MEXICO, MONTEREY, MEXICO CITY, COYOACAN AND THE ACADEMY
Through countless golden afternoons and well into silvery moonlit evenings, Alfredo Ramos Martinez would wander through Coyoacan, gazing up at its bell towers, strolling through its plazas and narrow streets, all the while taking in the geometry of the huge stones of the walls, the adobe walls, and the rounded cobblestones. After making numerous quick sketches, he would return home to transform his studies into watercolor compositions. This sixteenth century Coyoacan, with its churches and open markets of fruit and flower stalls can be seen in Ramos Martinez’s early works.
Ramos’ friend, the Mexican poet, painter and translator, José Juan Tablada contended years later in his memoir, La Feria de la Vida (“The Festival of Life,” 1937) that these watercolors were among the first artistic manifestations of a revolutionary art, originating as they did, in the observations of “things,” the phenomena of everyday life. Tablada states that it was American tourists who first recognized the beauty and value of Ramos’ surprisingly extraordinary depictions of seemingly ordinary things. These “things” would re-appear decades later as the background of his California paintings and, again, would be admired and collected by Americans.
Born in Monterrey (Nuevo León, Mexico) in 1871, Alfredo Ramos Martinez arrived to Mexico City at the age of fourteen after his portrait of the governor of the state of Nuevo León was awarded 1st prize at an art exhibition in San Antonio, Texas. The prize included a scholarship to study at the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and therefore, the large Ramos Martinez family established their home in Coyoacan, a town on the outskirts of Mexico City. Coyoacan had the look and feel of a small village but with a stimulating aesthetic environment for budding artists like Ramos and Tablada.
The Academy in which Ramos spent eight years was undergoing innovations that had originated in the mid-century, including a program of exhibitions by students and faculty that encouraged audiences and emerging art critics alike. An art gallery, dedicated to Mexican art, was established and students were offered fellowships for study in Mexico and abroad.
From the beginning, Ramos disliked the rigid academic program with its institutional bureaucracy and tireless imitation of prevailing European aesthetics. His delight in straightforward observation and the subsequent representation of daily things, along with the open spaces of the emerging urban landscape, conflicted with the stifling atmosphere within the Academy. He resented having to take the tram all the way downtown, only to spend endless hours indoors, drawing and studying poor plaster copies of classical works. He often skipped his classes to return to his outdoor sketching excursions. His rebellion drove the Director to write a letter voicing his displeasure to Ramos’ father. Ramos defended himself on this occasion, standing up for his artistic freedom, and surprisingly there was no further disciplinary action. In view of his future activities, Ramos’ early insistence on an “Open Air” (Al Aire Libre) approach to creating art can be seen as something much more important than an attitude of adolescent rebellion.
He was undoubtedly aware of the Impressionist movement in France through the journals of the time as well as from students at the Academy returning from study in Europe. The Academy encouraged and supported its most talented students to travel abroad and Ramos longed to go to Europe. While Rome, with its ancient classical and Renaissance masters, had once been the most likely choice, the professors in the Academy were now beginning to focus on Paris.
In 1899, during an official visit by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the American newspaper mogul’s mother, Ramos Martinez’s future was changed significantly. Mrs. Hearst attended a formal dinner hosted by the Mexican President, Porfirio Díaz. Ramos had been asked to create hand painted menus for the occasion. Mrs. Hearst was so impressed with these decorations that she asked to meet the artist. Upon meeting him, she offered to pay him a monthly stipend to study in Paris. The door to Alfredo Ramos Martinez’s European adventure had opened.
PARIS, BRITANNY, THE BALEARIC ISLANDS, THE LOW COUNTRIES
In going to France, Ramos was engaging in a cultural rite of passage familiar to many Latin American intellectuals. Nineteenth century Paris, the Bohemian center and point of reference for all the arts, attracted painters, poets, writers and intellectuals. Experimentation in the arts was the rule of the time and that led to new genres and forms.
Ramos spoke French fluently, which greatly eased his way in French society. The five hundred franc allowance from Mrs. Hearst allowed him a decent existence and while there is no record of formal studies at the art academies, he took full advantage of all the city had to offer.
Shortly after his arrival, he met the Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío (1867-1916). The meeting led to a friendship of immeasurable importance to both men. Darío was already a literary giant and the leading figure of Modernismo, a literary movement that his poetry had generated. He was in Paris to publish his second book of verse, Prosas Profanas (Profane Prose). This work, along with those that followed it, influenced Ramos’ work and intellect for the rest of his life.
Darío reveled in the Parisian bohemian life, often inviting Ramos to join him and his friends in their forays into intellectual salons and bohemian nightlife as well as excursions into the countryside. Through Darío, Ramos had the opportunity to interact with the Symbolist and Parnassian poets, notably Paul Verlaine, Rémy de Gourmont, and with artists such as Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, August Rodin and Joaquín Sorolla as well as the dancers, Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan and the actress, Eleanor Duse. Darío’s circle of accomplished, productive bon vivants drew Ramos into a sophisticated environment unlike anything he had known in Mexico. Such experiences led to a maturity and worldliness that would serve him well in later years.
The long, fraternal friendship between Ramos and Darío is documented in essays and two poems dedicated to Ramos. Darío offers us a glimpse into the painterly and literary influences that informed the production of both painter and poet during these four years. For a brief time, Darío even shared rooms with Ramos and his close friend, the Mexican poet-diplomat, Amado Nervo.
Painter and poet traveled together to Belgium and Holland where Ramos immersed himself in the works of Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh. In the Low Countries, his careful study of works from the northern Baroque period subtly influenced his own portraits. Visits to Spain and Palma de Mallorca extended into months and at one point, a period of solitary meditation in a Carthusian monastery. In the course of these travels, Darío’s spontaneity, enthusiasm and knowledge about art, philosophy, music and literature were undoubtedly not only an influence, but also a model for Ramos.
By 1904, Ramos had created a large body of work based on painting trips to Brittany. The palette, dominated by umbers and sepias, underscores the artist’s sensitivity not only to the environment, but also to the harsh poverty endured by a people who live off the land and the sea. Darío commented, “Ramos Martinez does not copy, he interprets; he understands how to express the sorrow of the fisherman and the melancholy of the village.”
The paintings by Millet and Monet led Ramos toward landscapes of windmills and seascapes cast in golden light infused with oranges and blues. These paintings often featured farmers and day laborers at work in the fields. In addition to these studies of everyday workers in their element, an important theme begins to develop here; portraits of women holding children, a variation on the Madonna and Child. Similar images and compositions appear years later in the artist’s California work.
It was also here that Ramos discovered a new medium. During one of his painting trips, his supply of drawing paper ran out. He returned to the inn and asked the concierge for paper. The concierge responded by giving him newsprint. This innovative surface became a favorite medium for Ramos.
In 1905, Ramos began participating in the yearly Salon d’Automne. His work also began exploring different spaces, landscape compositions peopled by women and tinged with eroticism. Reminiscent of Watteau and Fragonard, these paintings depicted mythologies of an eighteenth century kind of Fête galante, with allusions to cyclical rituals in nature. In addition, dark sensual women evoking the decadence of fin de siècle sensitivity began to inhabit Ramos’ canvases. With their dark eyes, luminous skin, half veiled faces and lustrous hair, they embodied a dangerous sexuality that seemed to balance or, in some cases, defy the dancing sprites of his mythological landscapes. There is a masterly interplay between light and shadow, between the strong reds and blacks and the luminosity that pervades the canvases. The landscapes, on the other hand, offer delicate blends of a softer palette that seems to bring light from the ground.
In 1906, Ramos was awarded a gold medal at the Salon d’Automne for Le Printemps, a landscape painting of women, participating in a Rite of Spring. That same year, apparently satisfied with the success of her protégé, Phoebe Hearst withdrew her monthly stipend. In her letter, she informed Ramos that he was now capable of living off his works and encouraged him to do just that.
Without Mrs. Hearst’s support, new hardships confronted him. Earning a living from his art became a huge challenge. Darío tells us that he was reduced to working for a factory making artistic trinkets and illustrating publications for a few cents. In despair, he went off to London carrying a portfolio of watercolors, which were exhibited at the Circle of Watercolorists. Within a few days, the Duke of Devonshire bought one. A solo exhibition was set up at the Carlton.
By 1909, the political and social upheavals in Mexico prompted his return. Unlike his compatriot Diego Rivera, who returned from Paris at the end of the revolution, Ramos came back to Mexico on the eve of the revolution. Hailed as an innovator by the students of the Academy, Ramos would soon become the Assistant Director of the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (ENBA), the former Academy. Shortly after, he assumed directorship of the School and, in 1913, fulfilled his dream of founding the Open Air School of Painting.
MEXICO: ART AND REVOLUTION
Alfredo Ramos Martinez returned to a Mexico on the edge of a revolution that would change its political, social, economic and cultural structures. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 unleashed a decade of instability, violence and civil war. It also initiated a new enthusiasm and recognition for national forms in literature, music and the visual arts. Moreover, the socio-political changes that took place during the second decade of the twentieth century created new ideologies in Europe that would have effects in Mexico. As a result, the visual arts would commit themselves to asocial and public art. A fresh awareness of Mexico’s pre-Columbian history and culture, as well as its popular and populist art forms, led back to fresco painting and to an emphasis on graphic art.
Between his initial arrival and his appointment as director of the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1913, Ramos returned to Europe only once, to accompany his old friend Rubén Darío back to Mallorca after the latter’s brief return to America. This would be the last time they would see each other. Despite his loyalty to Darío, Ramos wanted to return home quickly, intent on participating in the creation of a new Mexican consciousness.
Hailed for his successes in Europe, Ramos was greeted as a distinguished alumnus of the ENBA and was immediately invited to hold a solo show at the School. The exhibition consisted of 41 oils, 29 pastels, 23 watercolors, and 17 drawings, 110 works in all, with Ramos’ painting, La Primavera, attracting special acclaim by the critics. Eleven days later, Ramos took part in an exhibition at the Academy, as part of the official celebration of the Independence Centenary (1810-1910).
This latter exhibition precipitated a strike by artists and art students that reflected the turbulent political atmosphere. This division between architectural students, painters and sculptors was further complicated by the delineation between part time and full time students. It was this economic division that convinced Ramos to support the striking students. In his view, theirs was a stand against the Old Order and, thus, he stood with them.
Consequently, on August 30, 1911, the striking students called for the establishment of a new “Free Academy” and proposed Ramos Martinez as director of the school. It was under these auspices that Ramos Martinez became first the assistant director and then director of the National School. He later founded the Open Air Schools project, creating the first school with ten boys at Santa Anita Ixtapalapa. The Open Air Schools project was a crucial step in Ramos’ plan to change the curriculum at National School. As director, he was finally in a position to redefine academic understanding of how to train artists. Ramos Martinez’s philosophy was rooted in his instinctual belief in the sureness of an artist’s vision and confirmed by his experiences in Europe with the Impressionists and Post Impressionists. As Ramos Martinez explained, “In this school we are trying to mold a school of action, permitting the students to pursue their own tendencies... the students’ own efforts and inspirations are appealed to as the center of all activities, respecting in the pupil his personal manner of seeing, thinking and interpreting his visions.” Though he did paint during this time period, Ramos largely surrendered his painter’s persona and devoted himself to teaching.
This shift would not come without a price. Political strife and intrigue within the National School worsened. By 1914, Ramos was relieved of his post and his name mysteriously disappeared from the school’s roster. However, throughout the upheavals, Ramos’ Open Air Schools Project prevailed. He managed to open a second Open Air School in Coyoacan. When his students were featured in Exposición de Labores Escolares y Bellas Artes (Exhibition of Works from Public and Art Schools) at the Spanish Pavilion, still later in that same year, their work met with extremely favorable responses.
During this period (1910-1920), a decade dominated by two genres, landscapes and portraits, Ramos’ work reflected his mastery of pastels, yet another innovation he brought to the Mexican art scene of the times. Using the techniques he had so faithfully studied and practiced during his European years, Ramos created works of remarkable size and fluidity. In works such as Flower Vendor and Volcán, subject material that would re-occur after he re-located to California, Ramos demonstrated a masterful understanding of composition and a palette bursting with new and dazzling color. His subsequent utilization of oil and watercolor with the pastels added new dimensions to the medium.
Abrupt political changes continued to affect post revolutionary national life. In 1920, Ramos was re-appointed as Director of the ENBA. He would dedicate the next eight years to teaching and expanding his Open Air School project which by 1924, included volunteer instructors Rufino Tamayo, Jean Charlot (who introduced wood-block printing to Mexican art), Francisco Díaz de León, and Fernando Leal among others. In 1926, Mexico’s President Calles (1877-1945) sponsored an exhibition of works by Ramos’ young artists from the Open Air School. The show traveled through Europe and to Los Angeles and, again, met with great acclaim.
However, by 1928, the development of the nationalist movement in the arts had significantly affected internal politics at the ENBA. Ramos’ life was changing as well.
That year, he married María Sodi Romero and a year later, their daughter Maria was born with a congenital bone disease. She became Ramos’ chief preoccupation. He resigned as Director of the ENBA and Diego Rivera assumed the directorship. The family left Mexico and went to Rochester, Minnesota, for consultations at the Mayo Clinic. The attending physicians advised Ramos that his daughter needed to be in a warm dry climate and would require significant medical attention throughout her childhood. Ramos concluded that for the sake of Maria’s health, the family needed to relocate.
Upon his return to Mexico, he completed Las Flores Mexicanas, a painting commissioned by the Mexican President Emilio Portes-Gil (1890-1978) as a wedding gift for Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. On October 17, 1929, Alfredo Ramos Martinez and his family left Mexico for Los Angeles, California.
At the time of Ramos’ arrival, Los Angeles was experiencing an artistic renaissance. Art clubs, galleries and city-sponsored arts festivals flourished. As early as 1931, Ramos had a show during the Artist’s Fiesta, which included a mile-long walk through the downtown area with department stores functioning as showcases for art. Olvera Street, Los Angeles’ official first street, was home to numerous artist studios as well as the Plaza Art Center.
The burgeoning movie business drew a more internationally savvy and art conscious population to Los Angeles. In the movie theatre, Latin-themed stories, featuring the likes of Ramon Novarro and Dolores Del Río, were increasingly popular. The California Artists Club held meetings in the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Barnsdall Park with lectures by international figures, including the French historian Élie Faure. Ramos’ former student, David Alfaro Siquieros, had been brought to the Chouinard Art Institute to teach mural painting. It would seem to be a propitious time for Ramos’ arrival.
However, in leaving Mexico, Ramos had walked away from almost all of his fiscal and professional support systems. His administrative positions had provided financial support and also helped solidify his reputation in the art world. He was painfully aware that the family’s economic situation depended entirely upon him. Though Ramos had no plans to remain in California long term, he knew he needed to create a new set of relationships there in order to survive.
Ramos’ reputation had preceded him and, shortly after his departure from Mexico in 1929, the boxer Jack Dempsey commissioned him to paint murals, create a series of paintings and decorate a chapel at the Hotel-Casino Playa Ensenada (Ensenada, Baja California). The hotel was in the midst of construction and had been conceived as a playground for the Hollywood crowd. Ramos created a mural filled with the sensual erotica of his earlier work along with several pieces suggesting the changes his work would undergo during his years in California.The remains of these works can still be seen today in the renovated, and re-named, Centro Cultural Riviera Pacifico.
Then in early 1930, William Alanson Bryan, Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art paid Ramos a visit. Bryan knew and had been tremendously impressed with the artist’s work from the 1925 Pan American Exposition. He was also familiar, due to the traveling exhibition in 1926, with the exemplary student work produced in Ramos’ Open Air Schools. He immediately set about arranging a showing of Ramos’ recent works. This led to an exhibition at the Assistance League Art Gallery and favorable press.
However, the canvases exhibited in Los Angeles were markedly different in character from his previous work. The suffering of his infant daughter and his wife had provoked a passionate exploration of religious imagery featuring Madonna and child as well as the virgin Guadalupe. During a particularly arduous period in his daughter’s recovery, Ramos stayed at the Yucca Loma Ranch in Apple Valley painting frescos in every cabin; all a variation of the Madonna and child, each a kind of painted prayer for his daughter. Also, perhaps fueled by his absence from his homeland, he began to paint highly stylized scenes taken from Mexican life. Nostalgic but in no way sentimental, the compositions captured his recollections of daily life with palettes dominated by umbers, ochres and deep greens and punctuated by touches of red or orange or yellow. This vocabulary struck a chord with Southern California collectors.
The following year, 1932, Ramos exhibited at the Fine Arts Gallery of Balboa Park in San Diego and, again, met with great success. Another exhibition, featuring drawings, temperas, oils and murals, followed at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in 1933. It was there that the artist was first introduced to the noted Bay Area art patron Albert Bender. Bender, whose contributions helped establish the Legion of Honor and the San Francisco Museum of Art, became one of Ramos’ most important admirers. Bender purchased El Indio Solitario for the Legion of Honor, El Prisionero for the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Three Sisters for the Gallery of Mills College and Padre Junipero Serra for the California Historical Society. Additionally, he acquired numerous works, including the artist’s seminal Adán y Eva Mexicanos, for his personal collection.
As a result of these successes, Ramos was invited to exhibit at the Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery in Santa Barbara. His arrival in Santa Barbara opened the door for his commission to create the majestic murals at the Chapel of the Cemetery of Santa Barbara. Mrs. George Washington Smith, widow of the influential architect and designer of the Chapel, along with violinist and composer Henry Eichheim, initiated the commission and became his life-long friends and patrons.
Ramos’ work was beginning to attract a significant Hollywood following. The interior designer and former art director for Warner Brothers, Harold Grieve, purchased a number of Ramos’ paintings in 1936. As an authentic Hollywood insider and decorator to the stars, Grieve’s championing of Ramos’ work had a tremendous impact on the artist’s finances. His work was placed in the Bel Air dining room of film director Ernst Lubitsch. Hollywood courturier Edith Head collected him, as did actors Charles Laughton and Beulah Bondi. The writer Jo Swerling was so taken with the artist’s work that he commissioned a mural for his Beverly Hills home. The mural still exists though the house was destroyed. Likewise, the Chapman Park Hotel and bungalow complex, adjacent to the famous Brown Derby Restaurant, commissioned a large Ramos Martinez fresco. Unfortunately, the building was bulldozed in 1967 and, in this case, the artwork was not saved.
Given the strong graphics, provocative implied narrative and deep emotion of Ramos’ depiction of his remembered Mexico, it is easy to understand Hollywood’s embrace of this late work. Ramos was an outsider with a great story whose extraordinary technical ability and passion for his work made him, as all artists are, the ultimate insider. Ramos’ simplified forms bathed in resplendent color rivaled Gauguin in their luscious representation of the feeling of life itself. Yet each composition adhered to a rigorous unity of form. The work has a strong decorative quality, but with no wasted space and every line rich with meaning. In essence, Ramos had taken the Mexico of his youth, informed by his vision of its indigenous heritage, and filtered it through his response to the here and now. In Los Angeles, a blossoming urban metropolis - “a city without a past” - Ramos mined his rich history to create canvases of striking modernity.
Additionally, the artist’s maturity and sophistication, forged by his years in Europe and friendships with noted artists and intellectuals, prepared him for the evolving sensibilities of California and Hollywood. With the petty political rivalries of Mexico behind him, Los Angeles became a fresh creative space.
In these late “California” works, Ramos' highly textured backgrounds are recapitulations of his early fascination with the phenomena of the world around him. The Breton mother and child reappear, the indigenous mother encircling her child, and he returns to creating tempera on newsprint, the medium he had discovered in Brittany. Ramos further returns to woman as subject. But now his large-scale representational portraits of women, La Malinche and La India de Tehuantepec, acquire a mythological significance. These seeming goddesses, along with flower vendors carrying enormous baskets of flowers on their backs, are positioned in the center of the canvas, facing front, giving them the status of divine subjects. Only the divine or the artist could be so portrayed.
This subject material was expressed to great effect in Ramos’ late mural work. Of the five mural commissions Ramos received, three are still on public view: the previously mentioned Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery (1934), the La Avenida Café (Coronado, now the Coronado Public Library, 1937) and the Margaret Fowler Frescoes, Scripps College, Claremont (1945). The latter was commissioned at the behest of Millard Sheets, one of California’s most famous and revered artists and a long-time admirer of Ramos.
From 1942 to 1945, Ramos returned to Mexico City with his family where he painted a series of frescos commissioned by the Ministry of Education for the Escuela Normal (the Normal School for Teachers, now destroyed).
Upon his return, Ramos began the Scripps College fresco project along with designs for stained glass windows for St. John’s Church in Los Angeles. Both projects were left unfinished. On November 8, 1946, he arrived home feeling exhausted. He sought medical aid, and returned home where he suffered a fatal heart attack. Alfredo Ramos Martinez was 73 years old, just four days shy of his 74th birthday.
ARM: MODERNISMO & MODERNITY
For Alfredo Ramos Martinez, modernity and Modernismo are the parameters of his personal state of being. His early years in Mexico, his youthful criticism of the Academy, his interest in natural light, his fascination with everyday things, all lead him toward a modern vision encouraged by his European years.
In Europe, Ramos finds himself in a city that looks toward the modern with its galeries, its broad boulevards created by Baron Haussman. There he also experiences the revolution that is sweeping through the arts. And of course, it is there that he meets Rubén Darío.
Darío opened the doors to the other face of modernity: modernismo. A term embodying a freedom of imagination, a recapitulation of mythological worlds of sprites, shepherdesses, and cyclical and magical rituals that lead to a world of female power, the world of the goddess and the siren.
The interaction between painter and poet, a quasi-symbiotic relationship of writing and painting, enrich and support the young painter. His modernista paintings of nymphs dancing through fields of flowers, of processions of sprites making flower offerings and of sensual, mysterious women leap from the real to the fantastic, from the philosophical to the erotic. Ramos, like Darío and the Latin American poets of that time and space, continues to explore the infinite horizons of the imagination.
California is, of course, the turning point, the point of reference. By distancing himself from Mexico at the end of the twenties and from an environment that is slowly becoming more narrow under the weight of self-interests, Alfredo Ramos Martinez creates a new Mexican art drawn from the Mexico of memory but enriched by his understanding of a cultural past (Europe) and a new cultural space (Los Angeles). That understanding of a past within a present that looks forward is what Ramos’ work reveals. Modern and modernista, the world we find in Ramos Martinez’s work takes Mexican art past its borders and toward a new universal space.