Juan Carlos Pereda
Curator, Museo Tamayo de Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City
Rufino Tamayo spent his life filtering European modernism through his own undeniable Mexican identity. He made a career of not being political, setting himself in opposition to the didactic public murals and ideological discourse of his contemporaries, particularly Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. His paintings, he argued, were “purer,” generally engaging with timeless universal themes. In 1949, in a tersely worded artistic statement, he declared that “Painting is not literature, or journalism, or demagogy. Painting is… the wonderful combination of poetry, which bears the message, and visual qualities, which transmit that meaning.” (Tamayo, “Unas palabras de Rufino Tamayo”Espacios, June 1949, cited in Rufino Tamayo: Pinturas, Madrid, 1988, p. 35)
However, the artist’s work of the early 1940s cannot be understood without reference to World War II, a time of “great intensity,” as he said in a later interview (Ingrid Suckaer, Rufino Tamayo: Aproximaciones, Mexico City, 2000, p. 181.) In this period, while based primarily in New York, he created a series of anxious and unsettling pictures in which animals, particularly howling and barking dogs, serve as overt metaphors for conflict. This group of paintings was directly inspired by Picasso’s Guernica (1937), a denunciation of the bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, probably on more than one occasion, Tamayo saw and studied Picasso’s mural-sized canvas in exhibitions in New York, where it had been sent for safekeeping. Guernica famously includes two prominent animals—a threatening bull and a screaming horse. Tamayo’s paintings, however, were far more electric in their color range than Guernica’s newspaper-like monochrome; in addition, as Robert Goldwater noted early on, Tamayo’s animals were far more aggressive: “They express a spirit of revolt rather than the passive anguish Picasso depicted” (Goldwater, Rufino Tamayo, New York, 1947, p. 27.)
In Perro aullando a la Luna (1942), the animal raises its head towards a moon in eclipse, set against a deep blue night sky. The veins of the dog’s throat seem to burst with energy, as the howl travels from his broad chest to the slash of white teeth in his open mouth. As in other works in this series showing dogs—most importantly Animals (1941), now in The Museum of Modern Art in New York—dry meatless bones appear in the foreground. The dark green wall to the right reinforces our sense that the dog is outside, unprotected, and perhaps unheard, as were so many voices in that terrible year of the Second World War, when democracy and freedom seemed irrevocably eclipsed by fascist victories.
Tamayo’s painting recalls—and perhaps cites—Joan Miró’s Dog Barking at the Moon (1926; Philadelphia Museum of Art), which in the early 1940s was on display at the Gallery of Living Art in New York, where Tamayo would have easily encountered it. Here, however, the artist replaces surrealist playfulness with something more sinister. Closer in date to Tamayo’s howling dog is Jackson Pollock’s equally fierce The She-Wolf (1943; The Museum of Modern Art). But whereas Pollock turned to Classical history (the title refers to the legendary she-wolf who suckled the founders of Rome), Tamayo’s references are drawn from Mexico’s pre-Columbian heritage. The seated pose, taut rib-revealing skin, and open mouth—as well as the loud red color—are all features found on the ceramic figures from tombs in Colima showing the xoloitzcuintli (a local hairless breed used as both guard dog and food source); such sculptures were widely collected in both the United States and Mexico. But Colima dogs rarely look up; the specific position of the head more closely resembles effigies of seated howling coyotes from Gulf Coast Mexico.
Such references to the pre-Columbian past were an important part of post-Revolutionary Mexican art, a path signaled by David Alfaro Siqueiros in 1921, when he issued a manifesto calling for artists across the Americas to “absorb the synthetic energy” of the “ancient inhabitants of our valleys” without recourse to facile or illustrative recreations. (Siqueiros, “Three Appeals for the Current Guidance of the New Generation of American Painters and Sculptors” in Mari-Carmen Ramírez et al., Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, 2004, p. 459) Thus, the references in Tamayo’s animal paintings are not archaeological, or even overtly nationalist. They fit within a broader narrative in which diverse artists across the hemisphere consciously sought to construct a distinctly “American” modernism, informed equally by the local and the international—along with Pollock, Barnett Newman, Wifredo Lam and Maria Martins are just a few of the many proponents of this continental impulse.
Perro aullando a la Luna, the last major work from Tamayo’s series of animal paintings in private hands, was first acquired by Hollywood actress Evelyn Keyes from the Galería de Arte Mexicano, run by Inés Amor, then the leading dealer in Mexico City. It was once owned by Peter G. Wray, who amassed one of the most important collections of pre-Columbian art in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Wray surely appreciated the allusions to ancient Colima and Veracruz still apparent in this powerful image.
Senior Lecturer, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts
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