It is unfortunate that in art, unlike other fields of thought [Mathematics, Physics, Geometry, Biology …], artists have had to struggle for the status of men of thought, amidst constant pressure to reduce them to a position of inferior thinking. How much greater their contributions have been if they had been given the status and respects of our scientists? Those in both continents who are intent on this confusion, - when will they learn that there is no art of nations, only of people” (1)
Barnett Newman, 1945
Written by New York School artist and sharp-witted critic Barnett Newman, these words introduced Rufino Tamayo and Adolph Gottlieb, two contemporary artists he deemed “ultra-sophisticated, startlingly original, and strongly individual” to the American public.(2)
Using a characteristically unambiguous language, Newman argued against the validity of a national art categorizing most of Mexico's artistic production after the Revolution as propaganda. Echoing Tamayo’s own thoughts and repeated public statements, Newman adamantly dismissed Rivera and Orozco as “professional patriots.” “To paint an Indian does not create indigenous art.”(3)
Knowing his apolitical standing would bring him neither public commissions nor a fertile market environment, Tamayo took the extraordinary step to move to New York--the indisputable choice for a self-imposed artistic exile. It was here, among an expatriate group of artists and Europe's intelligentsia that he was first recognized as one of the most talented artists of the twentieth century. Tamayo's first mature paintings of the 1940s are far removed from the political and social themes favored by government officials, the didactic narratives executed by artists close to the muralist project. (Fig. 1)
New York afforded Tamayo with fertile ground to paint some of his most iconic pictures including The Bird Charmer. This monumental work was exhibited in 1946 at Tamayo's fourth individual and highly successful show at Valentine Gallery. At the time, Valentine was one of the leading galleries in America; it had hosted the first exhibitions of De Chirico, Kandinsky, Miró and Mondrian in New York. It also held important retrospectives of Matisse, Picasso and Utrillo. It was at Valentine that Picasso's masterpiece Guernica was exhibited at the start of its American Tour to raise funds for the almost extinct Spanish Republic. It was on these historical walls that John and Dominique de Menil first saw The Bird Charmer and acquired it for their modernist home in Houston, designed in 1948 by architect Philip Johnson. The present painting was considered so fundamental by Prof. Fernando Gamboa, Curator of the Mexican Pavilion at the 25th Venice Biennial in 1950, that it was one of the sixteen works by Tamayo he selected among which were included: Animals (1941) from the Museum of Modern Art collection in New York, Women in Tehuantepec (1939) from the Albright Art Gallery, Nude in White (1943) from the Collection of Pierre Matisse, and Troubadour (1945) from the Randolph Macon Women's College in Virginia.
The checklist of the Valentine exhibition is revealing. Its elated titles suggest Tamayo’s optimism after the War years. Paintings titled: Olga, The Toast, The Full Moon, The Troubadour, Dancers by The Sea appear next to The Blue Bird, The Bird-Nest and The Bird Charmer. What was it with birds? Was it Tamayo's fondness for painting atmospheres or the undefined infinity in which birds dwell? And, what exactly is a Bird Charmer? The Bird Charmer is a well-balanced, carefully executed, brilliantly and simply exposed solution to a complex painterly problem. At first sight, it is quite simple: a massive copper-clay musician plays a wind instrument against a purple-blue sky. Three small aircraft-looking birds dive down and point to the source of the music. The musician’s body rises between a gourd and the end of a wall corner. The horizon line suggests an interior scene, not a landscape. At close look however, the viewer discovers that parts of the body were reduced to geometric shapes: ovals, cones, arcs much in the tradition of Cézanne and Léger, straight lines delineate the body creating a powerful pentagon on the upper part which in turn sustains the composition’s focal point: the head and the instrument.
In terms of subject matter, Tamayo's admiration for Pre-Columbian art has been extensively discussed in the vast literature related to the artist. (Fig. 2) His approach to the art produced in Pre-Columbian times can be summarized with a brilliant commentary by Octavio Paz, a friend of the artist and one of his most ardent promoters (and in 1990, a Nobel Literature Laureate). In the introduction of the Guggenheim’s 1979 retrospective, Rufino Tamayo: Myth and Magic, Paz wrote: “In art, there is no such thing as inheritance: there are discoveries, conquests, affinities… Tamayo is no exception. The modern aesthetic opened his eyes and made him see the modernity of pre-Hispanic sculpture.”(4)
In the first paragraph of his Guggenheim Museum essay titled An Art of Transfigurations, Octavio Paz talks about his experience in front of a work by Tamayo: “The painting is there in front of me, hanging on the wall. I look at it, and little by little, slowly but surely, it opens like a fan of sensations, a vibration of colors and shapes that spread out in waves. Living space, space happy to be space. He later concludes with an invitation to simply look at Tamayo without preconceptions: “There is no cry of passion in Tamayo, there is an almost mineral silence. I am not suggesting definitions, I am risking approximations. Expressionism, pictorial purity, criticism of the object, a passion for matter, a conception of color… The reality is other: Tamayo's paintings ... and the best criticism is an invitation to realize the only act that truly counts: seeing.”(5)
1. Newman, Barnett, Selected Writings and Interviews, University of California Press, 1992, p. 72
2. Ibid., p. 72
3. Ibid, p. 74
4. Rufino Tamayo: Myth and Magic, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979, p. 20
5. Ibid, p.14
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