Could you tell me about some of the models at the open-air school and your relations to them and if they had any influence on your thinking about art at the time?
Well, we are going back to around 1920, is that it?
Well, the open-air school, of course, existed, was nearly a survival of the Impressionist times of the Academy of Art, and Ramos Martínez had worked out that idea of having the models pose in what they call natural surroundings, very different from the Academy, of course, which had everything with a stand and a model posing. So he had the people in Mexican, more or less regular peasant clothes or Sunday clothes, perhaps, with a little more embroidery and so on than everyday things, posing, the men with their serapes and sombreros and the women in their village clothes, and they posed usually with a sort of semi-esthetic arrangement. The women could perhaps hold a pot on their shoulders and so on. I had rather little relations with most of them. The one I knew best was Luz, Luciana Perez. And she had been already the model, a special model we could say, of Fernando Leal, and she certainly was my favorite model. I did a lot of drawings from her, and then soon after I went to the village that she was born in, that is Milpalta or Milpa Alta, and met her mother, sisters, family, and so on. And for me that was a big experience of getting close to the Indians of the plateau of Mexico, that is, of Aztec stock. She did speak very good Náhuatl, and later on she became one of the informants, as they were called, of the Museum of Ethnology. And there is a whole book here of taking down her memories of her youth and so on and of the Revolution in the village of Milpa Alta.1 So I saw a great deal of her. I became the godfather of her girl child, Concha, who was born out—not… well, out of wedlock in a way. But we baptized her on the way from Milpa Alta to I don’t know where, and being godfather to the child, I became part of the family, and the relation has subsisted to today. When we were back in the forties in Mexico, Luz herself came to do what she could for us, cook for us, and find some maids to work in the house, and so on. It was just the proper thing to do, given that I was part of the family, part of the clan. And then later on when we went there in the sixties, Luz by then had died, but Concha followed up the tradition and did what she could for us. So, it’s simply, I would say, as far as is possible with the differences of race, perhaps, to an extent, and background, being part of the family. That was a tremendous thing for me. It gave me an inkling, an inside view, of Indian Mexico that I would certainly never have had with even all the studies I could make of archeology, ethnology, or language, which I did at the Museum of Ethnology.
What did that show you? What did that teach you about… (inaudible)
It’s not any question of teaching. It’s just a question of seeing things from the inside, and I suppose being able in my paintings to give somewhat of that inside view rather than an outside view of Indian life and Indian thought.
Which paintings or themes, especially, show that inside view? For instance, The Marriage Mat that’s in The Picture Book, would that be one of them? That strikes me as a very intimate scene that you might not know about if you weren’t in the family.
Well, I hope everything, that is, it’s just sort of atmosphere that pervades or should pervade the different things I do about Indians. For example, perhaps for me the most striking thing in retrospect perhaps are the series of nudes I did which are not tainted, I would say, by the idea of a classical Greek or Roman nude, and as such I think go rather deep into the point of view of the Indian. The whole point of the pictures was to put things in form and color that have not or cannot be put into words.
How about that series of nude drawings?
Well, how about the series of nude drawings?
Tell me, when did you do that?
Well, those were done early. Most of them were done in ’23, I think. But in ’22, I was extremely busy with the fresco in the Preparatoria. In ’23, I finished the fresco early in the year, or unveiled it early in the year, and then I had a sort of a leisure until ’24, when I did a few frescoes in the Ministry of Education.2 That is when I did quite a number of drawings from life from Luz, kind of mixing up both the sighting, you could say, of the Indian nude and the things I knew about Aztec Indians.
Explain that for me a little bit more. See, I am very interested in that series because in a way it’s perfectly naturalistic, realistic, and yet it’s completely Indian, and it’s very hard to put one’s finger, if you want, on what makes that series tick that way.
Well, Johnny, when I say that things are done in paint because they don’t come as well in words, I mean exactly what I say, so it’s a question of looking at the things. I can reason, I can analyze to an extent, and I just told you that the analysis which shows to me I’ve been successful is that it would be hard to find classical hangovers, so to speak, of, shall we say, classical Greek statues in my views of Indian nudes. So I know that it’s not entirely a negative thing, and if it doesn’t have the elements that you learn in school, let’s say, at the Beaux-Arts, it must have other positive elements that, if I may say, were rather hard to root out of the daily life of my models.
What was it in Luz that attracted you so much? In other words, why was she the one that made sort of a visual click in your mind rather than some of the other models?
Well, it’s not a question, again, that can be explained logically, but she was a person of importance in her Indian world, certainly, and this seeped out, I would say, to the other circles in Mexico, and she was considered like quite an important person. I think that when she died there was, by Anita Brenner, a sort of summary of her life in Mexico This Week that suggests that she had put over that quality as a person that she had that was outstanding.3 There is also the book that I have here by Horcasitas translating to Spanish the memoirs of Luz in Náhuatl. She had certain things that were obviously important things, one of them the mastery of the Náhuatl language, so that she was considered by the ethnologists and archeologists as an important, we could say, “living link” with the Indian past. And as a person she was a grand person. That’s the only thing one can say.
Were you the first to, if you want, to discover her at the school? She was working there, but were you the first to see she had a certain extra quality?
No, I think it was a well-known thing. Actually, when she was quite young, she had quite a crush on Fernando Leal, so that Fernando Leal was the first one to, I would say, know her as a person. And there are many things, if you wanted to write, let’s say, a biography of Luz that you could find already in print when she was a young girl, and even more so, of course, by following the different impressions she made on the painters that were painting her. There is a whole image there that she projected. Now many of the other girls could put their village clothes on and pose with a pot on their shoulders, but they didn’t do it, so to speak, to the manner born. And Luz had one thing that was important: she could do it both naturally, as the Indian girl that she was, and know enough so that she could imagine from the outside, so to speak, what the painters or the writers saw in her, and she helped both see things because of that sort of double outlook she could have on herself and her tradition. I think that not only in art but, as I said, in ethnology, she has been a very important link between past Mexico and present Mexico.
How about some of the other nudes you did, like the large, fleshy nude on the horizon. That wasn’t Luz, was it? Or at least I don’t recognize her there. Were there other models who were important to you at the time?
Well, we are not speaking in terms of persons exactly when we speak in terms of models. I made many drawings from many people and so on. I think perhaps after Luz as a model, the most important thing was what I would see—people in the street. I made many drawings of people in the street. Not directly from the people, but as soon as I saw something of interest, I would put it down, and many of my pictures are based on those glimpses of street scenes, again of having the Indian that was not watched, that worked with his own motions and ways.
When did you meet the little clay figure that you have here and that was such an influence on your art? And could you tell me how you did it and tell me something about the impression it made on you?
You mean the little Tortillera? Well, I was, I think with Siqueiros, and we were running around in places like San Pedro Tlaquepaque. I think San Pedro Tlaquepaque is the place where that figure comes. And there are families of potters that for generations have done not only pots but what would be called statuettes. Most of those that they sell are heavily polychromed. That is, that is the style of the small Indian statues like those that my grandfather had that date from the 1860s or before. Some are polychromes, some have actual clothing on them. But in this case, we had been visiting with one of the Indian potters, and we were in his, well, we could say house; it was an Indian house that could maybe have been called a hut by tourists, and on top of a sort of a chest of drawers that was there, there was that little statue, and the first thing that attracted me to it was that it had not been painted. Of course, it hadn’t been clothed in real clothing. It was really a terra-cotta statuette, and I had already done portraits of Luz and so on with gestures of making tortillas, and I recognized, of course, the gestures I had seen in Luz in the little statuette. And I just said to the man, rather casually, because in Mexico you have to be casual about things, I said that I thought it was a lovely thing. And Indians are very polite people, and he went and took it and gave it to me. And I felt rather bad because I realized that it was a family portrait, probably the portrait of his own wife or of his own mother, but of course, I couldn’t very well refuse. So just between what I considered the beauty of the sculpture and the anecdote full of a combination of my own lack of discretion, I would say, and that terrific Indian politeness, I have treasured, it’s quite true, that little thing through life, and I like to use it now as I would nearly a live model.4
Was it the bulk of the statue? I was wondering if there were any stylistic—I mean it’s obviously something that really made things click in your mind, and I was just wondering if you’d ever gone through an analysis of what it was.
Well, I think it was a sort of a security for me that those series of drawings and woodcuts of the nude had been on the right line, because that little statue is, of course, a sort of a praise of the feminine body, but in terms that certainly are untouched by Greek and Roman classical beauty. Between the bulk, for example, of the body and the limbs that are represented not for the muscle formation but for the rhythm of the work, and the relation of the small head on the large body, all those things are for me a sort of a pleasant reminder that what I had found on my own was something that also existed in the head of the Indian artist, of the Indian potter.
You said that it took a struggle and a bit of time for you to get rid of your classical ideals, if you want, and sort of look fresh at the Indian body and work out an Indian esthetic, which then coincided with the actual one that was in the Indian’s head. When do you think you achieved it? Do you think you achieved it before that series of nudes of Luz?
Well, I haven’t achieved it yet. That is, it’s sort of a monumental idea. And given that it is not in anatomical terms, that idea of Indian esthetic doesn’t remain inside or skin-deep with the form of a body but pervades, or should pervade, everything around. And it is such a sort of nearly encyclopedic affair that I have been working for it, well, pretty much a lifetime, and I still feel that I could work for it another lifetime and not get to the end of it. It’s not a question of saying, “Eureka!” It’s just a question of following and finding in things—say the shape of trees or the ears of a mule or any such thing—the same esthetic qualities which I felt are part of the Indian world.
But you, so you would see it sort of gradually coming from the time you arrived in Mexico to today? You wouldn’t want to mark off any places where you think you made significant steps?
Well, frankly, I don’t think so. No, I may have, in the early days, been somewhat at a sort of unease in discovering things. I think you can see that in some of my early Indian lithographs, perhaps, or even early Indian frescoes, and then later on I had been more at ease with those same things, simply by having lived with them longer. And of course, the ideal would be to feel so much at ease that I couldn’t analyze anymore what is me and what is what you could call the Indian heritage.
I want to talk about these things sort of step by step later when we work into your later things. But I think we’ve discussed pretty well now the period before you met, if you want, before the advent of Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco. Is there anything else that you remember of that period, before they came on the scene, that would be important for us?
Well, I mean the Prehispanic things are the obvious thing. I told you that one of my uncles, Aristide Martel, was one of the greatest collectors in Mexico of Prehispanic things. I told you that my uncle [sic: grandfather] Louis Goupil had been the brother of the greatest collector in France of Prehispanic things. So of course, Rivera and so on, Orozco, whatever you want to say, were people who were impressed, of course, by tradition, by Prehispanic tradition, but in a way they were more new to it than I was. It sounds a little wrong because they were Mexicans and I wasn’t, but I had been under very unusual conditions while I was growing up surrounded by most important Prehispanic items, manuscripts and so on, that nobody else perhaps could be familiar with. So, the Prehispanic is probably the first thing and a very important thing that gave me strength, if you want, to look into the modern Indian world. And I was, as I said, more accustomed, more familiar with Prehispanic forms than, I think I can say, all of my colleagues.
Let’s now talk about Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco, but one at a time. What I’d like, really, would be the circumstances surrounding your first meeting. You know, let’s just take each one at a time. I think you met Rivera first, didn’t you? Could you tell me something about the circumstances of that meeting?
Well, things don’t happen as events. I think the first Mexican that could be called “of the group” that I met was Carlos Orozco.5 In my first trip to Mexico, which was in ’20, he was on the same ship that I was on, coming back from Spain, I think, and we met and talked; he was a very nice guy. He amused the passengers by doing caricatures of them one evening, for example, when everybody was trying to do something to amuse the others. And we talked, and I think he is the one who spoke of Rivera first. Rivera was his brother-in-law or was going to be his brother-in-law. Anyhow, he mentioned Rivera, and I had a very faint knowledge of Rivera, I think, as connected with Cubism and with Ángel Zárraga,6 the one of the Mexicans I had been close to, not personally but to his work in Paris, for example, going to a show of his Cubist pictures. It was Ángel Zárraga. So that Rivera was somehow a part of that group of Cubists, but I didn’t know him personally. And when I was in Mexico, of course, there was—Rivera wasn’t there on my first trip, and I think came after my arrival on the second one. But Asúnsolo the sculptor, who had married a French girl, spoke French—when they came to me, said, “Why don’t you go and see Rivera? He just is a little uneasy with his Spanish, coming back from Europe where he has been so long, and he would like to speak French.” So I went and saw Rivera, who was busy with working out the mural in the Preparatoria, and we hit it very well because of course, we knew the same, we could say, studio talk of Paris, and we had so many names of people in common, that is, the name meant something for him and for me and didn’t mean anything for the others. So we enjoyed talking together, in French, of course. And then a little later on, there was that arrangement by which I would go and help him on the Preparatoria wall that he was doing at the time in encaustic. So there was no bump or anything that would be an event; it was just a rather nice thing to know there was a fellow in Mexico who talked French and knew the same things I knew.
Now this—what you said now—conflicts, if you want, with Leal’s statements in his paper he wrote for you. He describes it as a rather big event. That you and he went to Rivera’s studio together, and you saw the big monumental work he was preparing and that got you both interested in monumental work. And then you both went back to your studio, and he started the Zapata thing, and you started the big religious thing as sort of, if you want, inspired by Rivera.
Well, you can take which version you want. I would guess, myself, that Leal translates his own feelings when he speaks of that thing as an event, and I translate my own feelings when I say that it was a non-event. Of course, I had worked out on murals already so much. I had done in Paris, we have it here, the very large architectural blueprint, you could say, for that church, and it wasn’t my fault that I hadn’t put it on the wall. So it certainly was not a conversion, shall we say, to muralism, to go and see what Rivera was doing. I may have been a little desirous to get on the wall myself, on my own, and that happened very soon after.
But how about the chronology here? He says you started the big religious picture, it’s kind of a mural substitute or ersatz mural, after you saw the Rivera things. Is that the right chronology? And he also said he started his Zapatas after.
Well, I don’t know about the chronology. The St. Thomas and so on that you speak of is the last tie, really, with the Gilde Notre-Dame. I had done a much, of course, more important thing, much bigger thing in that blueprint for the mural for the church that I wanted to decorate, and having no wall in Mexico, I took a large canvas as a sort of a next-best thing. But my tie with Paris, of course, was very obvious in that large mural—which is something that probably Leal could not know because we didn’t speak very much of the things I had been doing in Paris. It ties with the Way of the Cross in woodcuts, which is also in a way a very monumental thing that could have been easily translated in murals. So, well, I would like to tie up with Leal’s recollections, but I cannot speak, certainly, of a conversion to muralism.
Had you ever discussed murals or thought of murals in Mexico before Rivera arrived?
No, I don’t think so. You need walls for murals, and it’s only when Vasconcelos decided to put the walls at the disposition of the people that murals for a group, anyhow, became possible. All I can say is that I had trained myself already to be ready, shall we say, if the possibility of making murals would come, and it’s very nice that it did come.
How long a period passed before this visit to Rivera’s studio and the call to start work on murals, and what were you doing during this period?
Well, I don’t—I think it was very little time. I think myself that Rivera, who had enjoyed, as I had enjoyed, our meeting, thought it would be nice to have me around, regardless of art, and was instrumental in having me go as his helper. There are other stories. Leal says that he’s the one who started, I think, farming walls to the other people. Probably it’s a complex thing in which quite a number of people were involved. Anyhow, I think very soon after, I found myself helping Rivera in the amphitheater of the Preparatoria, and the things I was doing in between were a few pictures that are still at hand and the destroyed ersatz mural, if you want to call it that, of St. Thomas, and quite a number of drawings from models and so on. So that there was no time, really, to do any work, shall we say, between meeting Rivera and helping Rivera. Then soon after, quite soon after also, maybe four months or less, a wall was given to me to work on, and then I started dividing my time between helping Rivera and making the preparatory work for my own mural.
Let’s stay a little bit in the time where we are. Now, I think it’s important to know why you were dissatisfied with your big Art at the Service of Theology. I mean, you told me last time that it’s because you didn’t like it that you destroyed it. But why, what was it in that that dissatisfied you?
Well, as I say, it was the last, nearly hangover, from, well, shall we say, my adolescence and the Gilde Notre-Dame, and between beginning that large thing and finishing it, I was doing those rather ugly big heads that are still around, like The Man with the Cigarette and The Girl with an Orange, and I got more of a kick, shall we say, about those ugly heads than what I had started. Let’s say, it’s a little crude, but let’s say that the St. Thomas and so on, that big thing, was close enough to the Nabis and to Maurice Denis, not that it looked like it, but still it was along those same lines that we could call Parisian lines, and then in those ugly, big heads, I found something else, something that did not depend on France but on Mexico, and I lost interest, if you want, before finishing it really, into that big picture.
So there really was a very big esthetic changeover that you had during that period?
Well, just sort of putting my esthetic house in order. I had in me in France, already, two things that really didn’t work very well together.. One of them was, let’s call it again the Nabi-Catholic strain and the other one was the Cubist strain. We have some very early Cubist pictures of mine. They had remained dormant, I would say, while I was trying to do those Catholic things. There is a certain, of course, compositional order in the Way of the Cross, to take it, the one in woodcuts, to take it as an example, but I would say Cubism is very low there. It’s just not much of it; it’s just a minimum to make a composition, and the rest—the elongated figures and the spirituality or spiritualism, if you want, are still what I call Gilde Notre-Dame. But I had made much stronger things in small gouaches and so on in the Cubist manner, and so in Mexico, the Nabi–Gilde Notre-Dame strain faded out because the climate, if you want, was improper for it, and the early Cubist strain came back with a revenge, so to speak, in those big Indian heads. Of course, Prehispanic and Cubism go together very well, and what there is of Prehispanic in Indian modes urged me, so to speak, to use my Cubist means.
It’s interesting. I notice in your work a sort of a tension or, if you want, a pendulum swing between stylization and subject matter, if you want. This, of course, is normal, but you seem, if you want, to sort of stretch out sometimes as far as stylistic experimentation will take you, and then you seem to come back to a much more representational style. Of course, your representational style is never realism in that sense, but you seem to, if you want, sort of stretch out towards a very strong stylization and then move back for a long time. Is this true? You know, I’m not going to ask you why you do it, but would you say that this is a good description of at least one thing you do?
I think that’s rather exact. It’s a sort of pulsating affair. That is, if you could make a… simply a diagram of things between style and nature, there would probably be one of those exact lines that would be fairly equal all through my life; it’s quite true. And I think at the bottom of it, it comes from an uneasy feeling I have that nature in itself is a sort of a great instructress of art. That is that if you look again at nature, you will get strength in questions of style and of art.
You don’t want to go on a little bit? Can’t I ask you one more question?
I don’t have a sense of social responsibility towards a public, at least in the way you put it. That is, in that sense I am not democratic. I wouldn’t go to the public and ask them what they think of that thing and if it is correct for them or incorrect. I have that sense of responsibility in my desire to make things fit—a building or an occasion. That sense of fitness is something that is very strong in me, and I have a certain humility in relation to making the thing for the occasion, the thing that would fit. It’s rather interesting that one of the things that bothers me in the work of Orozco is the contrary quality, that is, his desire to do something that is unfit. I was looking in Pomona,7 for example—I had the occasion of having a lunch or dinner in the dining room—and that monstrous gentleman flaunting his genitals at the diners was something absolutely unfit. And for Orozco, I am sure that was his idea of good art or great art—was unfitness. For me it’s the other way around. It has to be fitness. There that means a lower voice than Orozco would use, certainly. It means an ultimate responsibility for the place in which the thing is put and the reason for the thing to exist at all. But I’m sorry to say, not in that democratic sense of asking the people what they think of it. In fact, I’ve never in my whole life, I think, asked anybody what they thought of what I was doing. I went, myself, through some mental conniption to answer the question of fitness, but when that is decided, I forget to ask the people if I’m right or wrong. I take it, in fact, as a fact that I must be right, having thought of it so much. So it’s not quite that question of, let’s say, doing, if I paint a bank, things so that the people who come to deposit their money will enjoy it and so on. It’s another point of view, maybe, on a slightly higher level.
May I rephrase the question, that same question, because I don’t know if I made myself that clear, but it seems to me that the obvious experimental art is when everybody can look at a work and say that it’s clear that he’s really pushing towards a style, and it comes in your smaller easel works and your drawings, that is, when you do a large public thing, of course, you know, there’s a great deal of experiment there and all sorts of expressive distortion, and it can be analyzed, and all sorts of non-representational elements, but that you don’t seem to, you seem to, if you want, naturally, perhaps thinking really more of fitness, you seem to move towards a less obviously experimental style when you do public things, or wouldn’t you say that’s true?
Well, I think fitness is the easy answer, but the more difficult answer is the one that I gave you too that, in general, I think that nature remains the great instructor of the artist, and if we do without nature, the chance is that we’re going to fall on our nose. That is what happened to some of the greatest names in modern American painting. So, it’s always a sort of a security to hug a little closer nature and natural sights, rather than get away from them. There is a little vertigo when you leave natural sights, and well, I don’t specially want to fall on my nose, that’s all.
Is there another thing, which is the dignity of the subject? That is, I have, I feel, you know, you feel something that you said Toulouse-Lautrec feels, that is, a personal feeling for the person you are painting, and that you don’t want, if you want, to sacrifice them as persons, you know, who have their own image, if you want, to the needs of art. Or would you say that’s a factor?
Yeah, that’s a factor, but it’s not a different factor from what I was saying. That is, you can make the portrait of a person or of a dog or of a tree. Each one is a mystery in the very real sense of the word. I don’t think you have to go into theology for that, but simply the complexity of each one as a construction, and of course when it gets into motion, reasons, and so on, each one is a universe, and I don’t want to summarize that particular universe into a few lines for the glorification of the artist. It seems to me I would lose so much, again, if I didn’t hug very closely the natural, call it, phenomena.
Fernando Horcasitas, De Porfirio Díaz a Zapata; Memoria Náhuatl de Milpa Alta (1968). An English translation appeared as Life and Death in Milpa Alta: A Náhuatl Chronicle of Díaz and Zapata (1972).
These fresco murals, each 16 × 8 ft. were (in the order painted, from right to left): Cargadores, Danza de los Listones (destroyed 1924), and Lavanderas, 1923, Second Court, Secretariat of Education, Mexico, D.F.
The memorial to Luz appeared in Mexico/This Month, and was accompanied by a Charlot drawing of Luz as a young mother with Concha on her lap. Details can be found in Frances E. Kartunnen, Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors (1994).
The statuette is now in the Jean Charlot Collection.
Mexican Expressionist Carlos Orozco Romero (1898-1984) began his career as a newspaper illustrator, painted murals in the 1920s, then turned to paintings that included surrealistic landscapes.
Ángel Zárraga (1886–1946).
José Clemente Orozco, Prometheus, fresco, 1930, 20 × 28 ft., Frary Dining Hall, Pomona College, Claremont, California.