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    Tres ensayos sobre Rufino Tamayo / Octavio Paz
    Los privilegios de la vista II. -- México, D. F. : Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995
    p. 281-286
    Book/pamphlet article – Essays
    Paz, Octavio. "Tres ensayos sobre Rufino Tamayo" In Los privilegios de la vista II,  (acápite 5 : Solitarios e Independientes), 281-286. México, D. F. : Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995.

In this essay, Mexican poet, writer, and diplomat Octavio Paz analyzes Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo’s relationship with Mexican popular art and Pre-Columbian art. According to Tamayo, popular art should not be seen as art but as a functional extension of daily life related to a concept of magic. According to Paz, Tamayo has not been inspired by popular Mexican art because of his nationalism or the aesthetic quality of the forms of popular art, but instead because this popular art is a vestige of the belief in magic, which Paz associates with metamorphosis and analogy. Paz critiques the frequent misconception that art should be defined by the nationality of its artist. Therefore, in his analysis of Tamayo’s work, Paz considers Tamayo’s interest in Pre-Columbian art separate from the artist’s Mexican nationality. He claims that the appreciation for Pre-Columbian art among modern Mexican painters can be attributed to the effects of the Mexican Revolution and to an exposure to the Modernist aesthetic of Europe. The Mexican Revolution led Mexico to acknowledge its indigenous heritage and to identify itself as racially mestizo. The European aesthetic, including the idealization of the “other,” the concept of the noble savage, and the birth of anthropology facilitated the Mexican appreciation of Pre-Columbian art and culture. According to Paz, Tamayo’s rediscovery and appropriation of Pre-Columbian art forms can be partially attributed to his exposure to popular art, however, it is a gesture inspired by the modern aesthetic. Tamayo explains that modern art tends to look back to Pre-Columbian art rather than Greco-Roman and Renaissance art, because in Pre-Columbian art, as in modern art, the human figure is subordinated to the geometry and non-human elements in the work. This reflects a concept of the cosmos of which man is only a small part. Ultimately, Paz asserts, Tamayo’s encounter with Pre-Columbian art can be seen as a confirmation of his own modern ideology and aesthetic rather than the discovery of a new direction.


Mexican poet, writer, and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914–1998) was raised in Mexico City. At the age of nineteen Paz published his first book of poetry, and later distinguished himself with the publication of Bajo tu clara sombra y otros poemas, a series of poems reflecting on his visit to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Paz published volumes of poetry, essays, literary criticism, and prose and also served as an editor for literary publications. His published poetry volumen include No pasaran! (1937), Libertad bajo palabra (1949), ¿Águila o sol? (1951), and Piedra de sol (1957). He also produced volumes of essays and literary criticism including El laberinto de la soledad (1950), El arco y la lira (1956), and Las peras del olmo (1957). El laberinto de la soledad is a collection of nine essays on Mexican identity and history in which Paz depicted Mexicans as stuck between their Pre-Columbian and Spanish identities. Paz also wrote art criticism and poetry dedicated to the artists Balthus, Antoni Tàpies, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Roberto Matta, and Robert Rauschenberg. In 1945, Paz became part of Mexico’s diplomatic corps only to resign in 1968 in protest of Mexico’s violent suppression of student protests. In 1990, he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

This essay is one of three written by Paz on Rufino Tamayo. Tamayo (1899–1991) was a Mexican artist whose Zapotec origin is often cited in analyses of his work, and he was inspired by Mexican popular art as well as European movements like Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism. Paz’s other two essays address the relationship between Tamayo and his paintings, and between Tamayo’s work and contemporary painting. This essay analyzes Tamayo’s work in relation to the aesthetics and ideology of Pre-Columbian art. Paz denies the concept of artistic heritage, delving deeper into Mexican artists’ actual motivation in appropriating elements from Pre-Columbian and popular art.


Molly Moog; ICAA Team.
International Center for the Arts of the Americas, MFAH, Houston, USA
© 1995 by Marie José Paz. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.