According to famed art historian Edward Sullivan, La Familia is "one of the most important paintings of Tamayo’s later production; a highly structured composition in forms and color.” In his 1990 essay published in the exhibition catalogue Tamayo at the Marlborough Gallery, he describes the picture as being imbued with both a visual simplicity and tender affection: “the mother’s arm grasps that of the father while they are beheld by a child looking adoringly at her parents from below."
At eighty-eight, Tamayo continued to fulfill extraordinary creative cycles. A nostalgic return to his youth is evidenced by the recurrent subject matter of this picture and by compositional elements resurfaced from his old trade as a drawing teacher in primary schools. Well versed in the teachings of the drawing method known as Best Maugard, Tamayo’s work often reveals the use of elementary geometric shapes to elaborate complex forms. Both the pinnacle that appears to the left of the figure of the mother and the framework of the composition reveal this primary source.
While critics acclaim its symbolic content, it is the viewer who is enchanted by the harmonious hues, nostalgic undertones and stylistic maturity of La Familia. Blues and roses are mitigated with delicate gray glazes that transform into an iridescent coating. In a 1987 interview, conducted the same year he painted La Familia, Tamayo spoke about the importance of family life, the affection that he himself did not enjoy as a child, and his fervent desire to form his own family with Olga. By the end of his life, however, one can conclude that Tamayo viewed his own paintings as his offspring, each made with loving dedication, and to this day, permanent windows into the character of his creator.
Juan Carlos Pereda
Mexico City, April 2015
“He is a painter of painting, not of the metaphysics or criticism of painting. He is the absolute opposite of such a painter as Mondrian or, to speak of one of his contemporaries, Barnett Newman. He is more akin to painters like Braque or Bonnard. Reality for Tamayo is corporal, visual. Yes, the world exists: we are told so by his reds and purples, the iridescence of his greys, the smudginess of charcoal; we hear it from the smooth surface of this stone, the knots in the wood, the coldness of the water snake.”
Octavio Paz in Octavio Paz and Jacques Lassaigne, Rufino Tamayo, Ediciones Polígrafa, 1995, p. 22
La Familia of 1987 is a crowning achievement painted at the end of Rufino Tamayo's remarkable seventy-year career. Executed in 1987, the same year an unprecedented retrospective of six hundred works honored his legacy at the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City, La Familia is a consummate and emotive representation of Tamayo’s most endearing theme: the family.
Painted in the late 1980s—one of Tamayo’s most fertile decades—La Familia exudes a comfortable familiarity. As a recurrent theme first explored in the 1920s, La Familia conveys Tamayo’s profound regard for the family unit as a central element of society. Firmly placed in the foreground of the composition, two frontal personages encounter the viewer with open and closed arms. Personifying archaic prototypes for every woman and man, their monolithic forms are intensified by fragmented and abstracted shapes. Together they proclaim their primal place in the “order of things”. The left figure, a mother, slightly taller—and somewhat more commanding—than her companion, is the most welcoming figure of the group. Lovingly anchoring her husband, she extends her left arm towards him while elegantly placing her other arm behind her. At the center, a small child completes the composition. Painted in a handsomely grey palette, the child radiates innocence and purity. A Christ-like figure, his open arms adoringly protect his parents union.
Tamayo’s extraordinary treatment of color and texture—arguably his most talented gift as a “painter of painting”—creates poignant emotions, tensions, and indescribable moods. As a master colorist, Tamayo’s painting technique developed through a systematic approach to the application of paint which he favored as the most direct means for expressing universal themes. Tamayo explains: “The whiteness of the canvas bothers me; the first thing I do when beginning a painting is generally to lay down a coat of grey. Superimposing other colors on the grey leads me to changes of tones that enrich the surface.” 1
When we compare La Familia to earlier compositions painted at the inception of Tamayo’s career in the late 1920s and 1930s, one discerns a dramatic evolution in his treatment of paint. Initially, Tamayo’s approach to color was somber and exceedingly darker likely the result of a formal experimentation with Cezannesque and Cubist precepts. By the 1940s however, local color gives way to deeper and more intense hues of bright oranges, yellows and blues. Another version of La Familia painted in 1936 presents a more dramatic treatment of this theme. While displaying the same number of family members, the emotionally isolated figures of the father, mother and child appear psychologically distant from one another. A palpable loneliness appears to be intensified by their penetrating mask-like faces. Primitive in their stylization, they prevent the viewer from relating to their humanity. Unlike the open luminous atmosphere of La Familia of 1987, this earlier example presents an impenetrable foreground where the viewer is confronted with a white chair, a row of flowers, and the half-figure of a child wearing a fashionable bonnet, very much like the one worn in the present painting. An abundance of Surrealist motifs, including the recurrent pinnacle along the right side of the composition, makes reference to Tamayo’s foundational studies of the Best Maugard method.
Another example of Tamayo’s penchant for intimate familial scenes is Madre divirtiendo a su hijo (Woman Playing with Her Son), an exquisite painting of 1946 sold in these rooms in 2011 as part of a major Latin American art collection. While conveying a more dynamic composition, both works excel in their treatment of schematic shapes and the use of color to express emotion. Tamayo’s relentless appreciation for every day experiences makes these two paintings classic examples of Mexican modernism.
Rufino Tamayo never abandoned the human figure as principal source of inspiration. While keenly aware of European modernism and Abstract Expressionism in North America, Tamayo remained unapologetically loyal to painting the human condition: its traumas, hopes and fears. To this end, he produced one of the most ambitious body of works in Latin American modern art, and in the process, internationalized the aesthetic principles he deemed central for universal painting. As the summation of long artistic life, La familia also reminds us of our hope for loving and enduring relationships.
Raquel Tibol, “Rufino Tamayo and His Painting,” in Tamayo, Marlborough Gallery, New York, 1990, p. 4.
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