Although born in Mexico in the same year as Diego Rivera, Angel Zárraga’s career as a painter took a dramatically different path from the revolutionary muralist’s. Upon moving to Europe in 1904 at the age of eighteen, he remained there until 1941, a few short years before his death in 1946. Drawn by his friendship with Modernist poet Rubén Dario into various avant-garde circles ranging from the Modernists in Madrid to the Symbolists in Paris, Zárraga immersed himself in Europe’s artistic hotbeds and synthesized a variety of influences to create the plastic vocabulary that would define his mature work.
Zárraga’s Cubist period was short in length and limited in production, beginning around 1913 and ending in 1917. In his studio in Montparnasse, Zárraga welcomed pioneers of Cubism including Jean Metzinger, Marcel Duchamp, and Albert Gleizes, at once admiring and debating the principles on which their explorations of three-dimensional space in two-dimensional representation were founded. Where the orthodoxy of Cubism asserted color to be of secondary importance to form, Zárraga rejected what he saw as unnecessary asceticism, stating “I do not see why Cubism must be puritan regarding color… Why speak so much of sacrifices? Sacrifice is acceptable when it serves a purpose. But should a painter deny himself the pleasure of rich pigments, of the attraction of the material, of the play of light across landscapes and figures?” (quoted in Lupina Lara Elizondo, Referencias de Picasso en México, Mexico City, 2005, p. 143)
Zárraga masterfully manipulates color in his Cubist work to support the underlying geometry of his compositions. Here, he plays with subtle distinctions of white and cream both to capture the effect of sunlight and to draw a subtle, meaningful connection between the soft white of the pages and the sitter’s alabaster visage, a visual nod to Jiménez’ identity as a poet. Zárraga places Jiménez at a startling angle, the strong azure diagonals of his arms and back leaning outward into our space as he gazes pensively out towards us, seemingly startled from his reading; the pages of his book lift slightly to emphasize the fleeting quality of the moment. The striking dimensionality of El Lector Juan Ramón Jiménez embodies Zárraga’s unique approach to Cubism in which he “internalizes geometric abstraction and assumes, not an orthodox Cubism, but the possibility of simultaneously representing multiple aspects of an object at once” , and exemplifies his power as a portraitist to capture the dynamic psychological presence of his sitter. (Miguel Angel Echegaray, Angel Zárraga: primer realista mexicano del siglo XX, Durango, 2006, p. 35) His ethos is well-captured in the line of Jiménez’ poetry best-known to the English-speaking world as the epigraph to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.”
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