Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) was a Mexican painter, a contemporary of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Unlike the political/socialist muralists, Tamayo’s work was determinedly apolitical and was influenced by his independent studies of the modern artists of the day, his subsequent trips to New York and Paris, and his exposure to the art of the Impressionists, the Fauvists, the Cubists, the Surrealists and the Abstract Expressionists. In each case, the influence of these movements informed his art, but did not overtake or subvert it. His Mexican heritage and his lifelong, avid fascination with pre-Colombian art shows in his use of color, his subjects and the texture and the plasticity of his use of paint. He combined modern European painting styles with Mexican folk themes. By a continuous process of assimiliation and change, Tamayo turned his painting into his own visual, metaphorical language.
In Tamayo’s first period we find many still lifes, the Music mural, the Homage to Juarez and other compositions that show a certain affinity, inevitable and natural, with the work of other Mexican artists of that time. But soon he was to give up this style forever and embark on a very different adventure. Between 1926 and 1938 he painted a great many oils and gouaches, still lifes and landscapes: arches, cubes and terraces, to place him in the line of Cezanne. — Octavio Paz
By going a little further along this road he was to come to Braque.
Woman with Pineapple, 1941
Another important work from the fertile period when he studied the modern European masters:
Later in his career he became known for his mastery of color. In his own words:
My palette is limited, as limited as possible, for I think that the secret of color consists not in the use of all the colors in existence but, on the contrary, in the proper handling of just a few, from which one may extract all the possibilities of tone.
In an interview with an Argentinean journalist, Tamayo said:
I do not believe in either Mexican or Latin American painting. I can only conceive of painting in its most universal sense. The increasing importance of the mass media has done away with everything that could be localistic… I have always been opposed to pseudo-Mexican art. The most one can say is that there is a kind of common stamp, since all of us do belong to a certain place and to a certain moment in time. But art is universal. If one has authentic roots, there is no need to look for anything: that stamp that identifies us will appear of its own accord.
My main concern, really, is to resolve the picture with its own elements: to define its balance, with that mysterious sort of mathematics which, even when it is applied intuitively, makes it possible to turn a picture upside down without any loss of significance, quite independently of the subject — for the subject doesn’t really matter. But what interests me most of all is man and the way he faces the problems that surround him. Art must belong to its time: it should not be concerned with memories but with what is happening now. And the artist is the antenna. He cannot be passive or content merely to dream. Art is fundamentally a message, a means of communication.
I think Rufino Tamayo is an excellent example of both how to absorb and digest artistic influences and not lose yourself to them, as well as how to comfortably inhabit your heritage, recognizing that it inexorably appears in your mode of expression but that it needn’t be its only defining characteristic.