Magazine article The Spectator

Pedro Friedeberg: Letters from a Mexican Artist

Magazine article The Spectator

Pedro Friedeberg: Letters from a Mexican Artist

Article excerpt

Duncan Fallowell on the elusive Mexican artist and man-of-letters who has been his friend and faithful correspondent over many years -- though they have never met

The year 2015 has been designated one of Anglo-Mexican amity, with celebrations planned in both countries by both governments. But it looks as though one name will be missing from the list: Pedro Friedeberg's. 'Who?' you may ask. Well, in 1982 I was in Mexico City to interview Gabriel García Márquez after he'd won the Nobel Prize for Literature. At a party given by a Mexican art-collector, I noticed several zany pictures on the wall. 'They're all by Pedro Friedeberg, my favourite Mexican artist,' said the collector. I stared at one large framed square after another, at pictures in which the Old World and the New seemed conjoined in a frantic, electrified marriage.

The following week the Mexican currency collapsed. As I was walking past a gallery in the Zona Rosa, a painting in the window arrested me. Strangely attired maidens floated in a room which had a 19th-century look -- until I peered more closely and saw that its wallpaper was patterned with tiny repetitions of E=mc2. The picture was entitled 'The Levitation of the Three Virgins of Guadalajara', and it was by Pedro Friedeberg.

I went in. The assistant explained that the currency was still collapsing, but did I have any dollars? I did, in the form of traveller's cheques. In which case the picture could be mine for $120. It was very large. 'We can ship it to London.' I wanted it, but I was about to leave for Acapulco. 'We can reserve it for you.' I remember thinking at the time that unless I took it with me, I might never see it again, but that it was too big to carry. I turned it down.

I have never stopped kicking myself since. That picture was me, was mine. Travellers sometimes meet with these accidents of good fortune and should always rise to the occasion -- but I had failed dismally. So when in 1985 I was asked by Macmillan whether I had any ideas for the cover of my first novel, I immediately thought of Friedeberg, and contacted him. Back came a charming letter in a wry, courteous tone; yes, he'd love to design the cover (in the event it was the cover of my second, The Underbelly, that he did). It was also a letter unlike any I'd had before: adorned with drawings of four chairs in classic 18th-century style but coloured in a high-octane, psychedelic manner. This was Europe -- or was it Latin America?-- with knobs on. And what about that name of his?

We have been exchanging letters ever since, and the correspondence has grown into something extraordinary. Mine to Pedro are conventional enough, usually on pale blue onion-skin writing paper, sent in air-mail envelopes. But his to me are magnificent creations. The envelopes alone have given many a postman a peyote turn, decorated in coloured inks, stickers and stamps, all the more striking for being done in a highly considered, orderly manner. The letters themselves are usually large single sheets in which the writing winds in and out of some bizarre surrealistic creation in vivid colours. Somehow they could only be Mexican.

Pedro's origins are complex, however, and have given rise to his lifelong habit of layering reality with fantasy, irony and games. He was born in Florence in 1936 to a Jewish mother, Gerda Lansberg, who had left Nazi Germany the previous year. …

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