Exiled in California, the artist Alfredo Ramos Martínez created a Mexico of the mind.
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Imagining the history of Mexican modernism carved in stone like an Aztec frieze, the legendary visages of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco stand out in high relief. But if, like an archaeologist excavating a temple, you scrape away the dirt and moss, you will uncover the serene mask of another god-hero—Alfredo Ramos Martínez. Nowhere near as famous as “los tres grandes” (the big three), Ramos Martínez deserves more recognition than he currently receives, both in Mexico and in the U.S., for his role in creating a Mexican art for the 20th century. An exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art aims to remedy that situation and give Ramos Martínez an art-historical boost. “Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California,” opening January 19 and running through May 4, highlights the artist’s work created between 1929, when he moved from Mexico to Los Angeles to seek medical care for his daughter, and 1946, the year of his death—making the point that the artist did his most characteristically “Mexican” work while he was outside Mexico.
Born in 1871, Ramos Martínez studied in Europe, where he was influenced by the Spanish painters Joaquín Sorolla and Ignacio Zuloaga. Returning to Mexico, he became a fashionable and successful portraitist. He wore another hat as an arts administrator and teacher, not only as director of the National Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City but also as the founder of the “Open-Air Schools” around the country, in which students were given free art supplies, acquainted with the techniques and tenets of Post-impressionism and encouraged to work directly from nature. During this period, Ramos Martínez worked in a basically European style, remaining artistically conservative while his compatriots engaged in modernist experimentation and explored indigenous Mexican subject matter in the context of radical politics.
When Ramos Martínez arrived in Southern California, he found that Mexican culture was being celebrated there, albeit in a manner that was largely romanticized, nuance-free and based on stereotypical images from the movies. In Hollywood, it was the heyday of sloe-eyed heroines such as Dolores del Rio and Lupe Velez; in downtown L.A., Art Deco and Pre-Columbian motifs mixed on the revamped Olvera Street, which featured an installation meant to evoke “Old Mexico.” The phrase, though slippery, certainly resonated with Ramos Martínez, who missed his homeland even as it reviled him for leaving at a time of national crisis both political and cultural. In California, he needed to make money and was informed that artworks that portrayed traditional Mexican scenes and people—subjects he had eschewed to date—would sell well. Fueled by market demand and his own nostalgia, he began producing a second, totally different body of work, filled with dark-skinned, exotic Indian women selling equally exotic flowers; devotion-saturated images of Christ and the Holy Virgin in traditional Mexican guises; and laborers bearing their burdens through rural landscapes. Stylistically, his paintings, drawings and lithographs from the California period mix indigenous iconography with modernist line-simplification, influenced by the muralists and Art Deco but imbued with Ramos Martínez’s characteristic close observation of nature.
In the spirit of the time, Ramos Martínez created murals in Los Angeles. The Pasadena show includes preparatory drawings for a mural he painted at the Santa Barbara Cemetery Chapel and for one commissioned by Scripps College in Pasadena that the artist left unfinished at his death. Ramos Martínez felt comfortable expressing religious ideas within a modernist framework, in common with his friend the French artist and writer Jean Charlot, who had lived in Mexico in the 1920s. Some works by Charlot are included in the exhibition, along with pieces by Everett Gee Jackson, Donal Hord and Henrietta Shore, California artists who were influenced by Ramos Martínez and shared some of the same subject matter.
Among the most interesting works in the show are drawings and gouaches that Ramos Martínez made on newsprint. While he was never a political artist, in these pieces, which suggest collage, he left the typography clearly visible, thus juxtaposing images of poverty-stricken Mexicans with headlines, stories and ads that speak of affluence and consumerism. One of the most overtly opinionated is El Defensor, in which a typical Mexican worker, his face made up of boldly chiseled planes, holds up a fist against a background of maguey plants (a symbol of Mexico for the artist), all of this against a deeper background of the front page of the L.A. Times. Excavating these layers of meaning and design, viewers will discover an artist who, by transcending his own conservatism in a new environment, helped define Mexico in the minds of Americans.