Rufino Tamayo: poet of space, shapes, and color

This article introduces the famous Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, as well as his work and his philosophy of what it means to be a man.

Rufino Tamayo: poet of space, shapes, and color
Self-portrait of Rufino Tamayo pencil drawing, 1948. Credit: Rufino Tamayo / Heirs / Mexico / 2015 Olga and Rufino Tamayo Foundation
The fundamental thing is that I am a man equal to other men, endowed like them, with the same aspirations and concerns. One more among the men of this world divided by prejudices and nationalisms but united by the common participation in the same culture, the human culture, whatever local and historical forms it may take.

Rufino Tamayo

Rufino del Carmen Arellanes Tamayo was born on Friday afternoon, August 26, 1899, in a small town in Mixteca Alta, in the state of Oaxaca. His mother, Florentina Tamayo, twenty-four years old, was a seamstress, and his father, Manuel Ignacio de Jesús Arellanes Saavedra, twenty-six years old, was a shoemaker. Rufino was the only son of the Arellanes Tamayo couple since a few years later, they separated.

He began to show musical abilities at a young age, and because of his tone of voice, he was a member of the choir at the parish where his maternal grandparents worshiped. At one time, he thought of becoming a musician, but he would discover his true vocation years later.

When Rufino Tamayo was only eight years old, his mother died, and he was left under the care of a maternal aunt; with her, he moved to Mexico City. The beauty of the great metropolis transformed her life and her vision of the world. From that moment on, he loved big cities.

The boy Rufino had his first approach to painting when he began to collect postcards that reproduced works of well-known painters. He intended to copy them in his free time while he helped to attend the fruit stand that his family had in the cellars of La Merced. When he was thirteen or fourteen years old, at the insistence of his relatives, he entered an accounting school. However, his vocation as an artist led him to take drawing classes without their knowledge.

In 1917, he formally began taking courses at the Academia de San Carlos, which he abandoned shortly thereafter, disappointed with the teaching he received. In 1921, during the government of Álvaro Obregón, the Minister of Education, José Vasconcelos, assisted him by recommending that he work in the department of ethnographic drawings at the Museum of Anthropology. This job allows him to study pre-Hispanic art objects, their shapes, contours, colors, and textures systematically, an influence that he will later project in his first easel works.

In 1926, Tamayo organized his first exhibition, when art galleries did not yet exist. That same year, he made his first trip to New York to get to know, experiment, and get in touch with the artistic tendencies of contemporary European art. He studied the work of Paul Cézanne, Georges Braque, Henry Matisse, Juan Gris, Joan Miró, and, especially, the work of Pablo Picasso, who was to have a notable influence on the artist. Tamayo works hard, and exhibits in New York; two years pass between work, visits to museums, and discoveries.

Rufino and Olga Tamayo with Siqueiros, Orozco, Berdecio. Angélica and Luis Arenal, Jesús Bracho and Antonio Pujol.
Rufino and Olga Tamayo with Siqueiros, Orozco, Berdecio. Angélica and Luis Arenal, Jesús Bracho and Antonio Pujol, when Tamayo attended the Congress of American Artists as a delegate of LEAR. Credit: PROA

Rufino Tamayo, a Mexican Painter

He returns to Mexico in 1928 and is appointed professor of painting at the National School of Fine Arts, directed by Diego Rivera. While teaching at this school, he meets Mara Izquierdo, with whom, despite living together for four years, he does not formalize their relationship.

In 1930, Rufino Tamayo travels again to New York and participates in two group exhibitions. A year later, he mounted a solo exhibition in New York, which was of great importance in his life because, thanks to it, he met the owner of one of the most important galleries in New York.

Rufino Tamayo decides to return to Mexico because of the intense work; his health has deteriorated and his monetary resources are few, despite the excellent reviews that his work receives. Upon his return, he is appointed professor of drawing and manual work for elementary schools in the Fine Arts Department. He tirelessly participates in different cultural projects at the same time that he exercises his profession as a painter.

Tamayo: A New Yorker and a Mexican Artist

In 1933, he painted his first mural, El canto y la música (Singing and Music), in the building that occupied the National Conservatory of Music. In this school, he met Olga Flores Rivas, who was studying to become a concert pianist. Olga was twenty-five years old, and the attraction between them was resounding. Three months after they met, they were engaged, and in February 1934, they married. From then on Olga became his close companion and his most enthusiastic promoter. The young couple moved to New York and stayed there for 14 years, even though they spent every summer in Mexico.

In 1950, together with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Tamayo represented Mexico at the 25th Venice Biennial. Of his work in Il Corriere del Popolo of Milan commented:

Of the four Mexican painters who participated in the Venice Biennale, Tamayo is the one who is most in tune with current trends. Tamayo is the most contemporary painter, the least political, and the one who most recalls, in his easel works, the pre-Columbian sculptures of his homeland. A powerful colorist, avid of ranges of blood red and poppy red, Tamayo, without forcing the line and without torrential chromatic impetuosity, manages to express in exact synthesis the hallucinating and imponderable spectacle of Plastic Mexico.
The Tamayo family at the Río Piedras Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, 1957.
The Tamayo family at the Río Piedras Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, 1957. Credit: Rufino Tamayo Museum

His passion for originality

Endowed with exceptional talent, Rufino Tamayo became one of the most prolific and important artists of modern Mexican art. The themes he dealt with are varied and reiterative; in the artistic work of his first stage, he stands out for his wide production of oil paintings and gouaches; still lifes; portraits; female figures; and genre scenes. In this regard, Raquel Tibol wrote:

[...] in his paintings, beings and things, fixed in the spectrum of their dynamic inertia, forget forever their rigidity; his images are made of dance, flight, articulations, tremors, and palpitation; there are no contours, terms, defined planes [...].
[...] the violent and extremely delicate warm colors, the sparkling and subtle monochrome games, and the unsuspected contrasts seen in the indigenous markets throughout the country are transfigured in his palette, acquiring a different but unadulterated plastic dimension [...].

Passionate about music and the cosmos, his work also deals with themes where birds and animals are the main motifs.

Rufino Tamayo Sketching the mural Homage to the Indigenous Race, 1952.
Rufino Tamayo Sketching the mural Homage to the Indigenous Race, 1952. Credit: Rufino Tamayo Museum

Rufino Tamayo, a different kind of muralist

In the same context where Mexican muralism proclaims the exaltation of the social and renovating function of art and culture, Tamayo opened the gap to art full of subjectivity and introspection, originality and universality in all the themes he developed.  In 1938, after his first mural La música y el canto (Music and singing), he painted his second mural Revolución (Revolution) in the old building of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, today the Museum of Cultures.

After the artist settled in New York in 1943, he was commissioned to paint a mural for the Hillyer Art Library at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts: Nature and the artist - the work of art and the spectator.

In 1951, composer Carlos Chávez, director of INBA at the time, commissioned him to paint two murals for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In September 1952, Tamayo finished the first one: Nacimiento de nuestra nacionalidad (Birth of our nationality). The second mural, México hoy (Mexico Today), was completed in 1953. Throughout his life, he painted seventeen murals.

Nature and the artist-the work of art and the viewer, 1943.
Nature and the artist-the work of art and the viewer, 1943. Credit: Rufino Tamayo / Heirs / Mexico / 2019 / Olga and Rufino Tamayo Foundation

The legacy of the artist Rufino Tamayo

For more than sixty years, Rufino Tamayo worked uninterruptedly, exhibiting in several countries and the best galleries in New York and Europe. His vast oeuvre was not limited to easel painting.

In addition to his mural work, he ventured into the graphic arts with various techniques: woodcut, etching, lithography, silkscreen, and biography; and into the field of sculpture with several sculptures: Homage to the Sun (1980), Germ and The Conquest of Space (1983), the latter for the San Francisco International Airport.

All of them are metallic structures of large dimensions, with an abstract conception. Tamayo was an extremely complete artist. His work was recognized and awarded in our country and countries such as the United States, France, England, Italy, Israel, the Dominican Republic, and Tokyo.

The Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art was inaugurated in 1974 in the city of Oaxaca, with a collection of 1,300 pieces of pre-Columbian art donated by the artist.

In 1981, the Rufino Tamayo Museum of International Contemporary Art was inaugurated in Mexico City's Chapultepec Forest. The collection is made up of the donation of more than three hundred works that the painter and his wife gathered throughout his life.

In 1990 he finished El muchacho del violón (The Boy with the Violon), his last work. On April 4, 1991, the Asylum for the Elderly "Los Tamayo" was inaugurated in the city of Oaxaca.

On June 24, 1991, Rufino Tamayo died in Mexico City. His remains rest in the museum he founded in this city. Almost two and a half years later, on January 23, 1994, his wife Olga died in the city of Cuernavaca. Her ashes remain next to those of the master.

For more information, you are welcome to explore Rufino Tamayo's work at the museum of the same name and appreciate his idea of the human being.

Author: Rosa Elena González, Source: Correo del Maestro. No. 39, pages 40-45.