He was called back to Mexico in 1909 as protests against the Díaz regime grew, leading to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution the following year. Immediately following the Revolution, Ramos Martínez was appointed director of the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes under the new populist administration, and he established a series of ‘Aire Libre’ (Open Air) schools of painting in which he pioneered new methods of art pedagogy based in open-ended, outdoor artistic expression, free to all students. Ramos Martínez’s return to post-revolutionary Mexico had critical consequences for his artistic production. Abandoning the light-filled, Rococo-esque scenes of his European years, Ramos Martínez’s approach became direct, powerful and thoroughly modern. His works on newspaper and canvas were marked by heavy, intentional lines and textural patterning, a dramatically flattened picture plane and a collage-like overlapping of compositional elements. Ramos Martínez’s philosophy regarding subject matter was likewise deeply affected by the revolution; motivated by waves of nationalism and anti-European sentiment sweeping Mexico City, he (like his contemporary and compatriot Diego Rivera) dove into study of pre-Columbian art and Mexican history and devoted his work to themes from the daily lives of Mexico’s indigenous people. He taught his students, “Our Mexico does not have to be tired, nor regress to the Academy; no super-intellectual refinements that abandon plastic art. What the Indian does today is a marvel of significant expression, containing forms, lines, colors composed and handled without any other factor than a continuation of that superb artistic past, precolonial, never surpassed…the marvel of the simple, direct expression that Europe seeks today in its cultivated men and that we never abandoned” (quoted in George Small, op. cit., p. 81).
In 1928, Ramos Martínez moved his young family to Los Angeles, where the climate was better suited to his ailing infant daughter’s needs. Immersed in a foreign and rapidly changing environment, he found professional aid in his friendship with William Alanson Bryan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who had known and admired the artist since his work was included in the 1925 Pan American Exhibition in New York, and quickly connected him with the flourishing artistic community there. Ramos Martínez’s images of beautiful indigenous women and tropical flora were popular with Los Angeles’ artistic crowd, paralleling the rise in popularity of Latin American-themed stories in Golden-Age Hollywood as actors like Dolores del Río, Carmen Miranda and Ramón Navarro became increasingly famous through the late 1920s and early 1930s. The nostalgic and lyrical quality of his paintings of this time appealed to Californians’ modern sensibilities, their style rooted in the present while the imagery harkened to an imagined simpler, more beautiful world “across the border.” Many of Mexico’s most important artists visited and worked in Los Angeles during these years, including David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose now-lost masterwork América Tropical was executed in the same year as La India de los floripondios, 1932. Like Siqueiros, Ramos Martínez accepted mural and painting commissions from regional public organizations; his work was also popular with actors and other celebrities in the local community, including celebrated silent film actress Corinne Mae Griffith, who was the original owner of La India de los floripondios. In that same eventful year, Ramos Martínez held a successful exhibition at the Fine Arts Gallery of Balboa Park in San Diego that further expanded his reputation in the region. He was shortly afterwards commissioned for a series of murals at Scripps College near Los Angeles, which can still be seen there today.
Embedded in a dense forest, the figure in La India de los floripondios gazes languidly out of the canvas, a blossoming lotus in her right hand and small birds of paradise flowering at her side. The rich, varied golden textures of her blouse and the bark of the trees act as a foil for the deep blue of the background and the soft, warm bronze of her skin. She seems just on the verge of speaking, her transfixing gaze and lightly parted lips commanding the viewer’s attention. She “almost bursts out of the canvas with a will to violate the severe geometric frame of hair that restrains and contains” her, proclaiming a psychic power that is characteristic of Ramos Martínez’s mature work (ibid., p. 107). His work of this period is often compared with Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, not only for their similar subject matter but for both artists’ drive to conjure emotional states in the viewer driven by symbols and signs, rather than by a realistic depiction of nature, seeking to find ‘imagination signs and plastic equivalents capable of reproducing those emotions or states of mind without necessarily having to furnish a copy of the initial sight” (ibid., p.124).
However, where Gauguin’s Tahitian women like the subject of Where Are You Going? (Eu haere ia oe) (see fig. 1), ooze sensuality, representing an eroticized and mysterious Other, Ramos Martínez’s figures are architectural and in the case of La India, independent, built along an ascetic and sacred geometry. Unlike Gauguin, Ramos Martínez mined his own native culture and history for spiritual resonance. His sensibility can be related at once to Giotto’s, driven by a divine inspiration to portray ideally proportioned human forms as well as to the geometric order underlying much pre-Columbian sculpture, in particular that of the Olmec people. La India de los floripondios here does not as much entice us to enter a sensuous world of lush idylls as a pure, Edenic vision of a timeless Mexico, where modernist sensibilities echo against ancient forms. Her hand holding the blossoming lotus, tilted at nearly a right angle and overlapping flatly against the columnar floripondios behind her, is a clear visual reference to visual conventions of pre-Columbian art, in particular Veracruz stone sculpture (see fig. 3). Ramos Martínez’s ruthless reduction of forms and exceptionally careful arrangement of them into harmoniously balanced and heavily drawn compositions “reveals the influence of cubism percolating through Picasso, Léger, Braque, and others from 1908 on” (ibid., p. 131). However, unlike these artists, Ramos Martínez’s geometry was built upon a spiritual motivation closer akin to Gauguin’s drive to uncover emotional truth through evocative symbols. In the pre-Columbian sculpture he loved, geometric elements are not pure forms detached from meaning; “The Aztec pyramids, spheres, cubes and cones, far from retaining, as did the cubist ones, a whiff of classroom dampness, were cogs, pistons, and ball bearings that one suspected had cosmic functions.” (Jean Charlot, quoted in George Smalls, ibid., p. 136) The stillness of forms creates a meditative aesthetic silence, beckoning the viewer to contemplate their Arcadian beauty.
The simplicity of Ramos Martínez’s forms belies the extraordinary complexity of his color. The soft blush of the lotus and textural vibrations of the white floripondios against the rich turquoise backdrop elevate La India de los floripondios out of the mundane into a world of pure beauty. These jewel-like colors are chosen not only for their visual effects but for their evocative qualities, the contrast of blue and white conjuring classical Western depictions of the Virgin Mary while the rich green of the leaves recalls jade, a deeply revered material for the Olmec and Mayan cultures symbolically associated with the eternal cycle of life and death. Ramos Martínez draws on the deep psychic sonority of the colors and images in La India de los floripondios to transport us beyond ourselves into a more perfect world.
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