Watermelons, Wild Animals, And The Night: The Paintings Of Rufino Tamayo

Mixing Mexican motifs and avant-garde techniques, artist Rufino Tamayo created a school that made him one of the best modern artists in the world.

When we think about Mexican art, we undeniably picture Frida Kahlo and the whole persona she built through her art. All over the world, she’s considered the best and though I agree she’s quite an alluring and definitely an iconic representative of Mexican art, she’s not the only one nor even the one who best portrayed all the colors and sentiments of this country with tons of history and culture. In my opinion, there’s another artist who encompasses all these traditions and history through a sleek and innovative technique. Considered in his time to be one of the best living painters in the world, this is the unique world of Rufino Tamayo, the artist who portrayed a country through watermelons, wild animals, and enticing night skies.

Niños [Children] (1924)

Mujer en gris [Woman in Gray] (1931)

Born in 1899 in Oaxaca (one of Mexico’s most artistic and traditional cities), Tamayo always dreamed of creating art. Originally, he wanted to pursue a career in music, but after his mother’s death in 1911, he had to move with his aunt to Mexico City, where he fell in love with the architecture and the colors adorning every corner of the immense metropolis. His passion in life had been set before he even realized it. His aunt was a fruit merchant and would always ask him to help her sell her products. With a view to expand her business, she enrolled Tamayo in school to study accounting, but he was so interested in art that he would sneak off to art lessons all the time. In 1917, he finally decided to drop out of accounting to commit to his art studies, proving that he wasn’t only very passionate, but also quite good at it.

Woman with Pineapple (1941)

Niños jugando con fuego [Children Playing with Fire] (1947)

In 1921, he started working at the Department of Ethnographic Drawing at the National Museum of Anthropology, where he was in charge of recreating pre-Columbian pieces for the exhibitions. In addition to the Zapotec art that surrounded his home town of Oaxaca, this job would develop his passion for the ancient art of the many pre-Columbian civilizations throughout Mexico and that would become an essential part of his work. He worked at the museum until 1926, when he had his first solo exhibition in the city. His work automatically caught the eye of critics and gallerists who immediately invited him to display some of his paintings at New York’s Art Center. His career was just starting to rise to heights he would’ve never envisioned.

Cuerpos celestes [Heavenly Bodies] (1946)

Perro aullando [Dog Howling] (1960)

Upon his return from New York, he joined the recently founded magazine Contemporáneos, where artists, writers, and intellectuals shared their works and opinions. This magazine didn’t only become one of the most important in the intellectual circles at the time, but also turned Tamayo into one of the main avant-garde characters in Mexico and many other countries in Latin America. However, internally, things weren’t as great as they sounded. Most of this closed circle strongly believed that the Revolution that had changed the country just a couple of decades before had to be embraced again. But Tamayo thought differently. He believed that the country didn’t need more bloodshed that would worsen the conditions of the people, as it happened to many, but new democratic politics to fit their needs. These differences eventually pushed him to move with his wife Olga to the US, where he was offered a job at New York’s Dalton School of Art.

Retrato de Olga [Olga’s Portrait] (1964)

Moon Dog (1973)

Though he was settled in New York, he would regularly go to Mexico to work on commissioned pieces, mainly murals. Now, this is interesting because, although he’s known for the huge murals he made, his paintings are really what encompasses his artistic vision. We’ve talked about the influence pre-Columbian art and objects had in his work, but that’s just a small aspect of it. He was really interested in interpreting and portraying all the different aspects of Mexican culture. In his art, we can see everything from endemic animals, to fruits, unique landscapes, and normal, everyday people. Now, thought these were the recurring elements and characteristics of his paintings, the style he developed was equally representative. 

Homage to the Indian Race (1952)

Sandías [Watermelons] (1969)

Tamayo started out as most artists do, by following a realistic technique in his early still-life works. Fruits and vegetables from all over the country were often his models accompanied by objects inspired by the roots of Mexican iconography. But as he got more immersed in art, he started embracing the different avant-garde techniques that flourished throughout the century. In that way, he started using elements from currents like cubism, surrealism, and abstract art, though he never fully stuck with any of these. Instead, he created his own particular techniques and style, which would become a school in Mexican art. One of his main signatures is the use of color. This was a time when the trend was combining and using vibrant colors as a sign of modernity, but for him, a wide and varied palette wasn’t enough to convey a straight and powerful message. So, he opted instead for a restricted palette of a couple of colors to strengthen the message and the purpose of the piece.

Galaxia [Galaxy] (1977)

Quetzalcóatl (1978)

His work went around the world and gave him all the recognition an artist could aspire to at the moment. Tamayo was recognized in many countries and taught at art schools as one of the most prominent artists of his time. He had several retrospective exhibitions at the iconic Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, as well as in many of the most important art venues throughout the world. The French Government, for instance, appointed him Chevalier and Officier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1956 and 1969. Nevertheless, despite the fame and the honors, he really lived for his paintings and stories. He was more interested in making his country an influential one in the arts and devoted a lot of his life to teaching of the craft.

Tres amigos [Three Friends] (1987)

Dos Hermanos [Two Brothers] (1987)

In 1964, he and his wife settled back in Mexico for good, and as soon as they arrived, he invested all his efforts in creating a museum with his name in the city of Oaxaca, his hometown. Later on, in 1981, the Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum opened its doors in Chapultepec, one of the most important historical and touristic spots in Mexico City. This particular museum (listed as one of the most important in the country) displayed all the artwork he and his wife had collected throughout the years, and after his death, it all was donated to the Mexican Nation.

Hombre en Ocre [Man in Ochre] (1989)

El muchacho del violín [The Boy of the Violin] (1990)

In 1990, Rufino Tamayo painted his last work, called El muchacho del violín. Unlike what we can see in the work of many artists, age wasn’t an issue for him and his very last painting is proof that he was always a consistent artist with a set aim in his work. He died the following year at the age of 91, leaving an important legacy, not only in terms of art, but also in culture and the appreciation of Mexico’s traditions and history. As he said once, “in a way all my work talks about love. I reached the conclusion that love is the best reason to live… love in a universal sense… love for nature, objects, work itself… I contemplate the land and space, I observe, paint, and feel that great love starts emerging inside me.”


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Cover painting: Animales [Animals] (1941)