Although Francisco Zúñiga created sculptures from the time that he was a boy when he assisted his father, a local sculptor of religious figures, he turned more decisively to the medium shortly after he arrived in Mexico in 1936 from his native Costa Rica. In the 1930s four or five artists (primarily the muralists) in Mexico monopolized “the possibilities in painting,” whereas sculpture was a relatively unexplored and little heralded medium that Zúñiga exploited to his advantage, developing a wide-ranging body of work based on the human figure.
Upon arriving to Mexico, Zúñiga immediately enrolled in the National School of Painting, Sculpture, and Printmaking, more commonly known as La Esmeralda, where he became acquainted with Brancusi, Maillol, and Moore. Working in the atelier of Guillermo Ruiz, which between 1927 and 1937 was a center for direct carving, Zúñiga assisted in the execution of numerous public monuments. This experience allowed him to learn (the lost wax method) of bronze casting. Zúñiga’s sculptural practice spanned the entire gamut from direct carving in wood, modeling in clay, sculpting directly on hard stone and volcanic granite, and bronze casting. After being appointed professor at La Esmeralda in 1938, he founded his own independent workshop in 1943, training students that would become the most prominent artists at midcentury in Mexico: Pedro Coronel, Rosa Castillo, and Manuel Felguérez, among others. Between 1950 and 1960 he formed part of the Plastic Integration Group that collaborated with architects and included artists Juan O’Gorman and David Alfaro Siqueiros. In these various projects constructing public monuments or working with plastic integration, Zúñiga developed his own ideas of sculptural space that departed from the more politicized themes of his peers while nonetheless embracing open air and street sculpture.
At the same time that a comprehensive approach to sculpture enabled Zúñiga’s practice, an intense and early interest in in the autochthonous civilizations of the Americas also propelled his work. Indeed just before he left Costa Rica, at the behest of archaeologist Jorge A. Lines, Zúñiga made a series of 44 watercolors (and one india ink drawing) which document the pre-Columbian ceramics found in the Zapandi tomb, Filadelfia, Guanacaste in Costa Rica. When he migrated to Mexico City, Zúñiga drew every object at the Museum of Anthropology, located at that time on Moneda Street. He continued to engage directly with pre-Columbian culture in Mexico. Indeed, he was hired by various architects to reproduce pre-Columbian and colonial sculptures for their projects. While this contracted work was not considered part of his artistic oeuvre, it certainly provided Zúñiga with a wellspring of inspiration to then adapt to his own sculptural work.
This 1974 grouping represents the climax of Zúñiga’s sculptural practice and the persistence of the theme in his oeuvre of a standing group of cloaked women with exaggerated hips and stomachs. Grupo de cuatro mujeres de pie portrays four women of massive bulk that represent different ages and stages of life: adolescence, pregnancy, middle age, and old age. They are based on studies, sketches, and individual sculptures Zúñiga produced as early as 1965, but they were conceived of as a group. Powerful peasant types, they are archetypes rather than portraits, but are loosely based on direct observation. Zúñiga used models to develop his repertoire of representations of indigenous women; he called one of his models, Evelia, who was from Veracruz, a “universal native type,” even though photographs reveal she was a more of a mestiza. Other photographs taken by Zúñiga in Patzuaro and the Yucatan in 1970 demonstrate that his representations were also based on travels, yet his titles often only offer vague characterizations: Yucatecas, Yalaltecas, Chamulas, Juchitecas or provide no ethnic descriptors. Here in Grupo de cuatro mujeres de pie the women become powerful updated versions of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais—projecting Zúñiga’s conception of universal femininity based on perceptions of native-ness. Scale, proportion, context, and grandeur of ambition make it one of his most complex sculptural groupings. Indeed, this grouping graces the cover of the first volume of his catalogue raisonné, which is devoted to his sculptural ouevre.
When Zúñiga made Grupo de cuatro mujeres de pie it coincided with a period in which he obtained numerous individual exhibitions, especially in the United States. In 1969 he had a solo exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, followed by individual exhibitions in the early 1970s at the San Diego Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the Phoenix Art Museum. In 1974 he also began the more systematic numbering of his bronze editions. His success abroad allowed him to stop working for the state and to create more regularly in bronze. Ariel Zúñiga claimed that bronze allowed Francisco to remit “to a remote past.” To be sure, the exaggerated geometric forms of Zúñiga’s women recall the swelling and bulk of the pre-Columbian vessels he painted and drew as a young man. The artist claimed that “sculpture is an ancient language…it is important that it should be representative of a culture.” He continued by noting the resonance of the pre-Columbian in his commanding sculptural figures: “I am very interested in the pre-Hispanic world. Despite the terrible colonization that our peoples were subjected to, the strength of their culture succeeded in filtering through, and we have an intuitive sense of who they were, thanks to their sculpture. This perhaps explains a certain self-containment that exists in my figures…their will to resist.”
Associate Professor of Latin American Art History
The City College of New York and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York
1 Zúñiga cited in Sheldon Reich, Francisco Zuniga, Sculptor, Conversations and Interpretations (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980), p. 7.
2 Zúñiga cited in Sheldon Reich, Francisco Zúñiga: p. 6. According to the artist, after 1960 he decided to work only in sculpture. He certainly continued to paint, draw, and sketch as his catalogue raisonné reveals. Ariel Zúñiga, Francisco Zúñiga: Catalogue raisonné, Volumes I- 4 (Mexico: Albedrío in association with Fudanción Zúñiga Laborde, A.C., 1999).
3 According Reich, Zúñiga collaborated twice with Siqueiros in his magazine Arte Público between 1954 and1955. Ibid, p. 39.
4 Reich, p. 50.
5 Zúñiga, Francisco Zúñiga: Catalogue raisonné, Volume I: Sculpture, 1923-1993 p. 54
6 Ibid, p. 14
7 Ibid, p. 54
8 Francisco Zúñiga: Sculpture, Drawings, Lithographs (New York: Brewster Editions, 1982), p. 9.