As Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska once said: “María Izquierdo represented Mexicanness better than Frida Kahlo, not in her folklore but in her essence.”
We’re constantly said that we shouldn’t trust historians because they have the power of shaping the collective memory and imagination of a country. For instance, due to political reasons, in official history things that never happened can sometimes become more relevant than forgotten true events.
Even though as children we’re taught history consists of provable facts, with time we discover that most of the events are inconsistencies or half truths. The sad thing here is that not only historical events are forgotten by many, but also important people. We saw it with the resurgent interest in Nikola Tesla, and how at his time he wasn’t really acknowledged for his contributions.
In the history of Mexican art, there’s a name that only a few know, but came to be more important than some of the most recognized painters nowadays: María Izquierdo. Not only was she “blocked” by some of her contemporary painters, but she also died in poverty and forgotten by history.
In 1943, she married Raúl Uribe, a South-American painter who sold his work mainly to diplomats around the world. After suffering a hemiplegic attack in 1945, Izquierdo became paralyzed from the right side of her body. By that time, her husband stole the money she had earned with her work and abandoned her. Despite this, she never stopped painting until her death in 1955.
She was one of the most important female Mexican artists of the twentieth century. Born in San Juan de los Lagos, Jalisco, she entered the Academy of San Carlos in 1928 where Germán Gedovius and Manuel Toussaint taught her some of the traditional aspects of painting. However, soon she abandoned the institution because she wanted to portray more authentic scenes.
She was highly influenced by Rufino Tamayo, with whom she lived for some years, and just like he did, she was interested in using European avant-garde art and combining it with some elements of Mexican culture. They shared a love for art, had fresh ideas that would change the chauvinistic mindset of Mexican art, and also complemented each other in a very symbolic way. Nonetheless, it all changed when Olga Flores appeared in their lives. The piano player fell in love with Tamayo and managed to separate him from María; also, Flores was so jealous that she even forbid him to mention her name or see her friends.
María had a unique style that led her to exhibit her paintings at the Modern Art Gallery in Mexico City in 1929, and a year later at the New York Art Center. She was the first female Mexican artist to exhibit in the United States but not only that, she also displayed her work in Japan, France, India, and Chile.
During the 1930s, Izquierdo had already developed a vision of her own through the many places she visited with Tamayo. All those new perspectives she discovered while traveling abroad were depicted in her paintings, mixed with traditional settings of her country. The result was a variety of highly surrealistic paintings that captured her own ideas and the natural spontaneity and poetics of Mexican culture.
Some of the recurrent themes in Izquierdo’s art were ballerinas, circus, horses, cows, dogs, women, children, and Mexican traditions, which she presented with her own style, making them look as if they belonged to a melancholy universe.
As many representative women of the time, María Izquierdo was a victim of misogyny, which she tried to defeat. In 1937, while she was a member of Bellas Artes’ plastic arts committee, she organized an art auction where she exhibited a poster that read “Proletarian fellow: destroy your class enemies!”
Moreover, she was against the objectification of women and stated they should be considered as important allies in the class conflict. This had to do with the strong communist influence in the artistic environment of that time.
In 1939, she openly criticized a group of feminist women and pseudo intellectuals. She assured that they had nothing to do with the authentic woman, since, in her words, superiority doesn’t exist. This could be perceived as a direct criticism to Frida Kahlo and other similar artists that, according to Izquierdo’s ideas, instead of helping the empowerment of women, obstructed their emancipation.
In Muralismo, cuestión de hombres, Ana Torres Arroyo states that the first obstacle a female artist has to overcome is the old belief that says women belong to their homes. When they finally manage to convince society that they are capable of creating, they face a big wall of misunderstanding created out of jealousy and a superiority complex from their colleagues. Afterwards, they have to face the ever-present improvised critics that judge women’s art with comments like “It’s not bad for a female painter.”
Curiously, María also perceived that female painters were destined to a double discrimination: first, by men painters who saw women as an annoying competition, and then by conservative women who criticized them for living within a male, Bohemian world.
Her toughest battle against misogyny, and probably the cause of why she’s not well known, happened in 1945 when she was hired to paint a mural on the government’s building at Mexico City. The theme had to be “the story and development of the city.” Everything was prepared for her to begin her work when she was suddenly told that the project was canceled.
At the beginning, they said that the cancellation was due to technical reasons, and they even offered her other spaces for her mural. But then it was revealed that after consulting Raquel Tibol, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the artists believed it was an excessive project for an inexperienced artist. In that moment, Izquierdo stated to the press that there was a monopoly in Mexican art and assured the murals were only assigned to painters belonging to that group.
Izquierdo never wanted to be part of this “intellectual” world because she found it completely distant to all the ideas a creative individual should have. It’s likely that the main reasons why she was never supported were the social criticism of her work and her decision to alienate herself from the “great artists” of the time –unlike Frida Kahlo–, who despite not having the same level of criticism or technique as Izquierdo, are known as some of the best Mexican painters of all times.
Despite being rejected for her ideas, her passion always pushed her to continue painting even with her medical condition. Even when people stopped buying her paintings, she kept working until the day she died.
She was forgotten for a long time until the 1970s, when her art was rediscovered, and now her work is exhibited all over the world. It is a pity very few people in her country know who she is.
Like Tesla, Izquierdo was forgotten because of the influence of her competitors. However, her ideas are still relevant nowadays and her art seems to gain more importance with the passing of time. Her talent is incomparable and her achievements place her as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. Her works were overpowered by her ways of thinking and her criticism towards the “intellectual” circles. It is time we brought her into the limelight.
“Muralismo, cuestión de hombres” by Ana Torres Arroyo.
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards