An Interview with John Charlot, July 27-28, 1971
When Alfredo Zalce (1908-2003) visited Jean Charlot in Hawai`i in 1971, I took the opportunity to interview him. He spoke in English, while I made handwritten notes. I typed them up shortly thereafter, adding a few sentences from memory. I have amplified in this edition the telegraphic style of the notes, but have not added content or reorganized ZalceÕs remarks. The manuscript and typed notes are in the Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawai`i, as is the letter from Emily Edwards cited below.
July 27, 1971
AZ: We met for the first time in 1931. I was studying lithography at San Carlos with Amero for some months.[i] Jean came and saw my things and liked them. He was ready to leave Mexico, in the last days of his stay. He asked me to let him buy the collection and sent me to other artists, like Pablo Higgins.[ii]
We had long conversations, and he gave me lots of advice on printing. On one print, I signed with ink inside the lithograph. He told me to use pencil inside and then outside the image. He told me why: museums donÕt receive ones done the other way. His criticisms about my work were valuable. He liked the different ways I tried to express myself with techniques and textures. The things he approved was great advice, very useful.
I was very young. He had experience and prestige. He was very famous. I knew him only by name. Jean was the first of that group that I met.
JPC: What was his reputation at the time?
AZ: He was the first to make a fresco since Colonial times. The first to do a mural was Rivera in encaustic. JeanÕs is still preserved in good condition. All other frescoes were done later. Also, Jean was one of the best critics of art. He was a very famous writer. I knew his articles in Forma. I read those. So Jean was very important.
The second time we met was in 1944-1945. We met in the street. I saw Jean pass. I came up and recognized him and asked if it was him. I was very young the first time we had met.
I told him I was working in the Taller de Gr‡fica Popular with Higgins, Mˇndez, and others.[iii] We saw each other more frequently. I brought him to see the TGP. He saw all the things, and they offered to do his prints. But then they didnÕt give him his copies. A bad story.
I saw Jean often then. He still gave me good criticisms. When I did my Yucat‡n portfolio, he did the preface.[iv] He did a very good criticism of my work; it was very much in favor of me. I donÕt want to say if it was accurate, because he said such positive things about me. But other people liked it too. Jean understood my work better than I did.
We were a little more than one year together. We saw each other almost every week. I was painting, and he gave me advice.
JPC: Did you give him advice?
AZ (laughs): Oh no. That was the last big time we were together.
In 1968, when Jean came to Mexico, he came to Morˇlia first and stayed at my house. I showed him my murals in Morˇlia. He liked them. He was just a few days there. I made a date to see him in Mexico City, but when I arrived, he was already gone. I saw his exhibition.[v] All the artists liked the graphics and painting. They understood the graphics more, because there is such a tradition in Mexico. The show was very well received.
Going back to 1931, I was four years in the Academy, but I didnÕt learn engraving. In those days, the teacher was very academic. I went one day to see the class, and they were doing lettering. I didnÕt want to do that. I went to work with the Misiones Culturales, in the countryside, teaching rural teachers and farmers. I learned to engrave alone, because they needed posters and illustrations for festivals. But I didnÕt know anything. On my first vacations, I came to Mexico City and asked different friends how to do it. Then I did better technically and with better technical conditions. Then I went to the TGP. I learned lithography and engraving in 1937. The nice part was the connection with the people. Anyone makes good engravings, but we did what the people liked and needed. The workers asked for something and we did it.
In 1931, Jean was like he is now: serene, quiet, Ņequanime.Ó But with a very nice sense of humor, very sharp. He could be philosophical and then say something very sarcastic. But one didnÕt expect it because he was so quiet. He speaks so soft and slow, and suddenly he said terrible things. I liked that. Then he continues to be very serious. The objects of his humor were commands, pretentious people.
JPC: Was he very Mexican?
AZ: In some ways. He was like me. He didnÕt look very Mexican, but there was something in his character. WeÕre both mestizo, mixed. In those days, people used more the racial (Tamayo was a pure Indian, and so on).[vi] But I was completely out because I looked like a Spaniard.
Jean had an accent. But itÕs difficult to say whatÕs Mexican. Pablo Higgins is blond and has the misfortune of having such a non-Mexican name as Higgins. But if you live with him, you see heÕs very Mexican. All his friends are Mexican. I never thought of him as a foreigner. Between artists, nationality doesnÕt mean anything. The important thing is what the people do. Higgins did a lot for Mexico. Many still think of Jean as Mexican, as a pioneer in the Mexican movement.
JPC: What was his relation to the Academy?
AZ: Rivera was the head for one year and brought in people who were against the old Academy: Tamayo, Amero, Mˇrida.[vii] So Jean came to visit his old friends.
JPC: What was his relation to the other artists?
AZ: He was a good friend of all, but on different levels. With Siqueiros, he was very friendly; they were good comrades. Orozco was older. He always said nice things about Jean. Rivera made more trouble for people.[viii] Rivera was probably professionally jealous of Jean. Rivera worked against all. He said bad things about Siqueiros and Orozco. Rivera acted as if Jean was a threat.
Jean didnÕt speak against others. When he had something to say, he did it openly in books. Not Rivera, who made jokes about everybody. Jean made his criticisms in articles. Jean was considered a fair critic, not a member of a party.
JPC: Anita Brenner?
AZ: Jean helped her make her famous book Idols.[ix] Everybody knows that the good parts are from Jean. She never wrote anything like that again. She just did newspaper articles, but nothing serious. Jean did the illustrations. The capacity of Brenner and Jean was known; it is not difficult to see whatÕs whose. Also, the orientation and criticism, which Jean gave, is very important.
JPC: Frances Toor?[x]
AZ: I donÕt know exactly. I have some of his articles that he did for her magazine. I know that they were friends. But I met Frances Toor after Jean left Mexico. I remember many articles, ŅPulquer’asÓ especially.[xi] Many of those works were really masterpieces, and Jean was the first to call attention to them. He did that also for Posada and Manilla.
JeanÕs articles were important. People say now heÕs the one who discovered Posada. After comes Rivera; then all said they knew Posada. Then Orozco. But they didnÕt say it before.
Now young Mexican artists donÕt want to be Mexican. Tamayo played Mexican when he first went to New York. He played the guitar and dressed his wife as a Tehuana. Now he speaks only of internationalism. The young people are the same. The ŅMexican SchoolÓ is completely out now. Now they do junk murals; they just copy the States.
I do murals, but they always want me to do historical subjects. IÕm tired of painting history. I want to do something in sculpture, something new. IÕm tired of painting the same mural.
JPC: CharlotÕs relation to artists in 1945?
AZ: Jean visited and talked with them. If he had stayed more, he would have come out of his eclipse. This is the aspect of relations: to get a mural, you have to stay more time. ItÕs difficult to get them.
When Jean was in Colorado, he asked me to go teach there, but I couldnÕt go. We lost touch. I learned he was in Hawai`i. We regained touch when Mrs. Charlot came to Mexico in 1956.
He did something wonderful for me. In the TGP, I did illustrations for a book, and he sent them with the originals to the Metropolitan Museum. It was very important for me.
It was wonderful to work near him, so alert, so much sensibility. What he says is such intelligent advice, so orientated.
JPC: Did he seem poor in 1931?
AZ: I donÕt know. I only saw him a few times. Even Rivera and Orozco werenÕt rich, though they were very famous. Jean didnÕt look poor. He had a scholarship to go to Yucat‡n, but I donÕt know how much it paid him.
He made an exhibition of very small pictures—everybody else was doing murals—at the Avenida Madero. I was with other students. This was before 1931; maybe 1928. I was very impressed. It was the first time I saw complete work of him. Very impressed. I can still remember about half of the exhibition. He sold a lot. I told a friend how wonderful it must be to paint what you want and sell it—to be able to live from your work.
For me, it was a discovery: the plastic forms, subjects, colors. In those days, there were no galleries, so one could only see the public art of Rivera, Orozco, etc. One couldnÕt even see their easel works. So this was the first exhibition I saw complete. I had seen some works before, but no large, complete selection. In the 1950s, there was a complete exhibition of Rivera. I saw many pictures that IÕd never seen before. So it was very important to see a complete exhibition of one of the great artists. It impressed my friends as much as me.
There were no galleries then. Frances Toor was the first to buy, but only a few, and they she sold them to other people. Also Salamonte Hall [?] bought pictures, but all of them went into private collections.
JPC: Renˇ dÕHarnoncourt?[xii]
AZ: I talked with him many times. He was working for Fred Davis, who had a store and collected. Then dÕHarnoncourt went to New York.
JPC: ēlvarez Bravo?[xiii]
AZ: I know him, a disciple of Weston.
AZ: They are responsible for what happened in Mexico. TheyÕre just newspaper men. All is wonderful for them. No taste, no sense. They drive the public and are responsible for the bad situation today.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there were no galleries. Now there are ninety.
AZ: He said about an Italian exhibition that it showed a return to figurative art. Tamayo thinks itÕs a step backwards. Tamayo doesnÕt approve of JeanÕs art, but he likes him as a person. Tamayo wants everyone to paint as he does.
In 1944, Pablo said Jean looked well. Jean said, ŅNo, my mother just died.Ó[xiv]
July 28, 1971
JPC: CharlotÕs relation to poets?
AZ: I just know Jean made engravings and that they were good friends. Some of the poets were my friends, like Arzubide.[xv] Always they remember Jean; they talked about him.
JPC: CharlotÕs illustrations from Maples ArceÕs book Urbe?[xvi]
AZ: It was the first thing I saw of him. 1928. Of course the mural first. I liked it, both the poetry and the illustrations.
JPC: CharlotÕs exhibition of 1928?
AZ: I was especially impressed by the plastic language. It gave me an artistic impression; for example, the way he used space. He occupied the whole space with one figure. He had little figures lying down, occupying the whole picture. In the corners was sky, a little tree or a town.
JPC: His color?
AZ: We never used to see exhibitions. Murals were different. He had very Mexican colors. The other art we could see was of the Academy, influenced by nineteenth century academic art. Only the subject was Mexican, but the way of painting and feeling was Spanish, European. JeanÕs was the first thing I saw that was really Mexican. Others were too, but I couldnÕt see them.
For example, one artist, Herr‡n, was so influenced by the Spaniard Zuloaga.[xvii] I remember Jean said, if Herr‡n saw one original of Zuloaga, he wouldnÕt be influenced by him, because theyÕre horrible. He said also that Herr‡n had better quality than Zuloaga, but admired Zuloaga because he was foreign.
JPC: Subject matter?
AZ: Subject matter is not so important, but how itÕs treated. Herr‡n is very picturesque; a charro, all superficial things. Like Zuloaga with a bullfighter and a dancer with castanets. But what Jean said was true. Those who liked Herr‡n didnÕt like Jean. Herr‡n would do an Indian girl who was thin and sexy, not fat, strong, and true. It was a different ideal: calendar art.
Mexican subjects done by Herr‡n were the tapat’o dance, a girl with a rebozo and an apple. Tourist stuff. Really very bad. Calendar art. Very superficial. Touristic. You donÕt feel the true. JeanÕs was completely other. For me it was a shock because I was in the Academy when all said Herr‡n was the best artist. When I saw JeanÕs work, the other really disappeared for me and for many of my generation. I and my friends made many commentaries on JeanÕs things.
Jean influenced me more than anybody. When I go to Yucat‡n, I have in mind more than anything else what Jean did in Yucat‡n. I felt lucky to have seen JeanÕs things before I went to Yucat‡n so many years later.
[i] The Academy of San Carlos. Emilio Amero (1901-1976).
[ii] Pablo OÕHiggins (1904-1983). Zalce regularly said ŅHiggins.Ó Emily Edwards to Jean and Zohmah Charlot, November 5, 1974: ŅZohmah, you ask about JeanÕs having discovered Zalce. Jean may have forgotten, but I was there on the roof when he came back from the StudentsÕ Exhibit. at the St. Carlos (I think); and Jean was all enthusiasm for the lithographs of one of the students. He had gotten a selection of them and showed them to us. The boyÕs superior work had stood out on the walls. Then he had Zalce and his collection of lithographs to meet Paca [Frances] Toor so that she could promote him. At least, this is the way I remember.Ó
[iii] Leopoldo Mˇndez (1902-1969).
[iv] Im‡genes de Yucat‡n, por Alfredo Zalce. Mexico City, Talleres de Grafica Popular, January 1946. Jean Charlot: ŅPr—logo: Alfredo Zalce, Estampas de Yucat‡n.Ó
[v] obra pictorica de Jean Charlot, 1968, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City.
[vi] Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991).
[vii] Carlos Mˇrida (1891-1984).
[viii] Josˇ Clemente Orozco (1883-1949). Diego Rivera (1886-1957). David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974).
[ix] Anita Brenner (1905-1974), Idols Behind Altars: The Story of the Mexican Spirit, Beacon Press, Boston, 1970 [reprint 1929]. For a judicious discussion of the collaboration of Brenner and Charlot and of views like ZalceÕs, see Susannah Joel Glusker, anita brenner: A Mind of Her Own, university of texas press, Austin, 1998: e.g., 54, 68 f., 72, 89, 96, 98, 106 f., 213 f.
[x] Frances Toor (1890-1956).
[xi] Jean Charlot: "Pinturas Murales Mexicanas," Forma, Volume l, Number 1, October 1926, p. 10–12.
[xiii] Manuel ēlvarez Bravo (1902-2002).
[xiv] Zalce has confused his dates. Anne Charlot, Jean CharlotÕs mother, died in 1929.
[xv] Germ‡n List Arzubide (1898-1998).
[xvi] Manuel Maples Arce (1898-1981). Urbe: Super-Poema Belchevique en 5 Cantos, Andred Botas e Hijo, Mexico City, 1924.
[xvii] Saturnino Herr‡n (1887-1918). Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945).