Let’s talk a little about your first experiences with Mexican, more particularly Precolumbian art. How old were you when you saw your first things?
Well, I think it goes on nearly from the time I was born, of course, because the family was in a way bilingual, and Spanish was, I would say, nearly the first language certainly. My mother’s mother and my grandfather, when he was in a special mood or annoyed, would always switch to Spanish because he had been born and grown up in Mexico, and though he himself did not have a, I would say, an organized collection of Mexican antiquities as his brother Eugène had, he himself was surrounded very naturally, because probably of the family ties and friendships, by books and so on relating to the very first archeologists. In Paris, the very close neighbor, who came there nearly every Sunday, was Désiré Charnay. Désiré Charnay had been one of the earliest explorers of ruins in Mexico, and he was the author of the book of The Ancient Cities of the New World, which is one of the most important books published in 1880 or in the 1880s, the original edition. That related to his earliest expeditions in Mexico. When I was doing my book on the Academy of San Carlos, I found a number of letters written by Charnay in which he asked for permission from the governments—I say the governments because all through the nineteenth-century Mexican governments succeeded each other so rapidly—trying to get passage and certain safe conducts and so on to go in what was then the jungles where the ruins were located. He is considered as the man who discovered Palenque, which is one of the most important ruins in the south. And when I knew him, he was really an old man, that is, I would say, in his eighties by then, very lively, very healthy, but chock-full, of course, of stories about his expeditions in Mexico, which gave me, of course, a sort of a romantic image of Mexico that I could not have had by speaking with people who spoke of the Mexico of the 1900s instead of the Mexico of the mid-1800s.
When I did my First Communion, that means I was probably around eleven at the time, Désiré Charnay brought me a very nice little gift. Usually people gave you at the time some nice things, and then you added those gifts; put a little table in there. And I remember I was dressed for my First Communion with a satin ribbon to my sleeve and very happy and beautiful and feeling very pious. And that was one of the nicest wrapped presents. When I opened it, the more I opened it, the smaller it got, but eventually it was a little whistle made of clay, and I started playing with that whistle and, of course, blowing in it, and it was a very soft sound. There were two or three notes to it because there were holes on which you could put your fingers. And my mother asked Charnay, she said, “Well, what a lovely little toy and thank you very much. Where did you get it?” And he said, “Well, it is something that is very precious to me because I was finding tombs on the slopes of the Popocatépetl, and I found that tomb of a little child, a little child about the age of your boy, and for some strange magic, the bones of the boy had dissolved, but his brains had remained intact, and that little toy was right side by side by the brain of the little boy.” So my mother suggested I stop blowing in the little whistle. But I kept it a long time, and for me it summed up the wonderful stories and pleasure I had in knowing Charnay.
It was more than knowing. I would go with him; he would take me as a little boy with him to go and hear lecturers on Mexico, and when he gave a lecture, we went and my grandfather usually and myself to hear him giving lectures. And I learned more than just something about Mexico, but also something about, I would say, pioneers. We always speak of pioneer artists as people who have to suffer a lot, but there are other things. The pioneer explorer who is the first to discover something, I would say, against the grain of the public opinion is very much like the misunderstood artist, and this happened to Charnay because in some of those tombs, especially that cemetery that was dedicated to children, he found toys, for example, little clay dogs, and the clay dogs were obviously on a little platform with wheels. The wheels were lying by the side of the little platform. Charnay illustrated the toys in his book, and the whole learned world of archeologists and explorers laughed at him, said it was impossible, that it was a very well-known fact that the Indians had never discovered the wheel. And of course, Charnay died with that sort of a cloud hanging over him. People refused to believe what he had found, and it’s only in my own generation, easily fifty years after his death, that so many more of those toys were found that it was obvious that even though the wheel was never used by grownups for practical use, they had been used for the toys of the children. So that was a lesson, more general, somehow, especially related to Mexico, that it is dangerous to be the first one in finding something new or in doing something new.
Did you have any Aztec art or Mayan art objects around the house then?
Well, there were always some little things around, but the place that for me was the epitome of Aztec art on a very large scale was the country house, especially, of my Uncle Eugène. He had died, I think, before I was born, but his widow was the owner of the great house where the family, sometimes quite a number of people, would gather together and where were displayed some of the things that my uncle had not given either to the Trocadero Museum or to the Bibliothèque Nationale. Naturally he had kept some of the most spectacular things for himself. There was a very beautiful sixteenth-century portrait of Moctezuma in full costume. It was done in the Western way, and it had great details of the robes of the Emperor and the feather headdress of the Emperor and very beautiful representation of the Aztec type in the face and in the hands and so on. I think, of course, not done from the Emperor himself, but certainly done by a very good painter from a very good type that was as classical in its Aztec beauty as any Greek marble, shall we say, is classical of the Greek body. And that bony head with sparse hair, both mustache and beard, looked very much like my own grandfather; for some reason, the Indian had come out in him in the jaw and around the mouth in those hairs that are so obviously Indian. So I got a little mixed up between Emperor Moctezuma and my grandfather, and I had a great respect for the traditions of my family that mentioned that Indian background, that Indian blood that existed in the family. And all around, of course, there were some glass cases full of things that nowadays would be impossible to duplicate—hearthstones and masks and whatnot. So the sight, we could say, of Mexican antiquities as we call them now were for me more than antiquities. They were sort of a nearly landscaping of accessories around the tales told of my background two or three generations back.
Was your impression, the first impression, these earliest impressions you had of Indian art, are they pretty much the impressions you had later, or did you have very different ones then from the ones you had, say, when you began to write about Indian art?
Well, I think it was all in one piece really. Of course, I suppose an artist doesn’t analyze, or should not analyze even if he could analyze things as they happened because much depends on the naturalness—sort of untempered quality—of reactions. But you have seen in my sister’s little place some of the remnants of the figures and figurines that my grandfather had collected. Those were not Prehispanic things; they were folk art, but they were folk art of the mid-nineteenth century, which is pretty hard to get by nowadays. And because I was little, I would look very intently, especially at the lower shelves. It was more difficult for adults than for me, and it was my own little world at the level of my eyes. Quite a number of those representations are of Indians at their work, and those Indians at their work are the very same people that I found at their work when I went to Mexico and the very same people that I painted at their work with the same gestures that those wax figures were using. The most obvious things were the women working at their metates with their children on their back, wrapped in a rebozo. We have that in that collection; even now there are a few of those figures: the women walking on the way with a child or so wrapped in the rebozo at their back; the men getting the sap out of the maguey for the agua, milk, to make the pulque; and the chinampas—the flat boats, bringing the vegetables on the canals that at the time went right into the heart of Mexico, with the women dressed up in the their village costumes. Nowadays I think it’s only on certain occasions, and fiestas, and so on, but in those days each village had special costumes, just as it is today in Guatemala. And some of those women were dressed up actually in the same hand-woven and hand-dyed costumes of the region of Milpa Alta where Luciana, Luz,1 who had been my model for all the Indian women that I painted, came from. And Luz herself was dressed up in that beautiful skirt, which is wrapped up in a rather elaborate way with folds, that is a very dark blue, indigo blue, with black lines at the bottom and at the top creamy white, and all the folds are gathered together into a hand-woven and embroidered belt, which is a rather stiff belt of white and purple red. Now those colors before I saw them on her, before I saw them on her mother, and so on, when I visited the village, I had seen already in those miniature wax figures. And the way the folds folded, the way the arms in action worked, either giving the breast to the child or working with the stone, hand on the stone metate with the maize flour, I was ready for all that because I had seen it already in those little tableaux. There is a change of scale, I would say, from the child to the adult, that the child can see small things as big, and for me those little figures were really life-sized as I looked at them. So my eyes were really ready for the Mexico that I found. Of course, that was the Mexico of 1920, which, again, may be quite different from Mexico of today. But I think there was no jumping from one theme to another, but from the beginning up to now, the themes have enlarged around the same things: the very few costumes and accessories and the very few motions of the housework, for example, of the women, and that has been sufficient to guide really my whole art. Not so much perhaps as subject matter: as a general statement about—maybe not pleasant life,—but good life as I understand it and summed up in the life of the Indians.
It is very interesting for me that certain themes distilled, if you want, out of your earliest impressions. It would be interesting to know why, for instance, you don’t—among Tante Odette’s things is a big thing of a woman in the ship with all the fruit and stuff, and this is the theme that you have treated a number of times, but which has never become one of your major themes, for instance, the way the woman at the metate is. Why is it, if you want, that you took the woman making the tortillas and you didn’t take the woman bringing her things to market?
Well, the woman bringing her things to market depended on the canals, the Canal de la Viga, which was the main one in which the merchandise, vegetables, and flowers, and so on, came and then were taken by retailers into the city. I know where it was. I’ve been in the place. It was right behind the Escuela de Bellas Artes, actually, but it was not in use anymore; it didn’t exist anymore in my day. It had been filled up, and I had to go back to the lithographs of mid-nineteenth century to have an idea of what it was like when it was an everyday occurrence and not a fiesta affair. Now those same flat boats, the chinampas, and the women selling their goods, you can find now in a place like Santa Anita, for example, and it’s very picturesque, and they have crowns of flowers on their heads, of poppies usually, on the day of Santa Anita, and so on, but it becomes a thing of a fiesta, that is, a thing that is not everyday stuff but slightly artificial even for the Indians, even discounting the many tourists who go to see the Indians on the fiesta day. A day of fiesta is an unusualness, and that’s why it is like that. And my own tie, if you want, with the Indian is in his everyday affairs, and especially I was speaking of visiting in Milpa Alta and the house with Luz, which was at the time a typical Indian house with a floor of beaten earth and very dark, especially the kitchen. And the mother of Luz, who was at the time, I think, ninety years old when I knew her, passing really all her life in that darkness and coolness, I must say, of the kitchen, doing tortillas and so on, other things that were part of the everyday life of the Indians. That, for me, had more value. I wouldn’t say that I was against picturesqueness, but I would accept only what picturesqueness was part of the makeup of the everyday life of the people, and I’ve never been awfully fond of the unusualness of fiesta days, that is, when all the tourists go in to see the Indians dancing and singing and whatnot. That’s not false, if you want, but it’s unusual, like the Kermess of Flanders, which is not typical certainly of the everyday life of the Flemish peasant. So I used things that I considered only deeply engrained. Some of them, for example, are the kitchen chores. I always come back to that; it may be the most essential one. But the Indian is very religious, very spiritual person. And I have also worked on the subject of pilgrimages and so on, which for me are truly a part of Indian life.
One of your—two of your important things don’t quite fit into what you just said. One is the theme of the man on top of the pole who is about to jump off and will be twirled around, but I must say you do that always with a great deal of festival atmosphere, a very festive composition. But another one which is a very deep theme with you and which is, if you want, a festive occasion is that of the malinches. Why is it that the malinches of all the Indian dances attracted you most?
Well, those two things have had a certain influence, if you want, on my life. The man on the high scaffold I saw in Tepoztlán, and the dance or the play, whatever you want to call it, includes a very elaborate speech given in Náhuatl, in Aztec. I think it is the last thing in which the Indians come into their own as far as the language is concerned. And when it is given at night and with the candles lighted and the fellow in the guise of a king speaking in his own language, there is something there that is certainly magnificent as a remembrance of things past. And I was, I am still in a way, a student of the Náhuatl language, and so I was very impressed, and I summed up everything I learned from the Indian language itself in that particular scene.
And as to the malinches, which is, of course, a very different theme, it has a sort of a double meaning, so to speak, double-entendre, if you want, and one of them is that the Indian is not especially sad, romantic; there are some truly gay and truly happy things in him, and those happy things are exteriorized only when he is very young. It’s only in the young girls, especially, that you find that angle. Later on, people can be bubbling with joie de vivre, but it doesn’t show very much outwardly, not even when, let’s say, they are young people courting. So to show that particular happiness of the Indian, I had to use the only moment when it is exteriorized, and that is in those little girls. They are happy because they are dressed up very specially for that particular dance, and they are given a lot of permit to act and express themselves. But that is somehow the mood of gaiety. But under the mood of gaiety there is something else which counts a lot for the people who witness that dance, and that is the great theme of the Conquest. Now the Conquest is the way that we describe that event of the Spaniards in Mexico. I don’t think the Indian has ever thought of it, and I would say very rightly, as a conquest, but as a meeting of two very different types of people who in some way clashed, but in some way merged. And the theme of the dance itself represents the Spanish women that eventually came with some of the Spaniards and the—no, actually that is not so. We should erase that part because it’s all Indian women, but Indian women who sided with the Spaniards and became the mistresses of the Conquistadors and found themselves fighting the women who had sided with the Indian chiefs, who were fighting with their men. So we have Indian women pro, Indian women con, and the fight between them represents that idea of the Conquest, which is not that anybody is the upper-dog or anybody the underdog, but there is a kind of a tremendous whirlwind of different cultures, somehow in the end, in the dance also, adjusting more or less after a period of turmoil. I think that the Indians truly enjoyed the turmoil, and that life would be duller if it hadn’t been for the so-called Conquest. So there is in there a gaiety, which is obvious in the dance, which is a very nice dance, and there is under it a very important quota of history that is being reenacted a little bit like, we could say, mystery plays: speaking of things in the past but still part of the present.
You weren’t at all interested in the double-entendre of the fact that these tiny little girls were playing mistresses pro and con?
Well, no. My question isn’t at all of either virtue or vice or domesticity. I thought it was rather nice, and if we look at the mistress of Cortés, for example, the Malinche, which is the main woman in the dance, after which all those little malinches are called, she had a very nice life when Cortés got a little tired of her, she got a little tired of him, or Cortés became so important as the Conquistador who was the head of the new government, and she had to disappear, he did marry her to a very high Spanish aristocrat, and she went, I think, back to Spain and lived there happily ever after. So there is no tragedy in that question, and I think the wives should take somehow the side of their husbands. I didn’t think at all of anything unusual from that point of view.
It’s very interesting looking at the 1920s sketchbook you’ve bound, Sketches from Life, the first time you see malinches—and most of the sketches are done very analytically, that is, very realistic, rather tall girls with costumes drawn in very carefully with color indications, but there are two little sketches which show malinches in exactly the attitude that you later drew them. There is a little pink malinche here on the third page in with her little hands above her head and her legs far apart, pretty much in the proportions that you did them later, little short body, whereas the other ones which are more realistic show rather longer girls. Now was this one done from life, do you remember, this little sketch, or was that already your mind making it into your style, or was that really a little girl who put her hands like that and sort of jumped?
Well, I think that all the sketches in the book were done from nature while really the dance was proceeding. Then the watercolor swatches were put on afterwards in the evening when I returned home, because they were really done from nature. But the little girl that you single out, I had not myself singled out as being the model for future paintings, and actually I was in the same place in that hacienda where we saw the dance with George Vaillant. He was an archeologist who had worked with me in Yucatán, and he was a rather tall and fat young man. And I was telling him that even though I had copied so many gestures and so on in the dance of the malinches, I didn’t have a clear idea of how to make a picture out of it. And George, he was twenty-five, twenty-six, at the time, said, “Well, that’s easy,” and he started jumping around and pretending he was a little girl, and between his girth and his weight and his gestures, I had an illumination, really, and most of the malinches that happen in my pictures now are a double vision, if you want: what I’d seen in nature, in the dance, and what George had acted for me. Those things are curious, but they are quite true.
Could I ask you just one more question? Do you know whatever happened to the Montezuma portrait you were speaking about?
I wish I knew. I just know that the house was somehow abandoned by the Caplain family, I think, that had it after, at the death of that branch of the Goupils, and the house and I’m afraid the papers in it and so on, and perhaps some of the furniture or some of those pictures remained there when the house was auctioned. So I don’t know if the Montezuma had been saved. I know that the house now has become a station for the firemen in that particular part of the country, in Chaumontel. And I wish I had been there to see if there was anything that I could have saved among papers and accessories, but the picture was so unusual and valuable certainly that I hope that somebody in the family still has it.
Julia (Luciana or Luz) Jiménez (1897–1965) has been called the most frequently represented indigenous woman in twentieth-century art. Born in Milpa Alta, D.F., Mexico, Luz modeled for Charlot, Leal, Rivera, and others. In later year she wrote original stories in Náhuatl, and aided scholars as a valuable linguistics (Náhuatl) and ethnocultural (Aztec) informant. See John Charlot, “Jean Charlot y Luz Jiménez,” Parteaguas 2.8 (Spring 2007): 83–100. An English version is also available.