Mexico’s foremost colorist Rufino Tamayo defined his approach to painting in remarkably unassuming terms: “I am a realist,” he often declared. (1) As a vocal advocate for a “new realism,” at once contemporary and in allegiance to the 19th century French tradition established by Gustave Courbet, Tamayo perceived “no incompatibility between figurative art and modern art.” (2) A painter's painter, Tamayo’s realism belongs to the realm of the non-descriptive; an anti-political practice diametrically opposed to the muralists’ ethos. While he acknowledged the natural world as the source of all creative endeavors, Tamayo rejected objective mimesis. At a time of intense rhetoric surrounding the didactic purpose and indelible qualities of Mexican art, he conceived modern-day painting through strictly formalist and aesthetic terms.
Previously in the collection of American film legend and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn, Sandías y naranja evokes a fascinating—and somewhat forgotten—period in film history: a time of unprecedented exchange between Mexico's cultural milieu and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Beloved by audiences worldwide, Hepburn traveled often to Mexico where she found refuge from professional demands and personal tragedies. While the exact manner in which the actress met Tamayo is not documented, it is possible that she was introduced to his art through her first husband Mel Ferrer, the son of a Cuban immigrant, on one of those trips.
Sandías y naranja was executed in 1957, the same year Tamayo was decorated Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur by the French government. 1957 initiated the Tamayos seven year sojourn in Paris; a prosperous time filled with critical and commercial success. Coincidentally, this was also the year Hepburn debuted in a musical film, Funny Face wherein Fred Astaire, a fashion photographer, discovers a bookstore clerk (Hepburn) who, lured by a free trip to Paris, becomes a beautiful model. Filmed partly in Paris, Hepburn acquired Sandías y naranja directly from the artist possibly around this time. During her marriage to Ferrer, Hapburn established a Swiss villa in Tolochenaz, Switzerland near Lac Leman, one she candidly referred to as her real home. Here in the company of simple pleasures, she placed Tamayo's painting in the library where it hung as the room's focal point. Featured in a 1971 British Vogue article, Sandías y naranja appears to have dictated the modern decor of its surroundings. (Fig.1) The painting would remain in Hepburn's personal collection until purchased by the current owner in 1997.
Reduced to its ultimate and most basic geometric forms, these three watermelon slices—now consecrated symbols of Mexican national identity—seamlessly float on a sea of inescapable engulfing color. Painted in lavish tones of seductive pinks, deep crimson and scarlet reds, it reveals a delectable saturation of color. Such radiance attained by Tamayo’s accomplished manipulation of the medium, places his formalist philosophy at the forefront of Mexican modernism. Ultimately, Tamayo’s commitment to the plastic elements of painting, his constant thirst for technical experimentation and contemporaneity with both the European and North American avant-garde converge here in a truly iconic painting.
(1) Diana C. Du Pont, “Realistic, Never Descriptive: Tamayo and the Art of Abstract Figuration,” Tamayo, A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, 2007, p. 32, 35.
(2) Ibid., p. 35.
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