In many of his figurative paintings, the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo makes human beings look strange. We have to look at them as if we’ve never seen such creatures before. He portrays human beings—in Spanish, seres humanos—as creatures and as the sum of their anatomical parts. A swath of red paint with four fingers at the end becomes an arm even when it is partially detached from the squared body, which (looked at as a separate detail) can actually appear to be a window.
In “Two Personages,” painted in 1961, the faces are mouthless ovals attached to shapes that might be torsos. We recognize the ovals as faces because of the white circles drawn into them that are obviously meant to suggest eyes. Sticks of red paint suggest arms, and that’s OK with me. These are paint people. They’re always missing some of their parts. And yet . . . I believe in them perhaps because, in some way, I am used to “seeing” some people who are missing some parts. None of us is truly whole.
This sense of play—of one thing morphing into another—or multiple or ambiguous meanings makes me go back to Tamayo again and again. By emphasizing the symbolic nature of anatomical parts and separating them—by making creatures of paint—he gives me a kind of anthropological distance on the human condition. I’m thrown off-center. I feel my own “creatureness” more deeply. I also feel some sense of the spiritual—the sense of a mysterious and great energy surrounding and enveloping these bodies. They become more than they might have been had Tamayo done a literal depiction of the human body.
He paints the purely physical, but pares it down and distorts it so that I might see it more clearly. Tamayo forces me through the canvas to see what is beyond. He makes me look hard for the situation/condition/circumstance that is whole and that is not merely a dismembered sum of parts.
In “Piano Virtuoso,” painted in 1984, the musician at the instrument possesses an oddly shaped skull-like head. It’s so wrong and impossible anatomically that it immediately draws my eye. It might very well belong to some extraterrestrial and not to an earthling sitting at the keyboard. The piano keys are a mere white strip splitting the canvas. They’re like a beam of light thrusting itself into the darkness rather than like anything solid. The blackness of the instrument occupies the whole lower left quarter of the painting.
Obviously, we’re witnessing a musical event. It happens in a room/space without furniture or other occupants. Who hears the tune or is an audience for the sonata? Relief in the dun-colored background is provided by hints of violet that show through as life from another place. The figure, with its strange head, is awkward and badly proportioned. The torso is ungainly; the arms are too long; the hands are insane with fingers splayed above the bar of light as though they’ve been broken or bent into shapes that might be hands but really might be “something else.”
It’s the “something else” that interests me. There is here some loss of control, some necessary skewing that yields more and more information. The action is made to appear odd. I’m forced to think about what is happening here. This creature—prehistoric in visage and almost reptilian—occupies this space and is engaged in this activity. He is pressing on the bar of light to create music. The result of the action is sound, but we can’t hear any sound.
I’m forced to consider something about the nature of reality. This thought process and need to look deeper and to pursue is what gives me pleasure when I look at my favorite Tamayo paintings. I’m knocked off a certain pedestal. I have to remake my world because he has offered to me this “made” thing, and while the scene is recognizable, still it does not look like anything I’ve ever seen before.
Tamayo’s “Flute Player” (1945) has a sort of pink keyhole at the center of an orange circle of “face.” Does this circle represent a small head? Is that mark an oddly shaped nose? Or a keyhole? The arms—again misshapen and too long—might be those of a monkey. And yet, this “animal” is engaged in a creative pursuit. There is, of course, no sound emanating from the picture and yet, I know that music is sound and not only is it sound but it marks time, as we mark time, as we understand ourselves. We “creatures” like Tamayo’s paint people live and measure time.
Find out more about Tamayo’s work:
Del Conde, Teresa, ed. Tamayo. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1999. [See the following: “Two Personages” (1961), p. 164; “Piano Virtuoso” (1984), pp. 187–188; “Flute Player” (1945), p. 185.]
Some reproductions in Wikispaces
The painting “Children’s Games” from The Metropolitan Museum of Art