JEAN CHARLOT: FROM FRANCE TO MEXICO

 

John Charlot

 

“el homenaje del muralismo de México a uno de sus fundadores primordiales”

‘the homage of the muralism of Mexico to one of his primordial founders’

David Alfaro Siqueiros (1968)

 

The Mexican Mural Renaissance is hard to grasp because of the numbers and quality of the artists involved and the complications of their interaction.  The central role of Jean Charlot has been acknowledged but not defined.  A major difficulty in doing this is the lack of knowledge about his French period, from his birth in 1898 to his emigration to Mexico in 1921 (John Charlot 1990).  In fact, that period provided the basis for his influential accomplishments and views during the Renaissance.  I will sketch here only the broad connections of Charlot’s French and Mexican periods.  Since the Renaissance was very much a group activity, I emphasize the important qualification that Jean Charlot was most often not the sole factor at work on any given issue. 

Charlot was born into a Franco-Mexican family.  His French ancestors on his mother’s side had emigrated to Mexico in the 1820s and married into Spanish, Aztec, and Jewish families there.  The Charlots frequently received Mexican visitors in France, and Spanish was spoken along with French in the home.  Charlot and his mother moved to Mexico in 1921 in order to stay with relatives.  There Charlot felt he had a blood connection to the nation and developed a passionate identification with it, one he could not feel later in the United States and the Pacific.  Rather than an outside observer, he strove to become an authentic Mexican artist, whose work flowed from his identity.  This identity was controverted at the time, but in 1926 Anita Brenner described it as “an assimilation recognized and accepted especially by his fellow-painters, who often assert ‘Charlot is even more Mexican than we are’” (Brenner 1926: 3).  In contrast, José Clemente Orozco described him as “pintor exclusivamente europeo y por aĖadidura francés y joven en extremo” ‘a painter exclusively european and in addition French and extremely young’ (1942: 12).  In my opinion, Charlot was the unique insider-outsider of the Movement.  In fact, his French background invested him with considerable prestige in Mexico, which, for over a century, had been perhaps the most francophile country in the world.  As Carlos Mérida stated (interview January 29, 1971): “La personalidad de Juán se hizo notar porque él, como europeo, tenía una cultura de la cual carecíamos todos nosotros” ‘Juan’s personality was notable because he, as a european, possessed a culture that the others of us lacked.’   

Several of Charlot’s ancestors had in fact been Mexicanistes, French scholars and promoters of Mexican culture.  They were particularly interested in the indigenous cultures, which they felt should be recognized for their great artistic achievements, rather than stigmatized as barbaric.  Charlot’s great-uncle, EugŹne Goupil (1831-1896), donated the most important Boturini-Aubin-Goupil Collection of Aztec codices to the BibliothŹque Nationale as “un pieux hommage ą la mémoire de ma mŹre” ‘a pious homage to the memory of my mother’, who was half-Aztec.  His donation of Mexican-Indian art works to the Trocadero forms a major part of that museum’s collection.  EugŹne’s brother and Charlot’s grandfather, Louis Goupil (1834-1926), assisted the pioneering archeologist and photographer Désiré Charnay (1828-1915), who became a weekly visitor to the Charlot home in Paris.  Charnay took the young Charlot with him to museums and lectures and introduced him to other scholars in the field.  As Charlot was growing up, he was thus surrounded by Mexican Indian art works and by people who could help him understand them.  In 1914, at age sixteen, he began a formal study of the Goupil Collection, analyzing the originals with the aid of secondary literature, Aztec-language study, and his own careful copying. 

Charlot thus arrived in Mexico with an uncommonly thorough and scholarly knowledge of Indian art.  He continued his studies there, visiting museums and archeological sites (in 1926-1928, he worked as an archeologist at Chich’en Itza, Yucatan) and acquiring a speaking knowledge of Náhuatl.   He wrote voluminously on Mexican art history, including the Mural Renaissance, texts that are considered basic today (e.g., Textes Franćais, Escritos sobre Arte, The Mexican Mural Renaissance).  More immediately, he aided his Mexican colleagues in their own study of their cultural heritage, as several later remembered.

Charlot brought from the French Mexicanistes not just knowledge, but a pro-Indian, anti-Conquest attitude, little appreciated in Mexico at that time and even in many circles today.  Charlot’s first mural portrayed The Massacre in the Main Temple (1922-1923), in which Indian ritual dancers are attacked by knights in machine-like armor: the life devoted to beauty is crushed by industrial profit-taking.  The tragic, historical subject contrasted strongly with the decorative, allegorical ones of the earlier twentieth-century murals.  The theme of conflict and even details of Charlot’s expression of it would be adopted by other muralists. 

Conflict was not a mere addition to the repertoire, but a theme that touched for the first time the deepest life experience of the young artists.  Charlot had been inducted into the French artillery in 1917, had fought in the Battle of the Matz, and then become a junior officer of the famous Division Marocaine.  His unit had fought the retreating Germans and participated in the Occupation of the Rhineland.  While serving, Charlot worked on a series of large woodcuts, the Chemin de Croix (Morse numbers 11-25), carrying the blocks in his saddle-bags, and pouring into the stark images all the suffering he had experienced in the war.  On his first exploratory trip to Mexico, he donated a copy of the Chemin to the library of the art Academy of San Carlos in thanks for their hospitality.  When he returned to France to prepare for his final emigration, the Chemin was discovered by several young Mexican artists.  They recognized in the images an expression of what they themselves had suffered during the Revolution.  On his side, like many veterans, Charlot felt that most people in France were anxious to forget the war and the soldiers.  The world, and especially the art world, had moved on before he had had a chance to fully explore and express his tragic experience.  He arrived in Mexico, therefore, with emotional and artistic concerns that resonated with society and found an audience that could empathize with him. 

Indeed, the government of Mexico was dedicated to constructing a new society on the tradition of the Revolution: all would work to achieve the ideals for which so many had died.  The atmosphere resembled the exhilarating and constructive freedom just after the Russian Revolution.  José Vasconcelos, in charge of culture and education, mobilised writers and artists to support the social movement.  Charlot remembered their excited feeling that they could make a real difference with their art. 

This sense of mission clashed with the growing art-for-art tendency that came to dominate the art world and art historiography.  The artists were faced with an aporia that demanded a choice, one that would determine their careers and even identities as artists.  Most Mexican artists, both then and later, opted against a socially oriented muralism.  Charlot could help the potential muralists because he had for many years faced the same problem in Paris.  In the foyer of art-for-art, Charlot had decided to be a liturgical artist, producing monumental works that communicated a serious message to the people.  This Frenchman’s choice reassured the Mexicans, and he could provide a living example of such a vocation as well.  Moreover, the model of the liturgical artist could be adapted to the secular muralist, even including the Medieval ideal of team-work rather than individualism.  In Paris, Charlot had pursued this selfless ideal in La Gilde Notre-Dame, an association of young liturgical artists.  In the early years of the Renaissance, he felt he was achieving the same team-spirit with the young Mexicans with whom he was planning large projects.  The dissolution of their team was the sad ending of the young, idealistic phase of the Renaissance.  But the liturgical art of Europe and the Americas continued to be the influential background of Mexican muralism.  

Once the muralist mission had been accepted, the artists were faced with the problem of finding the appropriate means to accomplish it.  That is, what and how could they communicate to their particular audience in their time and place?  How could they create an art that was both national and universal?  The early months of the Renaissance are a struggle to answer these questions.  One solution was to paint conventional allegories, but use Mexican models instead of generalized European figures.  Another was to reinvigorate received genre scenes—like Mexican kitchens, dances, and bull-fights—by joining the decorative folk arts to similar European trends: a Beardsley charro surrounded by floral motifs from Mexican ceramics.  But the problem would not be solved by content or picturesque applications.  A new style had to be created from the ground up. 

Charlot had already faced this problem in France: the creation of a modern liturgical art.  He had rejected the easy solutions of antiquarianism and pastiche.  An authentic, contemporary art could be created only by the full process of observation, openness to emotion, education in art history from the beginnings until today, training in craft, and experimentation and production until the new style had been achieved.  Charlot had achieved such a synthesis in France in his Chemin de Croix and in his large gouache L’Amitié of 1921.  He could use that experience in creating a new style for himself and thus contributing to the team quest.  How could he express in his art that “Mexico est une terre essentiellement plastique, tragique et surnaturelle” ‘Mexico is a land essentially plastic, tragic, and supernatural’ (ca. 1925). 

Charlot’s position as an insider-outsider now became important.  The sights of Mexico struck him with a freshness his Mexican colleagues had long outgrown, and as a respected, prestigious Frenchman, he could validate their importance for the work in hand.  Wandering the streets of Mexico, sketchbook in hand, he noticed expressive details of daily life that were over-familiar to the Mexicans.  But again, the problem was not subject matter—Mexican subjects had been treated continuously for millenia—but presentation, a presentation that would be worthy both of the subject and the historical moment.  Charlot looked everywhere for stylistic clues, again with the untired eye of the newcomer.  He not only haunted the archeological museum, as he had the Louvre, but also wrote about rebozos and Indian dances with the refined appreciation of a European connoisseur.  Just as he had studied the Calvaires of Brittany, so he traveled to the villages to meet the active and impressive folk artists.  Just as in Paris he had collected Daumier and Images d’Epinal in the Marché aux Puces and from the bookstalls along the quais, so he discovered being sold in the streets of Mexico City the prints of the genius José Guadalupe Posada, now an icon of Mexican art.  Charlot shared all of his discoveries with his colleagues and the public.  When Ida Rodriguez Prampolini was a young student, Orozco warned her against conventional views of the Renaissance: “It’s Charlot, the Frenchman.  He was the one who took us to the National Museum and showed us the archeological works.  We learned to see Mexico through the eyes of Charlot” (personal communication February 10, 1986). 

But Charlot was above all a creative artist.  On November 24, 1921, Charlot arrived in Mexico to stay.  In January 1922, along with Fernando Leal, he began a series of woodcuts (Morse numbers 27-37) that are recognized as the beginning of the revival of art print-making in Mexico.  The series is also the earliest example of the strongest style that would be adopted and developed by the muralists.  Charlot’s French Cubistic experiments have been absorbed into aggressive images: Indian faces, roughened by suffering, hardened by patience, reveal the energy that can burst into revolution.  Charlot bared the ugly power of the poor, the threat of the helpless, the irreducible dignity of the human being.  The images evoke the chiseled stone masks of the Aztecs and the violent prints of the streets, all absorbed into a new and undeniably contemporary idiom.  Charlot had seen the seriousness of Mexico and created a style to express it. 

Charlot expanded his work to oils and in April 1922 started his first fresco mural, The Massacre in the Main Temple, the main genre of the Mexican Renaissance and what would become the main medium.  Several murals had been produced earlier, and Charlot was assisting Diego Rivera on his encaustic Creation.  But Charlot could also draw on valuable experience from his French period.  Before the parish priest withdrew the commission, Charlot had completed his scale planning for Processional, large friezes designed to be executed in fresco on the sides of the nave of a parish church.  On the dark side, “les mutilés de la guerre” ‘the mutilated in the war’ with their relatives or loved ones made their painful way towards the altar; on the sunny side, children, often orphans, moved more lightly in innocence and hope.  The Massacre retains in darker tones the “rainbow palette” Charlot used in Processional, and the achievement of its complicated composition can be more easily understood as the artist’s second mural project. 

The Massacre is a seminal work of the Renaissance.  Charlot solved the technical problems of fresco—solutions he shared in his Aide-Mémoire Technique (Textes Franćais)—and presented subject matter as symbolic: Mexican subjects would be presented not as folklore or anthropology but as icons of universal significance.  The cargador would not be an extra in a picturesque street scene but Crucified to the Stone.  The kneeling mother grinding corn and her child, strapped to her back, being rocked to sleep, represent Rest and Work: the labor of the parent provides the peace of the child.  Charlot made such traditional subjects transparent to the light of universal human experiences and values.  Such subjects were worthy to be treated on mural scale, as Charlot did in 1923 in his three murals in the Secretariat of Education. 

Charlot naturally became a resource for his colleagues in questions of technique, composition, and theme.  Orozco wrote in his memoirs: “Charlot, con su ecuanimidad y su cultura atemperó muchas veces nuestros exabruptos juveniles y con su visión clara iluminó frecuentemente nuestros problemas” ‘With his equanimity and culture, Charlot often tempered our juvenile outbursts and with his clear vision frequently illuminated our problems’ (1942: 12).  Mérida stated (interview January 29, 1971):

luego todas las discusiones que se tenían con respecto al arte, él siempre fue consultado, sus opiniones aceptadas, porque se consideraba, y eso se hacía palpable, de que él sabía muchísimo más que nosotros; sobre todo los artistas mexicanos que nunca habían viajado por Europa. 

‘at that time, all the discussions that were held about art, he was always consulted, his opinions accepted, because it was considered, and it made itself palpable, that he knew much more than the rest of us; especially the Mexican artists who had never traveled to Europe.’ 

Many years later, Octavio Paz (1993: 133) would complain about the neglect of Charlot in Mexican art historiography, including among several points: “nor is any mention made of his theoretical works, which played a decisive role at the very beginning of the movement.” 

The theoretical work that Charlot brought from France was his Traité de Peinture of 1920, mentioned in the mid-1920s by Diego Rivera.  One of Charlot’s Mexican notebooks contains diagrams from it that were probably used in discussions with his fellow artists.  The Traité examines a large number of technical problems and insists on style or genuine artistry as the first requirement of any art work.  Subject and message, however, if properly selected, can contribute their own beauty to the total effect of the work.  The muralist must first achieve the level of true art, but the content and theme of his work are not indifferent or unimportant.  Charlot’s position is between the rejection of subject matter as irrelevant, on the one hand, and on the other, the elevation of subject matter as a criterion of excellence, as was done by some Mexican artists in their extreme ideological phases. 

Until its recent publication, the Traité was known only as a private manuscript.  But Charlot’s many published writings articulated the esthetic and ideals of the Renaissance to the general public and even to the artists themselves (Mérida interview January 29, 1971):

Juán fue siempre un gran escritor sobre arte.  Él tiene una clarividencia extraordinaria para definir, para juzgar y para escribir.  Y como yo lo dije antes, Juán era en este "trait", en este camino, en esta condición, uno de los directores del movimiento con más capacidad y con más influencia por el hecho de que era un culto europeo capaz de discernir, de definir, de enseĖar, de modelar, de explicar todo lo que nosotros hacíamos y que nosotros conociésemos exactamente por qué y cuándo aquello se hacía. 

‘Juan was always a great writer on art.  He had an extraordinary clairvoyance for defining, judging, and writing.  And as I said before, Juan was in this trait, in this path, in this condition, one of the directors of the movement with more capacity and influence because of the fact that he was a cultivated european capable of discerning, defining, teaching, modeling, explaining all that we others were doing so that we ourselves knew exactly why that was being done and at the very time it was being done.’ 

Charlot continued to write on Mexican art through the last working day of his life.  But his practice of formulating the ideals and plans of his group started in France.  In 1916, when he was eighteen years old, he delivered an address to La Gilde Notre-Dame, which was mentioned in the press and became his first published article: “Nous les Jeunes !”

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Brenner, Anita, 1926.  “Jean Charlot.”  Unpublished typescript, 3 pp.

 

Jean Charlot

 

Escritos sobre Arte, web site of the Jean Charlot Foundation, University of Hawai`i.

 

Textes Franćais, őuvres en Prose, web site of the Jean Charlot Foundation. 

 

1963.  The Mexican Mural Renaissance: 1920–1925.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

 

Charlot, John, 1990.  "The Formation of the Artist: Jean Charlot's French Period."  In Thomas Klobe (ed.): Jean Charlot: A Retrospective, University of Hawai`i Art Gallery, Honolulu, pp. 34–57. 

 

Charlot, John, 2001.  “Jean Charlot’s First Fresco: The Massacre in the Main Temple” and “Appendices,” web site, the Jean Charlot Foundation. 

 

Koprivitza, Milena, and Blanca GarduĖo Pulido, 1994.  México en la obra de Jean Charlot.  Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. 

 

Mérida, Carlos.  Entrevista con Carlos Mérida, January 29, 1971, by John Charlot.

 

Morse, Peter, 1976.  Jean Charlot's Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné.  Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii and the Jean Charlot Foundation.

 

Orozco, José Clemente, 1942.  Autobiografía de José Clemente Orozco.  Mexico City: Excelsior, March 13, pp. 4, 12. 

 

Siqueiros, David Alfaro, 1968.  Prologue.  In Obra pictórica de Jean Charlot, Instituto de Bellas Artes, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico, April-May. 

 

Paz, Octavio, 1993.  Essays on Mexican Art (translated by Helen Lane).  New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

 

 

Copyright John Charlot 2003