Edward Lucie-Smith


The contemporary art of Mexico possesses qualities which mark it off from all other modern schools. To an extraordinary extent Mexican artists have been able to absorb the lessons of modernism, while preserving their instantly recognizable Mexican qualities intact. Roberto Márquez, a member of the youngest generation of Mexican painters, demonstrates the stubbornly indigenous quality of the Mexican artistic spirit, its powers of absorption from other cultures, and at the same time its ability for constant self-renewal.

 If one tries to define the salient qualities of Mexican painting, from the epoch of Diego Rivera onwards, they seem to be the following. First, Mexican modernism was from its beginnings interested in narrative. Diego's great mural cycles, the glory of so many public buildings in Mexico City and elsewhere in Mexico, are always intent on telling stories - in his case, stories with social and political morals. Secondly, Mexican painting has remained very close to folk roots, and in this is quite unlike the elitist modernism of Europe or North America. It is the folk spirit which serves as the intermediary between narrative ambitions and the desire to reject academic procedures. Mexican art tells stories, but never in the tedious spirit of 19th century realism. Its techniques are both magical and simple - those of a village story teller. We accept the events which Mexican paintings present to us in the same way that we accept our own dreams - we find we have no choice because these narratives appeal to something which is outside the controlling power of reason. It is in this sense, I think, that one must interpret Andre Breton's much-quoted remark, that Mexico is "a naturally surrealist country." Thirdly, Mexican art has a genius for colour. The specific exemplar here is not Rivera, but a somewhat younger master, Rufino Tamayo. Historically, there have been rare schools of art where the sense of colour, generally a mysterious alchemy, which cannot be transmitted from one artist to another, is so much ingrained that painter after painter seems to be able to come up with astonishing results. In the history of European painting, the prime example is Venetian painting of the 16th century. Mexican art currently shows a similar fecundity in producing colourists. Venetian success with colour was due, not to one cause alone, but to a combination of causes - on the one hand the watery, lustrous atmosphere of the Venetian lagoon, which trained artists from birth to see their surroundings in a certain way; on the other, the inheritance from Byzantium. In Venice, the Renaissance masters translated the mosaics and enamels of Constantinople into the then new terms of oil-paint applied to canvas.

 In Mexico, something similar seems to have taken place. The catalyst is not moisture, but the absence of moisture. The dry clear mountain air for the Mexican central plateau does not make colours lustrous, but gives them instead an ambiguous combination of flatness and depth. The hues do not come from precious enamel or mosaic, but from the soil; and from the dyes and paints used to adorn folk-textiles and artifacts. Similarly intense colours, using the same gamut of reds and yellows and dull greens, are seen in fabrics and folk toys from India. Yet colour alone cannot explain the resonance and intensity of so much contemporary Mexican painting, as no comparable phenomenon has yet arisen in India.

 What Mexican painting frequently offers the spectator is a sense of seeing two mutually contradictory things on the same canvas - in a strict sense of the phrase, a feeling of double vision. One reading of the work of art suggests a close relationship to the pre-Colombian heritage. Another indicates its links to the colonial heritage. There has been a tendency in Mexico, ever since Diego Rivera returned there in July 1921, and was immediately "struck by the inexpressible beauty of that rich and severe, wretched and exuberant land", to stress the theme of Indigenismo: what is specifically Mexican Indian, not what is simply indigenous. The colonial element was ignored, and, when mentioned, it was dismissed as humiliating - a shameful reminder of subjection to an alien power. However, Mexican art constantly reminds us, even in spite of itself, of the power and relevance of the colonial hep1age, of the transmutation of European ideas and forms in response to a new and challenging environment. India was colonised by Europeans, but never had its culture penetrated by them to this extent, and this is why European style painting has tended to remain flaccid and superficial on the Indian sub-continent.

When one tries to relate Marquez’s work to the heritage I have briefly sketched above, one quickly notices several things about it. He belongs in the great tradition of the Mexican colourists, but there is little or no reference to the pre-Colombian heritage. Instead, there is a kind of classicism, both in his compositions and in the way the figures themselves are drawn, which is unfamiliar in Mexican art. One obvious influence has nothing to do with Mexico at all- it is that of Balthus. Yet there is an element in Mexican culture which has attracted little attention except from students of architecture, and that is the period when the long established colonial baroque was challenged and replaced by neo-classicism. Márquez comes from Guadalajara, and it is in this city that the greatest of Mexican neo-classical buildings is located - the Hospicio Cabanas, designed by Manuel Tolsa. The Hospicio Cabanas is an astonishing construction - severe, beautifully proportioned, stripped of all ornament. In constructing his paintings, Márquez has opted for a similar severity and dryness - a dryness which also manifests itself in much Latin American poetry, which is, of course, still written in Spanish, the language which the conquistadors brought with them from Europe. Two writers who come to mind in this connection are Nicanor Parra: and, most of all, Mexico's most respected living writer, Octavio Paz.

I have referred to Marquez’s compositions as "dry", and this may, perhaps, seem a negative thing to say about his work, or that of any painter. It is what he does with this quality which is so interesting. Nearly all his recent paintings are about masquerades, or else about rituals of various kinds. I suspect that it is here that the raw pre-Colombian element slips in through the back door. Wearing masks and performing rituals (often within the framework of a pre-Easter carnival) is still an important part of Mexican popular, as anyone who has witnessed the Shrove Tuesday carnival at Heujetzingo can attest. Márquez does not use this material directly - he transposes it back into European terms, referring to the Spanish ceremony of the bullfight: and also to Italian commedia dell 'arte performances. For a modern painter, these are dangerous themes, prone to become merely sentimental and picturesque. The harshness and tension in the way the pictures are composed and drawn gives the events and gestures depicted their full dignity.

Marquez’s use of narrative is particularly interesting. The tendency amongst the Tres Grandes - the leaders of the first generation of muralists - was to allow the narrative element to work itself out in full. What could not be altogether said in one picture could be completed in the next composition in the series. Márquez deliberately leaves his stories incomplete - the spectator is free to conclude them in his or her own fashion. Here, too, a literary reference is appropriate, but to an Argentinian not a Mexican writer. These deliberately truncated histories, teasing and mysterious, remind me of the writing of


The emphasis on writing in this description of Marquez’s work becomes still more appropriate when one turns one's attention from the foreground of his paintings to their backgrounds. In these backgrounds one encounters enigmatic signs - graffiti inscribed on walls, which are also inscribed in the substance of the paint. That is, the sign is both an illusion and a fact. It exists on the surface of a wall which has been imagined, then represented; it also exists on the picture surface, pulls it forward, and reminds us that this is a flat surface which has been treated in a certain way so as to produce an image or a "fiction", as Borges would say.

This brings me to the final thing I want to draw attention to in Marquez’s work. In addition to being mysterious and elusive stories, his paintings are also objects of the most present and solid kind. Paint is loaded with other things, such as marble dust, so that is almost loses its identity as paint, and becomes something mineral - a precious substance. The physical solidi- ty of the paintings adds immeasurably to the conviction they convey, just as we tend to trust inscriptions carved in stone rather more than we do casual messages scribbled on scraps of paper. In a time which often mistakes the slapdash for the spontaneous, this is an extremely deliberate, considered kind of art. I find it surprising that an artist who is so young in years should have the confidence to make it. That is, till I look again - and yet again - at the result.


Edward Lucie-Smith, 1989

Published in the catalog "Roberto Marquez: Metaphoric Paintings"  1989 Riva Yares Gallery

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