I AM A PAINTER
| Guanajuato, Mexico
''I am a painter.'' The words stand 10 feet tall, like the murals. They are old, like the antiquity the paintings portray. They are proud, like the man who utters them.
But they are only words. And you cannot fully find Jose Chavez Morado, the 75 -year-old follower of Diego Rivera and contemporary of Rufino Tamayo, in words. You must look for him in images.
Images such as those you find spread across one giant wall in the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology.
The museum's creators asked Senor Chavez Morado to portray three great periods of pre-Hispanic Mexican history - the preclassic, classic, and postclassic - in this mural. And he did, in sweeping images of savage bloodshed, dark oppression, and the struggle to be free.
He is a painter of the heroic school that sprang from the Mexican Revolution. His images, massive and sculptured, mingle primitive brutality and modernist abstraction. They are mostly the images of Mexican history.
Here is a more contemporary, image.
It is 10 o'clock on a Tuesday morning at El Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato - one of the small museums that Chavez Morado has spent his life organizing and consecrating. He is at work on a scaffolding a good 18 feet up. Wearing a red bandana and loose-fitting jeans jacket, he is hunched over, working a pencil across a stretch of white plaster.
Around him, in varying stages of completion, loom three murals more than 19 feet tall and 4 feet wide. They are hieroglyphic reflections on history. The umbers and siennas impart a burning sense, mingled with the white ash of priests' and judges' robes. The evil figures in Mexican history look almost Dracula-esque; the typical heroes, the peasants, have a childlike beauty.
In these murals, Chavez Morado is practicing a kind of craft that has all but disappeared from Mexican painting. He had to stop work on them for a year because there is only one fresco plaster specialist in all of Mexico, and this specialist had to work on a project in another part of the country.
On a deeper level, too, he has seen the fundamentals of his craft disappear from the art world here. Almost no one is interested in painting the great Indian-Gothic forms and subject matter - borrowed from the dark side of the Indian and European cultures - that he and his contemporaries were concerned with.
While he feels that something wonderful was lost in the rush toward abstraction, he still has hope.
''I am not so pessimistic,'' he observes. ''Culture is like a pendulum. We have had a long time of abstraction. There is an uprising of neo-realism, but still just at the surface. They have not gone very deep. But I think (the return to realism in painting) will be very important. Because you cannot be insensible to what happens around you.
''You have the tools. You have to have the commitment to something. After all , we are communicators.''
You see what he hopes to communicate in this chapel-like room with its rugged wooden doors opening onto Mexican mountaintops: a sense of the fire and turmoil in his country's history.
The paintings will be a central attraction in this tiny museum, down a bending side street in bustling old Guanajuato. They represent, he says as he draws, ''the cutting up of Mexico by the United States, by the French, by the wealthy families.'' At the bottom of one ''there are faces in the flames, suggesting the restlessness of the Revolution.'' He wants to be careful in painting these faces, he says, ''because they are people I knew in my childhood.''
That childhood saw the Revolution rage through Mexico. It led to an era when Mexican thought erupted with nationalistic fervor, the dream to create all things Mexican. And this dream gave birth to Diego Rivera, a whole school of painting, a way of looking at the world, and Jose Chavez Morado.
''I am proud of that,'' he had said on an earlier evening, sitting with his wife, Olga Costa, in their home crammed with antiques. ''In 1921, when Rivera started painting murals . . . there was a social shaking of the country. It produced a (school) of painting that includes not only the cultural arts of Mexico, but also the influences of most of the world.
''There were the Italian muralist (influences). Rivera also brought the influence of Paris. We're all interconnected.''
Maybe so. But the Mexicanidad (Mexicanness) of Chavez Morado and his work is inescapable. Nowhere else in art do you see such mingling of Moorish, high-Spanish, European, and Amerindian realism and abstraction. That province belongs to the school that these men fashioned.
Chavez Morado was not the important founding figure in this school. Nor is he the best known. He is a regional painter with a large national reputation (he designed the important central pillar of the Museum of Anthropology's spreading courtyard.)
''He doesn't have Tamayo's international reputation; but, then, who does?'' comments Leonard Brooks, a Canadian painter who lives in nearby San Miguel de Allende. ''Jose Chavez Morado is, however, the best fresco painter in Mexico. He is highly regarded as a proponent of that social-realism school.''
''My murals (deal with) the subject matter in a very open way,'' Chavez-Morado muses. ''Most are didactic. They tell you who and when.
''These things are not so strong, now,'' he goes on. ''There is a crisis of identity in most young painters. They look more from the outside than from the inside. . . . I am perhaps one of the last artists representing the fundamentalist movement. Many others have died. Only two or three are left all with something in common.''
The ''something in common'' is all around him as he speaks.
It is part of this house, which he and his wife built from an antique-stone water tower, with its old wooden statues of monks, colonial silver artifacts, the art and ethos of a country. And it is part of this man, aristocratic and articulate, with dark, tawny skin, long silvery hair falling over his collar, looking at the world through the eyes of Mexico.
He treasures the things of beauty that Mexico has produced and the sense of culture he yearns to see cherished here.
''(There is) something that doesn't exist in Mexico: people that have the training and the concepts to create culture where they live. That is why I have helped start schools and museums. That's the kind of life we have to live here. In some countries you can be only an artist. But in Mexico, in my time, we've had to labor for the creation of a culture.
''We have had to push against the indifference of the people. The people have been neglected.''
Chavez Morado is concerned that ''we don't lose our identity.'' Lest the mingling of histories and cultures on this continent is lost in what he calls ''this great wheel of internationalism,'' he says that ''we have to reinforce the identities that create this beautiful mosaic of cultures, which is now in danger. You go to a city, and it looks so much the same as other cities. We are destroying the parks, the trees. It's a madness. We have been losing so much. You have to conserve the essence of the indigenous country; and you should find and be yourself.
''That's what I do in painting. And my wife, too. We are Mexican painters.''