1899-1991 · Painter
Tamayo was born on August 26, 1899, in Oaxaca, with its strong pre-Hispanic cultural heritage and Indian population. He attended the School of Fine Arts in Mexico City but was dissatisfied with the traditional art program there. In 1921 he got a job in the Department of Ethnographic Drawing at the National Archeological Museum. His work consisted mainly of making available to craftsmen from across the country the original models of the museum's pre-Columbian drawings. This experience constituted a sort of revelation for Tamayo, which was to have a decisive influence on the techniques he later invented and put into practice, but even more so on his artistic sensibility.
Tamayo reacted against the epic proportions and politic rhetoric of the painting of the Mexican muralists, who had dominated the country's art production since the Mexican Revolution. Instead, he chose to work on small canvases, using Cubist, Surrealist, and other European styles and fusing them with a basically Mexican subject matter involving figures, still lifes, and animals. His first solo show took place in 1926 in Mexico City. The 20 paintings and watercolors in that show already displayed his personal use of color and the peculiar images and iconography that characterized his future work. Immediately after, he moved to New York City and became acquainted with and lived near Marcel Duchamp, Stuart Davis, and Reginald Marsh. In fact, Tamayo was first recognized in the United States and Europe, and only later in his own country. In 1928 he returned to Mexico and began to participate in group shows with Mexican artists. Between 1926 and 1938 he painted a great many oils and gauches, still lifes, and landscapes; his use of arches, cubes, and terraces placed him in the line of Cézanne. We find, in other canvases of those years, a freer, more lyrical inspiration that might be described as the exaltation of everyday life through color, sensuousness rather than eroticism, as in Matisse. At the end of this period Tamayo began to paint a series of violent canvases: dogs baying at the moon; birds, horses, lions, lovers in the night; women bathing or dancing; lonely figures gazing up into an enigmatic firmament.
Notwithstanding his controversy with the muralistas, Tamayo himself painted many murals, not only in Mexico but also in the United States and France. His first mural, The Music and the Song, for the National School of Music, was painted in 1933. In 1936 he again moved to New York, where he lived until 1944. At the end of the 1930s his painting began to be acclaimed because of its universal and Mexican meaning. Tamayo's great creative period, that of his maturity as a painter, began in New York around 1940. There he spent almost 20 hard but fruitful years. He taught at the Dalton School in New York City and showed his paintings in several galleries. In 1948 he visited Europe for the first time and exhibited in Paris, London, Rome, and other European cities. He lived in Paris for several months and returned to Mexico, to settle down permanently. Tamayo exhibited his paintings at the Venice Biennale in 1950, and the success of his work there led to international recognition. He went on to design murals for the National Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City ( Birth of Nationality and Mexico Today, 1952-53) and for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris ( Prometheus Bringing Fire to Man, 1958), among others.
In the later decades of his life, Tamayo worked on his paintings, exploring the richness of the texture of canvas and working with sand, marble powder, and other material. In these works. the passionate and demonic element take part in a transfiguration. For Tamayo the world is still a system of interchanges (correspondences), man is still part of the earth—is, in fact, the earth. Tamayo's relationship with pre-Columbian art does not show itself in the sphere of beliefs but on the conscious level of aesthetics. His art consisted of inserting everyday Mexican life into the sphere of poetry and ritual.
Tamayo's historical importance within the context of Mexican painting consisted in his having called into question, with his exemplary radicalism, the ideological and didactic art of the muralists and their followers. His originality as a painter not only lies in his critical attitude toward the confusion between painting and political literature in which Mexican artists were floundering, but in his critical attitude toward objects. In his works. the object is seen not as an idea or a representation, but as a field of magnetic forces. Each picture is a system of lines and colors rather than a system of signs. The political consequences of this attitude led him to take part in the sort of polemics that are always apt to break out in Mexico. Examples of this are the many exchanges of views—not always particularly affable—that Tamayo had with David Alfaro Siqueiros in the years 1947, 1950, 1954, and 1957. Thus, Tamayo participated in many discussions with the artists of his country, despite the fact that he adopted an absolutely personal way of seeing things and refused to submit to political dogmatism or to a realism