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The Art of the Fantastic - Rufino Tamayo

Fantastic art is characterized by the juxtaposition or distortion of images that extend experience by contradicting our normal expectations. By transcending the norms of perceived reality, the fantastic transports the viewer into a world where the implausible becomes plausible.

This art form appeared throughout the world in the twentieth century, most notably in Surrealism, but Latin American artists have employed it with a particular genius. Stemming from something fundamentally Latin American rather than from an intellectual theory, Latin American artists have utilized fantastic imagery to express the forces that have shaped their land, drawing from their own cultural history.

One of Latin America's first artists to explore the Art of the Fantastic was Rufino Tamayo. Of Zapotec Indian decent, Tamayo was born in 1899 in Oaxaca, Mexico. After the death of his parents, he moved to Mexico City where he studied drawing at the Academy of Art in San Carlos from 1917 to 1921.

In 1921, he was appointed the head of the Department of Ethnographic Drawings at the National Archaeological Museum, where he studied pre-Columbian sculpture and Mexican folk art in depth. This experience provided him with a knowledge of native art forms, which nourished his painting throughout much of his life.

In particular, two distinguishing features of pre-Columbian art strongly influenced him; the geometric conception of form and the symbolic or metaphysical function of images. He also studied the mythology of pre-Hispanic cultures, and his understanding of their ways of perceiving the world was important in shaping his own vision of man's place in the cosmos.

Drawing upon the dualistic principles of pre-Columbian cultures, he examined the myths that reveal the fundamental constants of human existence. He explored the conflict between the forces of darkness and light, destruction and creation. Some of his works are nightmares in which demonic powers are unleashed, while others are life affirming and serene visions of children, women, and iridescent spaces.

From 1946 to 1956, Tamayo's powers of expression were brought to light with a succession of twisted and distorted images of the human figure. These grotesque figures often confront celestial bodies and vast infinite spaces. Confrontations with the firmament, yearnings for the impossible and fears of the cataclysmic destruction are depicted in such works as Women Reaching for the Moon (1946), The Shout (1947) and Cosmic Terror (1954).

In 1957, Tamayo took up residence in Paris, where he would remain for seven years. There his paintings gradually assumed a new direction. The figures became more static and less violent. In works like Woman in Grey (1959) for example, Tamayo turns the image of the female body into a musical instrument silhouetted against a textured background reminiscent of a cave painting. This work is a poem to women in general and makes a primitive icon of the abstracted female form.

In more recent works such as Woman Behind a Glass (1973), and Dialogue (1974), Tamayo sought to stir the viewer's emotions through the carefully controlled variations of a single hue. The white tones of Woman Behind a Glass create a shimmer of light, which both hides and illuminates the schematic woman, whereas in Dialogue the heat of the sunset becomes the dominating theme to render the intensity of the moment.

Both paintings put everyday life in an overriding atmosphere, which influences individual actions and transforms them from commonplace to eternal events. It is this transformation of the ordinary into the fantastic that marks Tamayo's distinctive contribution to Mexican art.

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