It would be a terrible oversight to write an “Arts in Mexico” column without paying special tribute to Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico’s greatest living artists. In the eyes of many, he is Mexico’s greatest, with a range of talents second to none. His name has come to be synonymous with Mexico’s soul or at least the soul of his beloved state, Oaxaca. He’s a vessel in which the heritage of his people has been aged into a fine brew and now pours through him in an astonishing array of work. If you want to “feel” Mexico, immerse yourself in the work of Toledo.
Francisco Toledo was born to Zapotec parents in Juchitan, Oaxaca on July 17, 1940. He comes from the same state and indigenous background as Rufino Tamayo, another great painter. Tamayo recognized the integrity of the younger artist and credited him with creating a new school of expression.
Both Toledo and Tamayo carry a unique energy in their work. It’s an energy I identify with the extraordinary, mystical beauty of their home state. Both men borrowed from European and American movements and techniques, but both remained firmly independent in their vision and application of their medium, even eschewing the powerful, artistic dictates that influenced the country in the years following the Mexican revolution.
Several younger painters from the region have the same fierce independence, and if you have been to Oaxaca and traveled through its mist laden mountains and verdant villages bursting with color, you know it’s the land speaking through these artists. Its powerful landscape combined with an indigenous people still intact and proud of their heritage probably accounts for why there are 300,000 artists and artisans in the state who are able to survive through their work.
In 1950 Toledo began his art studies in the printing studio of Arturo Garcia Bustos and then went on to study at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Oaxaca. He went to Mexico City in 1957 where he enrolled in the Taller Libre de Grabado de la Escuela de Diseno y Artesanias del Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA). There, he studied graphic arts under Guillermo Silva Santamaria.
In 1959 Toledo began working in the Taller Libre de Grabado of the E.D.A. That year, he exhibited his work for the first time at the Antonio Souza Gallery and after traveled to the United States for an exhibition in Fort Worth, Texas.
By the time he was 20 years old (1960), he had taken himself to Europe where he would remain for five years. He traveled throughout Europe and finally settled in Paris. Unlike many of the artists who came to Paris at that time, he didn’t spend his time at the more visible haunts of the international avant-garde. Instead, he set himself up in the workshop of Stanley William Hayter, an eccentric British artist with a vision about re-establishing the arts of etching and engraving to their proper appreciation.
Hayter inspired his students with a great respect for the engraver’s tradition and initiated many technical experiments. He encouraged his students to experiment, which suited Toledo’s sensibilities. Having come from Mexico, he already understood the extraordinary range available in the print arts and extrapolated many of the effects he discovered in etching into his painting.
By the time he returned to Mexico in 1965, he was already recognized as a singular artist. He was celebrated for his “development of the mythic” and “his sacred sense of life”, as Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues was to write in a Paris review in 1964.
Toledo returned from Europe and immediately integrated himself into the artistic community of his native state. He immersed himself in an incredible array of media which included lithography, engraving, sculpture, ceramics and painting. He even designed tapestries with the craftsmen of Teotitlan de Valle executing his designs. Though his work was “Mexican” in style, it was executed from a new ideological and aesthetic perspective.
His reputation as a world class artist spread quickly. In 1973 he had a show at the Carl Finkler Gallery in Paris, and in 1975 he showed at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York City. In 1977 his work was exhibited at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Oaxaca, and a lot of what we think of as representative of Toledo – cats, dogs, bats, insects all in his native landscape – came out of this period. During this period, he also started to experiment with semi-erotic male figures, often with faces that were like sketches in geometric form similar to ancient masks.
By 1978 his work was being shown throughout Europe, the United States, Asia, Mexico, and South America, and he was well represented in public and private collections from London to Oslo. By 1980 he had such an impressive collection of work that the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City had a retrospective of his painting. Somewhere in that prolific output, he also managed to illustrate books.
The art world was seduced by the power of his work. His creations bordered on what Baudelaire referred to as “the fantastic real”, that “real” which resides in nature, and takes on a fantastic visage only when an inspired artist raises it to the highest degree.
In his psyche images of countless places and epochs reside. Salvador Elizondo said that his works are the record of things and being at a given moment, outside the laws of nature, and more like instant dreams than myths. In this I disagree as I feel he fuses dream and myth flawlessly. His images are true to the visionary tradition of his ancestors.
Toledo is a visual poet who looks at the world and notices strange analogies of action, shapes and textures. Shapes suggest to him shapes within shapes, and actions have actions within actions. The art critic, Dore Ashton wrote that it is in his ability to make rare conjunctions that his genius lies; his ability to persuade us that there is, indeed, a fantastic reality that has its roots in all cultures. Though Oaxaca is always present beneath the marvelously worked surfaces of his images, he is able to take the immediate of his surroundings and imbue it with the universal. We feel the collective unconscious of his own heritage in his work, yet he touches that connecting cord in all of us – a deep root from which we all sprang.
The work of Toledo shows him to have an innate, natural feeling for diverse material through and in which he expresses complex ideas. His graphic imagination moves far beyond the illustration of stories. As Dore Ashton writes, “He is a shaper of visual thoughts, not a teller of tales”.
Since the 1990s his work has developed more geometric forms, but his tactile application of media is ever present. His works range from al fresco paintings, gouaches, oil paintings, and ink to bronze, ceramics and wax on surfaces such as paper, cloth, metal, wood, turtle shells and ostrich eggs.
There is no question that his work is steeped in the traditions of the rich cultural region of his birth. He is fascinated with the myths and legends of his people and the flora and fauna that appear in their traditions and stories. These images are transformed by the magic of his imagination into a never ending array of combinations in which men and animals are part of the same universe. His work, so honest to his heritage and yet so universal, has had a profound influence on many of Mexico’s younger artists.
Not only is Toledo an exceptional artist but a patron and guardian of the arts and the crafts of his state of Oaxaca. From the day he returned home in 1965, he started to protect and promote the arts and crafts of his state. He founded Ediciones Toledo and in 1983 published his first book. Then, in 1988 he created the Instituto de Artes Graficas de Oaxaca (IAGO). It currently has 12,000 books dealing with painting, graphics, drawing, sculpture, archeology, design, library science, popular art, textile, ceramics, photography, film, literature, and Mexican art from its origins to this day. It holds a collection of 6,000 works by Mexican and foreign artists and organizes temporary exhibitions and conference cycles.
He was also involved in the founding of the Museum de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (ACO), and the Patronato Pro-Defense y Conservacion del Patrimonio Cultural de Oaxaca, which houses a library for the blind, a photographic center, and a music library.
It is worth a trip to Oaxaca to visit the home of such an extraordinary talent and to see the setting from which such a powerful talent emerged. His art reflects the deep appreciation he has for the aesthetics of nature and the culture of his people who still feel the heartbeat of their ancestors. Perhaps a part of this vision will enter your heart, and then you will feel the true pulse of Mexico.