Trovador was one of the gems in the outstanding collection amassed by Stephen C. Clark, a legendary collector, noted philanthropist, humanist, and president of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mr. Clark (1882-1960) was President of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Modern Art from 1939 to 1946 during a period of great acquisitions and notable exhibitions at the museum. Originally exhibited at the famed Valentine Gallery in New York, 1946, the painting was gifted to the present owner, where it has remained since. Tamayo's Trovador, painted at the height of his New York critical acclaim, is mostly known from a black and white reproduction in Robert Goldwater's monograph published more than half a century ago.
"To find a modern Mexican artist not engaged in painting heroic murals, epitomizing the march of civilization," wrote a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1935, "is almost news in itself. Such an artist is Rufino Tamayo."(1) Tamayo spurned the epithet "The Fourth Great One," insisting on the philosophic distance between his painterly practice and the strident ideology of the great Muralists, Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco. "Too young to have been able to influence this Mexican pictorial movement when it first began," Tamayo later reminisced, "I disapproved of the direction my predecessors had given it. Whatever the qualities revealed by the painting of the initial period, the painters' obsession with practising not so much painting as Mexican painting (though, in fact, only apparently so) led them to neglect the real plastic problems and to fall into the trap of the picturesque. Seeing what had happened, and even though I was myself convinced that our painting should be Mexican in its essence (but without on that account forgetting the technical aspects, which had been neglected), I reacted very strongly against the established conventions and started a movement that aimed at restoring to our painting its purest qualities."(2)
"I'm the first of a new modality of Mexican painting that tries to have a universal voice," Tamayo proclaimed, supplanting what he felt was the provincial chauvinism of his Mexican contemporaries with a cosmopolitan, universalizing pictorial language.(3) Tamayo gained a mature command of this modern aesthetic in the early 1940s in New York, producing paintings at the beginning of his great creative period that, as in Trovador, beautifully bridge the particularized iconography of Mexico with the universal humanism then sweeping the war-torn West. He would return years later as Mexico's prodigal son, having powerfully and prolifically demonstrated the cogency of this brand of synthetic image-making. But it was during this crucial middle period, spanning the long decade of the 1940s, that Tamayo consolidated his pictorial style, charting an independent course between arte puro and arte social-político. Entrenched, furthermore, in the milieu of the New York School and a sideline participant in its impassioned debates over ideas of artistic liberty and existential emotion, Tamayo discovered a new, intense expressiveness in his painting. Drawing perhaps from the private sorrows of his wife Olga's series of miscarriages and, more certainly, from the collective tragedy of World War, the paintings of this period betray the artist's preoccupation with the theme of alienation, of "man disassociated with nature, from his own kind, from himself."(4)
"What interests me most of all," Tamayo explained, "is man and the way he faces the problems that surround him. Art must belong to its time: it should not be concerned with memories but with what is happening now. And the artist is an antenna. He cannot be passive or content merely to dream. Art is fundamentally a message, a means of communication; it involves a message."(5) In his daily practice of painting, Tamayo rooted this existential awareness and conviction in images of the everyday, finding in the familiar forms of characters drawn from life the very essence of painting. Painting was the means by which Tamayo mediated his experience of reality and, in the brilliant tonalities of Trovador we see an archetypal image of man facing the world. The wandering singer beseeches us with his plaintive eyes, strumming his guitar in an image that conveys the sturdy self-possession of the musician and his resilience against a world of suffering. "Tamayo's man," Paul Westheim has observed, "is burdened with sadness, or is bursting with happiness; he laughs, and at times he cries. . . The tragedies, the tensions, the conflicts that spring from human association do not make him suffer. His suffering springs from inside himself, from his questions that have no answer, from his anxiety in trying to understand the incomprehensible, from his own humanity that isolates him in a world greedy for money, for power, for success."(6) The distortions of these figures, the grotesque and unnatural colorations and anatomies, convey here the messiness and imperfections of life, the scars of war and of time. His Trovador might easily stand for Everyman, universal in his humanity and intimately particular in his faults.
Tamayo was an extraordinary colorist, and in Trovador he brings his synthesizing aesthetic to bear within the space of the canvas, achieving an internal harmony between adjoining flat areas of tonal colors. A critic writing in 1947 proclaimed Tamayo "as close to Braque and Matisse and Picasso as he is to Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera," and here the two traditions converge.(7) In the vernacular clothing and the geometric patterning of the textile at the right there is the "national accent" of Mexico, but it is translated here into the universal language of modernism, seen in the flattened distortions of the picture plane and the distilled array of colors, close in tonal value. "My palette is very limited," Tamayo acknowledged, "as much so as possible, because I believe that the secret of color lies not in the use of all possible hues but rather in the employment of a few from which one extracts all possible tones."(8) The colors exude empathetic warmth, drawing a homogenizing uniformity across the picture surface; the shapes harmonize to such a degree that the guitar, for instance, seems almost permanently a part of the musician's body. Tamayo was himself a noted lover of music and a proficient with the guitar. It was, notably, in the company of Carlos Chávez, the composer, that he first traveled to the United States.
Tamayo was in the end less a critic of the modern world than a keen observer of it, applying his aesthetic sensibility to the realities of that troubled world in which he lived. Octavio Paz, whose meeting with Tamayo in 1943 sparked an instant and lifelong friendship, perfectly understood his friend's will to paint: "Painting is the name we give to the sensible translation of the world. To translate the world into painting is to perpetuate it, prolong it. This is the source of Tamayo's rigor towards painting. His attitude is a profession of faith rather than an aesthetics: painting is a way of touching reality. It does not give us the sensation of reality: it confronts us with the reality of sensations. The most immediate and most direct sensations: colors, forms, touch. A material world that is also a mental world, yet retains its materialness: those colors are painted colors. All Tamayo's critical inquisitiveness tends toward the salvation of painting, the preservation of its purity and the perpetuation of its mission as translator of the world."(9)
1) D. C. du Pont, "Tamayo: Between Spaces, Within Controversies," Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2007, p. 22.
2) Rufino Tamayo, quoted in J. Lassaigne, "Training and choice," Rufino Tamayo, Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 1995, p. 27.
3) Tamayo, quoted in du Pont, "'Realistic, Never Descriptive': Tamayo and the Art of Abstract Figuration," Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, p. 34.
4) J. B. Lynch, Jr., "Tamayo Revisited", Rufino Tamayo: Fifty Years of His Painting, Washington, D.C., Phillips Collection, 1978, p. 17.
5) Tamayo, quoted in Lassaigne, "Training and choice," p. 31.
6) Paul Westheim, "A Study in Esthetics," Tamayo, Mexico, D.F.: Ediciones Artes de Mexico, 1957, p. 22, 25.
7) du Pont, "'Realistic, Never Descriptive': Tamayo and the Art of Abstract Figuration," p. 40.
8) Lynch, Jr., "Tamayo Revisited," pp. 18, 20.
9) Octavio Paz, "An Art of Transfigurations," Rufino Tamayo: Myth and Magic, New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1979, pp. 22-3.