The Madonna as Muse: the paintings of René Alvarado
By Jim Edwards
Mexico is a place of magic. Throughout its history in the 20th century, Mexico retained a sense of its own secular and spiritual uniqueness. This was particularly true of the small urban villages, tied as they are to the agrarian cycle of growth and decay and to the rich folk traditions that govern the life of the people. When Andre Breton, poet and chief spokesman for the surrealist movement, first visited Mexico in 1938, he was profoundly moved by this marvelous country. As a spokesman for the international avant-garde, Breton was quick to recognize the aesthetic and psychological potential that existed in Mexico, ripe with physical beauty and social complexity, and how these conditions excited the imaginations of artists and writers. At the time, he announced to a Mexican interviewer, “I find Mexico to be surrealistic in its landscape, in its vegetation, in the dynamism of its mixed races, and in its highest aspirations.” (1) Breton’s European point of view recognized Mexico’s unique situation and acknowledged that the artists of this country benefited from a powerful source, the dual source of an informed aesthetic that is inspired, on the one hand, by international art styles, and that is strongly flavored, on the other hand, by their own indigenous inspiration.
As we are now in the first decade of the 21st Century, much has changed in Mexico, just as life has undergone transformation world-wide. Mexico is challenged by a huge population boom and, as a nation, is faced with the problems of expanding globalization and industrialization. This challenge has been especially hard on the rural villages of Mexico, those communities that are wed to a traditional life style, communities that for hundreds of years have been shaped by a sense of time and place that was governed by seasonal growth cycles and the celebratory nature of life and death.
The young painter, René Alvarado, had the good fortune to have experienced his childhood in Mexico, and develop as an artist in his adopted West Texas home of San Angelo. Born in the small village of El Manantial, in northern Mexico, in 1972, he is one of eight children, including five sisters and two other brothers. As a very young boy, Alvarado formed an extremely close relationship with his family, guided by his hardworking parents, his father Guillermo and his mother Petra. In the village of El Manantial, there was little in the way of comfort by American standards; no television in the home or movie theater to bring news and entertainment from the outside world. But what this small community did possess was a highly developed sense of ritual, acted out in story- telling, music, and religious celebration and identity. Alvarado has recently stated, “I have come to realize that my work is defined both by my familial roots in northern Mexico and by the subtle, mystical environment of my adopted home in West Texas. My creative process is immersed in this dual identity…” (2)
Of the 20th century masters of Mexican painting it is Maria Izquierdo (1902-1955) and Rodolfo Morales (1925-2001) most successfully rendered the life of the Mexican village. The subjects of their art were profoundly shaped by their childhood and life in the small village. Speaking of Izquierdo, Octavio Paz explained, “Maria’s realism is not realistic but legendary; by that I mean, it is an evocation, filtered through her sensibility, of her childhood and the rustic poetry of the little towns and villages of central and western Mexico.” (3) Rural legend infused her provincial childhood, as it did also for Morales’ childhood in Ocotlan, Oaxaca. For these two painters, community life in a small Mexican village was more profoundly life shaping than the European influences of Mexico’s cities. Along with the recognition of the secular and spiritual rituals played out in the village, there existed the dichotomy of roles played by the men and women. Izquierdo’s paintings of village life especially honored women and animals, which she often rendered with a poetic sense of loneliness. She was not entirely isolated as an artist. Maria Izquierdo had lived through the Mexican Revolution, and was aware of European surrealism through her friendship with the poet Anton Artaud.
Morales rarely included men in his compositions and tended to populate the mythology of his home village with depictions of women. During the latter half of the 20th century, with the gradual decline of economic opportunities, traditional small town Mexico was governed by women as the men sought employment in the larger Mexican urban centers or in the United States. Alberto Blanco, in writing about Morales, paraphrases the great Latin American poet Cesar Vallejo, stating, “Mexico is a country lacking a father at sunrise and having an excess of mother at dusk, in a perverse game of inverse identities, ‘mother’ here is the nation while ‘father’ is the great absentee.” Blanco continues, “If among the innumerable images of Rudolfo Morales’ legions of women I had to stay with one, I would keep precisely that scene where a town is carried as a Marquette by an army of women, a town sung and missed by women; but – and we should not forget this – built by man, the great absentee.” (4)
René Alvarado left Mexico at the age of seven, joining his parents in the United States, leaving some older sisters and other relatives behind in El Manantial. Young René’s ability in drawing was quickly recognized and encouraged by his family and teachers. His adaptation to his new country was not easy. There was a new language to learn and customs he was unfamiliar with, but his early interest in art helped foster his attachment to his past life in Mexico and his new life in San Angelo, Texas.
The works that I have selected for the exhibit, The Madonna as Muse: The Paintings of René Alvarado, are from 2003 to 2008 and represent his most mature painting to date. I first met René in 2005, when he had his painting studio at Roger Allen’s Old Chicken Farm Art Center in San Angelo, Texas. What impressed me immediately was the complexity of his imagery which struck me as representing a spiritual nature. It was also obvious that he was not afraid of exploring the technical aspects of painting, nor the complex symbols that his subject matter addresses. His art had not solidified into stylistic predictability, and he had no fear of dramatically altering a composition or designing his pictures around either a limited color scheme or a more complex mixture of colored atmospheres and textures.
It was tempting to declare his work surrealist, by virtue of the odd juxtaposition of figures, still life objects and landscapes depicted. However, in the process of curating this exhibition, I have come to think of Alvarado as an imagist. In writing about the work of Lucas Johnson, an American painter who spent his formative years as a painter in Mexico, the curator, Walter Hopps, identified imagism as follows, “I would identify the kind of art that Johnson produced as “imagist.” Actually older than the term “surrealism,” imagism has its roots in the world of poetry by way of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). Like surrealism, imagist art employs recognizable images in fantastic or unreal juxtapositions. Imagist art depicts recognizable locations, people, and objects, but these figurative elements are not put together in a sensible way; instead, they often appear disjunctively. Imagist painting is constructed in the same way as the poetry, using the images as visual metaphors.”(5) The metaphors that Alvarado explores in his art are only partially invented. To a large extent, he uses the objects he collects not only as sources of inspiration, but as models for the images depicted in his paintings. His studio at the Old Chicken Farm Art Center was filled with objects as diverse as taxidermy animals, clay and wooden figurines, ceramics, fine lace work, bird cages, Mexican masks, votive objects, and old furniture.
There is an ethereal quality about Alvarado’s paintings of Madonnas. Some, like the large scale portraits, Piedad and Soledad, pay homage to his grandmothers. Alvarado’s saintly portraits of women who have influenced his life express both pride and tenderness, and often, a touch of sadness. He is particularly adamant about the figure’s expression, especially in her eyes, more so than in other details of likeness. Like the great Sienese painters at the birth of the Renaissance, the eyes in a portrait looked outward into the world while at the same time possessed the sense of a spiritual look inward. The painting Aurora expresses all the formal qualities of 14th Century Sienese portraiture. The Look of adoration, both warm and slightly pensive, was a common feature in paintings of a Sienese Madonna’s eyes. The Virgin Mary with child and saint, in the Master of the Palazzo Venezia’s Madonna, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Madonna del Latte (6) are two examples. There is an inward-outward awareness, as well, in Alvarado’s portrait Aurora, who is rendered all the more mysterious by the animals and forms that surround her, including a fish, a three quarter portrait of René’s dog, Alexander, three floating cacti, a vase with flower, and a triangle encasing a single staring eye. I am reminded of the great Sienese Madonnas by Giotto and Martini especially, by the manner in which Alvarado positions the gestured hands in his paintings Aurora and Wedding Dream.
The symbolism in Alvarado’s paintings is a complex mixture of adopted and personal iconography. Raised as a Catholic, he would pray to Mexico’s most beloved saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, also known as “La Virgen Morena,” the brown-skinned virgin. Saints and their benevolent acts were celebrated in the villages of Mexico, and Alvarado has stated, “As a child, I could not separate the imagery of folktales from the religious rituals honoring our virgin saints.” (7) The childhood adoration of the saints, the numerous religious portraits he was able to see in the churches of Mexico, and the Ex-Voto’s, the anonymous folk paintings offering prayers and thanks for family miracles, all have influenced Alvarado’s creative imagination.
Symbolically, Alvarado assigns colors, forms, and objects with special meaning. He is not the first artist to identify white as the color of purity, nor the Calla Lily with beauty, death, and sexual symbolism. The Calla Lily is a strange flower, its smooth surfaced blossom and long stem became single subjects for paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and in photographs by Tina Modotti and Edward Weston. Alvarado has used the Calla Lily in paintings as diverse as Chicken Farm Still Life, The Guardian, The Wedding, and Widow Mourning. The crescent shape form, looking like a bowl or halved watermelon also commonly occurs in Alvarado’s paintings, and, like the Calla Lily, is presented as an offering. Madonna with Crane and Fish and Madonna with Ibizin Hound both use the crescent shape as a centrally located compositional device. This same form floats above the landscape as a crypt in the painting Eva and Serpent.
Eva Tucker was a friend of René’s. She was a generous patron for many in San Angelo and lived well into her 90’s. Alvarado has done several paintings dedicated to her, including Conversations with Eva, where she is pictured with the profile of a horse and the exquisite painting Eva’s Passing, celebrating her death and transformation from our world to the next. The atmospheric features of sky and bodies of water are beautifully painted features in many of Alvarado’s recent pictures. The dream-like vastness of sky and sea in Eva’s Passing first reminded me of particular surrealist paintings by Yves Tanguy and his wife Kay Sage. There is an aura of stillness to the vast landscapes by the two surrealists. This sense of stillness, in spite of the chop on the waves and the moving clouds, also can be found in Eva’s Passing, and further suggests a transformation to another time and place. Several years ago Alvarado spent a couple of winter months staying in a house on the Oregon coast. This was a new landscape for him and very different from the arid desert-like terrain of El Manantial and San Angelo. But the ocean view shared with the flat plains a sense of space and uninterrupted light, and sparked a new series of paintings that featured vast skies and bodies of water as settings for his figurative paintings. The seascapes, Pacific Sea Coast and El Toro y La Luna, owe something to his experience of contemplating the distant horizon and luminous sky of the Pacific Ocean.
One of the outstanding features of Alvarado’s recent paintings is the decorative use of pattern. As he has matured as a painter, he has become more sophisticated in his use of positive and negative space. Floral patterns activate the paintings and create a sense of embossed texture to clothing, the skin of animals, human figures, and the landscape. Even the often present man-in-the-moon masks that float throughout many of his paintings, as in Guardian (El Descanso de la Senora), are not immune to the painted tattoo of floral design. Alvarado is attracted to the fine embroidery of lace, and he has collaged lace directly onto his oil paintings as in Madonna in Blue Lace Wedding Dress. The diversity of formal structure and paint application is, I believe, a positive virtue in a painter as young as Alvarado. It indicates his attempt to explore techniques that correspond to the emotional tone he seeks in each painting. Some compositions, like Madonna with Fish and Crane, are tightly constructed and, like a cubist painting, feature flattened, inter locking planes. Others, like the haunting portrait El Negrito are more expressionistic. This painting is darkly primitive, its central figure fragmented and isolated against a background of scruffy paint and gold leaf. In paintings like Eva’s Passing, the paint handling is lyrical and luminous, especially in the treatment of sky and water. Alvarado’s varied approach gives each painting its own emotional and technical vitality, and he successfully avoids subjecting the images depicted from becoming static, or formally locked into predictability, where all parts are treated equally.
Today, Alvarado occupies one of the most beautiful and perfectly portioned artist’s studios imaginable. Several years ago he purchased a former Lutheran Church located in a tree lined residential neighborhood in San Angelo, Texas. This 1929 neo-gothic church is of white stucco, located on the corner of the block, and lined on its broad side of the street by tall pecans trees. Inside the building are objects that serve as inspiration for many of his paintings. A giant black bird cage sits to the side. Mannequins, dolls, votive candles, and lace gloves, share table and cupboard space with brushes and tubes of oil paint. This new studio is a much bigger space than the one he occupied at the Old Chicken Farm. Being a former church, it only heightens one’s sense that as an artist, Alvarado is also serving a kind of spiritual quest through his work as a painter. His paintings of Madonnas assume their place on his easels and bright white walls as naturally as if they were being honored in a church sanctuary.
His church-studio is composed of two large rooms. The front studio room is primarily a gallery in which Alvarado has periodically offered to show the work of other artists in the community. The larger back room, with the elegant, heavy timbered 32 foot transept, serves as his studio and living quarters. Here, his blue merle Great Dane, Alexander, and his small blond Cocker, Venus, patrol the room and the enclosed yards to the south of the building. Between the two large rooms is a smaller passageway into his studio; above the door of this passage, René has placed the mounted head of a Brahma cow, whose ears have been wrapped in fine lace, and from whose horns is suspended on wires an armless and naked ceramic doll. Alvarado has used this Brahma assemblage sculpture as a centerpiece in one of his Day of the Dead installations. It is an imposing work in itself.
In the spirit of his studio as a former church and in honor of his Brahma assemblage, he now jokingly calls his building “The House of the Holy Cow.” On a more serious note, this sculpture is reminiscent of a story that René relates about his childhood in the village of El Manantial. One day, as a little boy, he was playing out in the middle of the street when he looked up and saw a large cow running directly toward him. He was frozen in fear but was saved by two older girls who lifted him out of the path of the charging animal.(8) In his painting, The Brahma Bull, Alvarado has painted the faint image of a sleeping woman in the belly of the bull seeming to quiet the potentially powerful menace of the beast. Like the patron saints in the small pueblo church, it was also mother, grandmother, sisters, and older girls who watched over René as a young child. As an adult, in so many of his paintings, he has given them the status of Madonnas.
Alvarado’s paintings are imbued with a quality that transcends time. There is something magical, in general, about Mexico and its people, in the timelessness of their celebrations of life and death. We see it throughout the American southwest in cemeteries and at the sites of roadside traffic accidents. Shrines are erected that include holy crosses, flowers, vases of plastic flowers, photographs of the deceased, and poems. These colorful displays are as celebratory as they are sad. They illustrate what the poet Carlos Fuentes has written, “The European author writes with a sense of linear time, time progressing forward as it directs and assimilates the past…In Mexico, on the contrary, there is not and never has been one single time, one central tradition as in the west. In Mexico, all times are living, all pasts are present. The coexistence in Mexico of multiple historical levels is but the external sign of a deep subconscious decision made by a country and its people: All times must be kept alive.” (9)
Still young, this artist is fortunate to recognize that he must follow his own muses, wherever they lead him. Heir to a tradition of figurative painting in Mexico, his art is personal and idiosyncratic. He has put a contemporary stamp on the spirit of narrative art that is all his own. Raised as a child in a matriarchal household, having successfully adapted to his life in Texas, and being surrounded by the love of family and friends, René Alvarado’s portraits of Madonnas are proof of his own adoration and blessings.
1 Jacqueline Barnitz, Twentieth Century Art of Latin America, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2001
2 René Alvarado, exhibition catalogue, From El Manantial, Instituto de Mexico en San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas, 2004
3 Octavio Paz, Essays on Mexican Art, Harcourt Brace and Company, New York, 1993
4 Alberto Blanco, Las Manos de Rodolfo Morales, Marco, Monterrey, Mexico, 2004
5 Walter Hopps, Preface: Reminiscences on the Art of Lucas Johnson, The Art and Life of Lucas Johnson, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2006
6 The Master of the Palazzo Venezia Madonna, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, Pinacoteca, and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Madonna del Latte are both in the collection of the Nazionale, Siena, Italy
7 René Alvarado, De Madonnas a Llorones, Gallery Shoal Creek, Austin (from the writings of René Alvarado) 2003
8 René Alvarado interview with Jim Edwards in Alvarado’s San Angelo, Texas studio, December 3, 2007
9 Luis Martin Lozano and David Craven, Mexican Modern: Masters of the 20th Century, Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, 2006