I proclaimed myself a Mayan prince, in the middle of Paris, not far from the Eiffel Tower. The Sun was my godfather.
— Luis Cardoza y Aragón, writing on Carlos Mérida

At first glance, the artist Carlos Mérida (1891-1985) appears to be a host of contradictions: a fervently anti-colonial man who embraced European artistic traditions, an indigenous artist who at times fetishized his own (and other) non-Western cultures, and a Mexican Muralist who rejected politicizing his art. These contradictions, however, imbued his works with a timeless quality. He perfected an ability to meld Western and indigenous traditions into something beautiful and new—a powerful lesson for our increasingly interconnected and polarized world.1

Since Mérida was a highly prolific artist, this exhibition represents only a fraction of his creative endeavors. The selected works, however, focus on how contemporary transnational movements influenced Mérida between 1910 and 1940. These movements would transform Mérida’s interpretation of indigenous identity and his vision for Latin American art. 

 
 

In 1914, the outbreak of World War I in Europe compelled Carlos Mérida to return to his native Guatemala. He had arrived in Paris four years earlier when he was just nineteen years old. Once there, he had quickly abandoned his stodgy academic training, adopting the more vigorous styles of the avant-garde. He frequented cafés with Pablo Picasso and smoked marijuana with Amadeo Modigliani. These artists significantly influenced Mérida, whose portraits during this period featured mask-like faces and elongated proportions. 

Between 1900 and 1920, the Parisian artist world was obsessed with cultures they considered “exotic", particularly those of Africa and Latin America. This fascination would have an enormous impact on Mérida and his fellow Latin American modernists. When they returned home, they continued this interest, embracing their indigenous cultures, partly in pursuit of the abstract modernist forms which they had grown to value in Europe. Mérida’s work gained a clear focus. The rural outskirts of his hometown—its landscape, people, and material culture—became his primary subject.

Mérida and his generation of Latin American intellectuals like Diego Rivera and Roberto Montenegro were not just following the latest European fad. Instead, their pivot to regional themes stemmed from a desire to reject “old” Europe—and to excise its cultural authority from the minds of local middle-class audiences. Mérida had made many Mexican friends in Paris, who had often spoken to Mérida about the opportunities in Mexico, which was still embroiled in revolution. Its art scene was vibrant. The post-revolutionary order wished to empower the indigenous peoples and was eager to commission new artistic works. In December 1919, Mérida moved to Mexico City and exhibited the paintings of Maya-Quiché women that he had made while working in Guatemala. Mexico was his adopted home.

artesanía

            |aɾ.te.sa.ˈni.a|

Guatemalan Women, c. 1925 Oil on canvas, 74 X 85 cms. Courtesy of the Galería Arvil, Mexico City

Guatemalan Women, c. 1925
Oil on canvas, 74 X 85 cms.
Courtesy of the Galería Arvil, Mexico City

 
 

Once in Mexico City, Mérida became involved with the post-revolutionary art scene, assisting Diego Rivera with his murals and even creating murals of his own. He was one of the first signers of the Manifesto of the Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors Union of Mexico. Mérida soon became disenchanted with the overtly political nature of the organization. His artistic philosophy emphasized the role of the artist as a creator and craftsman, rather than as a political advocate. He also feared that the fashion for the indigenous could turn depictions of local cultures into a colonialist, exotic pastiche.

Voodoo scene, or women sleeping, 1929
Oil on canvas, 61 × 11 cm.
Courtesy of the Galería Arvil, Mexico City

Marina,   1929 Gouache on paper, 11 1/4 in. (28.575 cm), 8 3/4 in. (22.225 cm) Gifts of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, W.935.1.46

Marina, 1929
Gouache on paper, 11 1/4 in. (28.575 cm), 8 3/4 in. (22.225 cm)
Gifts of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, W.935.1.46

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Mérida asserted that "Indigenous art should only be a point of departure"2 for the artist. He had grander visions for Arte Nuevo, a term which he coined to define authentic Latin American art of the modern era. Arte Nuevo would find inspiration in, and not copy, pre-Columbian art and contemporary folk culture.

To do justice to this ideal, Mérida felt that he needed "to study again the intimate mechanism of painting at its roots."3 So he left for Paris. There he discovered Surrealism, which offered an escape from the folkloric and social realism that dominated Mexican painting. He seized on the Surrealist idea that the desire to traverse the subconscious was universal, transcending time and geography. He then set to work, intent on creating an imaginary world, filled with Mayan motifs and lore. 

indigenismo

        |ĩn̪.di.xe.ˈnis̬.mo|

 
 

The Architect, 1935
Pencil on paper, 56 x 44 cms.
Courtesy of the Galería Arvil, Mexico City

Portrait of a Soul, 1934
Pencil on paper, 60 x 50 cms.
Courtesy of the Galería Arvil, Mexico City

 
 

While reflecting on his return to Paris during 1927-1929, Mérida said,"My work underwent a profound transformation. The problem was the same, but the answer was different. The sense of abstraction I inherited from the Mayas took shape in me with clarity and precision."4

Mérida was increasingly drawn to the work of Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneer of expressionistic abstraction. At this time, Kandinsky's art emphasized geometric elements—specifically circles, half-circles, straight lines, angles, and triangles. By the mid-1930s, nearly all of Mérida's abstract works incorporated these lines and shapes.

mestizaje

         |mɛs.ti.ˈsa.xe|

Mérida saw abstraction as a means to represent his Mayan heritage in a modernist, rather than in a literal, manner. Therefore, unlike Kandinsky, Mérida continued to include recognizable forms from nature in his art. Since birds had god-like status in Maya legends, vaguely avian shapes frequently appeared in his works. Outlines of human faces were also a common motif; these profiles had the elongated foreheads of figures in ancient Mayan murals.

Transparency of Memory, or Dawn, 1936
Watercolor, 60 x 45 cms.
Courtesy of the Galería Arvil, Mexico City

 
 
The most profound but poetic testimony we possess about the divine word of our grandfathers, the creators of the highest ancient civilization in the New World.
— Carlos Mérida, introduction to Estampas Del Popol-Vuh

This series of ten lithographs depicts scenes from Popul-Vuh, a Mayan-Quiché epic.  It tells the story of the creation of the world, the subsequent victory of the heroic twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque over an evil demon, and the birth of mankind. By depicting this legend, Mérida fused his Mayan heritage with Surrealist subject matter. Myths were idealized by European Surrealists, who believed that these stories enabled "primitive" people to reject rationality in favor of their primordial intuitions.

This series of lithographs, however, makes a compelling anti-colonialist statement. The Popol-Vuh narrative had been passed along via storytelling for centuries. After the Spanish Conquest, it was transcribed when the Catholic Church began its crusade to eradicate traditional Mayan beliefs. In light of this history, Mérida insisted that the images were "free poetic versions of mythological wonders,"5 not illustrations.

Mérida’s emphasis on poetry suggested that Europeans had failed to crush the glory of the Mayan epic. By choosing the lithograph as his medium—from which many prints could be made—he implied that Mayan culture would have a popular renaissance in Latin America.