TAMAYO, Rufino (1899-1991)

Fresco,signed lower right 'Tamayo 9-58'
500 x 450 cm
Date of entry at UNESCO
Country of origin Mexico
Acquisition made by UNESCO on the occasion of the artistic decoration of Room II upon the completion of the Fontenoy building at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in 1958. The fresco was executed in situ.
© Photo: UNESCO/N. Burke
All rights reserved

In 1957 the International Committee of Art Advisors of UNESCO commissioned Rufino Tamayo to decorate the Room of Commissions (Room II today) with a mural in the newly built UNESCO headquarters in Paris. A preparatory sketch, kept in a private collection in Paris, showed how Tamayo meticulously prepared the composition of the two principal figures, Prometheus and man, geometrically drawn, but also of the substructure of well defined partitions to break up the different colours. In 1958, Rufino Tamayo painted his fresco : on the scaffolding installed in the Room of Commissions, he faced the wall and painted on the plaster while it was still wet. Because the subject, Prometheus bringing the fire to mankind, imposed the colour red, Tamayo’s fresco seems to be an exaltation of this colour through its different tones: the carmines and the vermilions bring the fire to life. This perception seems to be confirmed by Tamayo’s own words, when he writes of his own mural : «That the light that seems to irradiate out of the fire of my badly lit ‘Prometheus’ may illuminate the spirits of those who are in charge of the tremendous task of unifying the world through culture ».

Biography on the artist

Rufino Arellanes Tamayo was born on 26 August 1899 in Oaxaca (Mexico). Orphaned in 1911, he moved to Mexico City to live with his aunt. Enrolled in a business school, as his family wished, he studied art at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City. During his studies, he worked at the National Archaeology Museum of Mexico and became familiar with pre-Colombian art. In 1917 Tamayo quit his studies and became the assistant of the Mexican painter Roberto Montenegro (1887-1968). Four years later, he was rewarded for his work at the archaeological museum by being nominated Chief of the Department of Ethnographic Drawings. In 1926, he started to teach painting, and he exhibited both in Mexico and the USA. In 1932 he is asked by the National School of Music of Mexico City to paint a mural : this would be the first of the many public commissions received by Tamayo during his lifetime.

Tamayo moved to New York in 1936, where the Valentine Gallery exhibited his work several times up to the beginning of the 1940s. From 1938 onwards, Rufino Tamayo taught at the Dalton School of New York, where he stayed for 9 years. The 1940s marked a turning point in his art : his subjects would differ from the more politically inspired themes of other Mexican artists like José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), Diego Rivera (1886-1957) or David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974). By referring to pre-Columbian art with its legends and mythological animals, Rufino Tamayo would rediscover the fantastic dimension of art and would follow the footsteps of artists like Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Joan Miro (1893-1983). Tamayo gained international recognition at this time. He exhibited regularly in New York, Paris, Buenos Aires, Houston or Tokyo. His first retrospective exhibition was held in 1948 at the Fine Arts Institute of Mexico City. Having moved to Paris in 1957, Tamayo moved back to Mexico in 1964 where he lived until his death. During the 1970s, he collaborated with the artists Luis and Lea Remba to develop a new graphic technique: the «mixographie ». This technique consisted of obtaining in engravings a certain relief of different heights, creating a relief effect similar to a painting.

In 1981, Tamayo donated 315 of his works of art to the Rufino Tamayo Museum, which was founded earlier that year by Abraham Zabludowsky (1924-2003) and Teodoro González de Léon (1926-) in the Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. Rufino Tamayo died on 24 June 1991 in Mexico City (Mexico), at the age of 92.