessively tilted tabletop that seems to float in a rich red abyss. In its simplification of forms, skewed perspective and suggested instability, Sandías clearly evokes the still-lifes of Cézanne. While the French predecessor was a wellspring of inspiration for the Mexican artist, as is evident from the earliest watermelon still-lifes to the later portraits of his wife Olga, which share a likeness with Cézanne's own aloof paintings of his spouse, Tamayo delved deeper into abstraction, ultimately allowing for, in his own words, “creation not imitation.”
Perhaps the most singular aspect of Tamayo’s work, however, is his skillful use of color, particularly radiant reds. Exploring the possibilities of red was in fact a lifelong pursuit for Tamayo. In Sandías, Tamayo’s unsurpassed ability to extract a rich panoply of vivid tones from his signature hue is on full display. Combining shades of deep vermilion, brilliant scarlet, hot pink and dusty rose, Sandías comprises a full spectrum of luminescent reds. Exploiting the subtleties of red, Tamayo asserted, was liberating for him as an artist, "As we use an ever smaller number of colors, the wealth of possibilities grows. Pictorially speaking it is more valuable to exhaust the possibilities of a single color than to use a limitless variety of pigments." 3
While the watermelon naturally lends itself to an investigation of red, the fruit also held a personal resonance for the artist who often recalled a period from his youth spent selling sandías in Mexico City alongside his aunt with whom he lived after his parents passed away. Thus, even in paintings as formally rigorous as Sandías, Mexico finds its way into Tamayo’s art. Indeed, the country informed the core of his work, as Tamayo explained “Being Mexican nurtured me in the tradition of my land, but at the same time, I was open to
the world, both receiving from and giving to it what I could. This is my credo of the international Mexican.” 4
At once international and Mexican, personal and theoretical, figurative and abstract, lush and stark, Sandías eloquently expresses the compelling dichotomies of Tamayo’s art.
1 Paul Cézanne in a letter to Émile Bernard, 15 April 1904, as quoted in R. Friedenthal, Letters of the Great Artists – from Blake to Pollock, (London, Thames and Hudson, 1963) 180.
2 Rufino Tamayo, quoted in R. Tibol ed. Textos de Rufino Tamayo (Mexico City, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1987) 13.
3 Rufino Tamayo, quoted in O.Paz, Rufino Tamayo: Myth and Magic (New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1979) 12.
4 Rufino Tamayo, quoted in R. Tibol, Textos de Rufino Tamayo, 37.