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"Art is universal, and the artist must have freedom'' - Rufino Tamayo

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

Rufino Tamayo is one of the most famous contemporary artists of Mexico who introduced Mexican art to the world. Different than his famous contemporaries, the muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, Rufino believed that art should not be political. He fought their motto “It is only our way." Rufino wanted “to rescue the indigenous aesthetic and make it live again." And he reached his goal: his paintings, with the unquestionable influence of his indigenous roots, are in the most famous art galleries around the world.

Rufino Tamayo was born August 26, 1899 in Oaxaca in Zapotecan family. When he was very young his father abandoned him and his mother and disappeared from his life. On the other hand, the bond between him and his mother was never broken; Rufino cried after someone mentioned his mother’s name even when he was 90. In his youth, Rufino was very religious and attended church daily. When his mom became ill, he believed that he could save her with God’s help and prayed all the time. But God did not heal his mom from tuberculosis, and from that point on, Rufino despised God and refused to enter the church again. At 10 years old he became an orphan. He moved to Mexico City with his mom’s family and helped them sell fruits at the Merced market. Mexico City has an elevation of 7,349 feet or 2.250 meters, and fruits have to be brought unripe, so working at the market Rufino noticed the change of colors while ripening from green to red, yellow, or orange.

Although Tamayo painted various fruits, watermelon has become a constant in his paintings.

Tamayo's most expensive painting of watermelons "Sandias" (Watermelons), 1969, was sold for USD 7.2 million.

Rufino was accepted to the prestigious St. Carlos Art school where he felt miserable. He did not want to copy reality, but rather, he wanted to invent it. The first praise of his works came from his future enemy, muralist Diego Rivera, who also helped Rufino get a teacher’s job. But no matter how prestigious the art school, Rufino learned the most while working at the National Museum of Mexico Department of Ethnicity. That was the place where Rufino Tamayo started to understand the Indian aesthetics after having to create a catalog of a collection by drawing every Pre-Hispanic object in the museum. Tamayo's Mexican identity enriched with certain elements from pictorial movements, such as Cubism, Expressionism, or Surrealism, was visible throughout his career.

Rufino was not broadly accepted in his home country, so he went with his friend and musician, Carlos Chaves, to New York. They were both so poor that some days, they only had an apple to eat. “My big apple experience," Tamayo remembers jokingly. Despite that, he refused to do anything except paint. Rufino was a good singer, and he was even offered to sing in a Broadway show, however, his response was: “Only if you allow me to do a scenery."

Seeing the influence of folk art, especially African and Indonesian, on the contemporary artists in New York, Tamayo returned to Mexico, more confident in his chosen path. He fell in love with Mexican painter, María Izquierdo, who was the first Mexican woman to have a solo exhibition in the United States. It was a relationship bound by passion and similar interests. It said that Rufino never was happier in his life than when with her. His friend Carlos Chavez, who was the director of the conservatory by that time, introduced him to a piano student, a wealthy woman named Olga, who hated his works. Despite this, Rufino left Maria and married Olga, who also became his lifelong manager. It was a perfect and horrible relationship. Olga took care of everything, and Rufino just painted.

Among more than 1,300 oil paintings there are 20 portraits of his wife Olga, with whom he was married for 57 years.

Rufino returned to New York with Olga where they spent more than a decade. There he painted his most important paintings. Later the couple lived in Paris before they returned to Mexico.

From the mid-twentieth century, Tamayo represented the issues of humanity through metaphors: animals in distress, aggressiveness, and loneliness. The best example is "Trapped Cat".

Rufino Tamayo's works are the communion between man and nature, art and reality. On another hand, there are no clear-cut distinctions between past, present, and future. His artistic world, as in all the ancient cultures, is composed of the living and the dead and without a modern categorical division between men, animals, and plants.

Tamayo is attracted by hot colors. Yellow plays a special role: sometimes it fills a great part of the picture, and sometimes just the gaps. Yellow is considered a dangerous color, and perhaps this is a reason why it attracts Tamayo. Or maybe because it has symbolic values in Mexican culture. Yellow also had a place in Tamayo's home: there were four lemon-yellow sofas in the living room.

"His colors and harmonies, until then considered unsuitable for a proper work of art, come from the popular art and peasant life of Mexico and express communal ways of being and feeling" /Juan Acha/

The "Rock 'N' Roller", 1989, is the painting from the last creative period of Rufino Tamayo.

Next to Tamayo's work - painting of Hugo Velez's "Rock 'N' Roller and his fans" from the exhibition - A tribute to Rufino Tamayo - at his hometown Oaxaca this winter.

Besides many paintings, Tamayo made 465 graphic works, such as lithographs and mixographs, 350 drawings, 20 murals, as well as a stained-glass window. Rufino Tamayo built an art museum in his home town of Oaxaca, the Museo Rufino Tamayo, and the Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum (Museo Tamayo de Arte Contemporáneo) in Mexico City in Chapultepec Park. Tamayo did not have any children and he donated everything to the nation. The Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum holds many of Tamayo’s works as well his and his wife’s art collection from all around the world.

The various artists exhibited their works at the special open-air exhibition in the heart of his hometown Oaxaca on the thirtieth anniversary of Tamayo's death.

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