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Roberto Montenegro (Mexican, 1885–1968)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Mexican painter, printmaker, illustrator and stage designer. In 1903 he began studying painting in Guadalajara under Félix Bernardelli, an Italian who had established a school of painting and music there, and he produced his first illustrations for Revista moderna, a magazine that promoted the Latin American modernist movement and for which his cousin, the poet Amado Nervo, wrote. In 1905 he enrolled at the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Mexico City, where Diego Rivera was also studying, and won a grant to study in Europe. After two years in Madrid, Montenegro moved in 1907 to Paris, where he continued his studies and had his first contact with Cubism, meeting Picasso, Braque and Gris.

After a short stay in Mexico, Montenegro returned to Paris. At the outbreak of World War I he moved to Barcelona and from there to Mallorca, where he lived as a fisherman for the next four years. During his stay in Europe he assimilated various influences, in particular from Symbolism, from Art Nouveau (especially Aubrey Beardsley) and from William Blake.

On his return to Mexico, Montenegro worked closely with José Vasconcelos, Secretary of State for Public Education during the presidency of Alvaro Obregón in the early 1920s, faithfully following his innovative ideas on murals and accompanying him on journeys in Mexico and abroad. He was put in charge of the Departamento de Artes Plásticas in 1921 and was invited by Vasconcelos to ‘decorate’ the walls of the former convent, the Colegio Máximo de S Pedro y S Pablo in Mexico City. The first of these works, executed in 1922, consisted of the mural Tree of Life , relating the origin and destiny of man, and two designs for richly ornamented stained-glass windows influenced by popular art: Guadalajara Tap-dance and The Parakeet-seller. They were followed by two further murals in the same building: the Festival of the Holy Cross (1923–4), representing the popular festival of 3 May celebrated by bricklayers and stonemasons, and Resurrection (1931–3), with a geometric composition bearing a slight Cubist influence. Further murals followed, including Spanish America (1924; Mexico City, Bib. Ibero-Amer. & B.A.), an allegory of the historical and spiritual union of Latin America in the form of a map, and The Story, also known as Aladdin’s Lamp (1926; Mexico City, Cent. Escolar Benito Juárez), a formally designed painting with Oriental figures similar in style to a mural made for Vasconcelos’s private offices.

Although Montenegro claimed to be a ‘subrealist’ rather than a Surrealist, in his easel paintings he mixed reality and fantasy; two such works, which fall well within the bounds of Surrealism, were shown in 1940 at the International Exhibition of Surrealism held at the Galería de Arte Mexicano in Mexico City. In his later work Montenegro evolved an abstract style, although he never lost his interest in popular, pre-Hispanic and colonial art. He was also a fine portrait painter, and from the 1940s to the 1960s he produced a splendid series of self-portraits in which he is shown reflected in a convex mirror, thus combining elements of Mannerism and popular art. He illustrated books, made incursions into stage design, working for both the ballet and the theatre, and in 1934 created the Museo de Arte Popular in the recently inaugurated Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, becoming its first director.

Leonor Morales
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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