José Vasconcelos’ Brief Memoir of the Mexican Pictorial Renaissance

Written for Jean Charlot

edited by John Charlot

José Vasconcelos (1882–1959) had long been one of the most important intellectuals of Mexico when President Álvaro Obregón appointed him to create the Ministry of Education in 1921.  From that position, Vasconcelos initiated an educational and cultural movement of unprecedented breadth and achievement (Fell 1989).  Jean Charlot (1898–1979) called Vasconcelos the deus ex machina of the Mexican Mural Renaissance, which he launched and patronized as part of his general program.  He invited artists to paint on the public walls he provided, gave them the necessary artistic freedom, and protected them from the attacks of politicians, critics, journalists, students, and much of the bourgeois public.  When Vasconcelos resigned in July 1924, the first, heady, idealistic phase of the Mural Renaissance was over.  Charlot and other artists lost their positions and left for other pursuits and even for other countries.  Vasconcelos’ attempts to establish a political opposition resulted in his suffering long periods of exile until he returned to Mexico in 1940. 

Charlot himself returned to Mexico from 1945 to 1947 to do research on his book, The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920–1925 (1963, 1967).  There he reestablished contacts with his friends and colleagues.  In an unpublished section of his book, he describes his encounter with his old patron. 

While writing this book, it is not without diffidence that I revisited the men and the buildings that are described here as I knew them in the early nineteen-twenties.  Much of the paper research concerned with the Vasconcelos era was made in the National Library, whose director happened to be white-haired José Vasconcelos.  The swarm of employees, the court of artists he commanded as Secretary of Education, was pared down to one buxom, amiable typist; the piles of documents that overflowed the giant desk that he liked––carved from hard zapote wood with the signs of the Zodiac––to a few memo sheets on a table. 

Charlot was anxious to do justice to Vasconcelos, whose crucial role in the Renaissance had almost been forgotten.   He asked Vasconcelos––as he asked many of his old colleagues––to provide him with his recollections of the period.  Vasconcelos sketched a memoir on October 17, 1945,[1] which is published here for the first time in its entirety.  Charlot discussed the memoir with Vasconcelos and quoted it in his book. 

The manuscript––now in the Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawai`i––is transcribed here with minimal notes.  Due to the difficulty of Vasconcelos’ handwriting, some passages remain uncertain.  I have depended on the typed transcription of Jean Charlot, but depart from it in several places.  I thank Gustavo Vázquez very much for his essential help in deciphering the manuscript.  After his transcription, Charlot added notes from his conversation with Vasconcelos. 

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JOSE VASCONCELOS

SERAPIO RENDON No. 76

MEXICO. D. F.

 

A fines de 20, Montenegro me acompaĖó con Fernández Ledesma (Gabriel) a Manzanillo 

En Manzanillo Montenegro y Ledesma hicieron unas acuarelas de tipos mexicanos. 

Después fueron Montenegro y Ledesma a Oaxaca pę enseĖar y orientar a los fabricantes de loza––cambiandoles, modernizándoles sus sistemas de decoración.  De entonces arranca el auge de la loza oaxaqueĖa que hoy tiene mercado en Nueva York. 

Los primeros ensayos de pintura al fresco los hizo Montenegro en el grupo de San Pedro y San Pablo, con baba de maguey.  Tal templo lo redecoraron Montenegro y Enciso y Fernández Ledesma. 

Enciso hizo la decoración mural en flores y gui[rnald]as estilo colonial.

Montenegro hizo el mural central y los vitrales.  Inició Montenegro de esta suerte también el vitral.

Fernández Ledesma hizo el lambrín de mosaicos, haciendo los mosaicos en Aguascalientes donde renovó una vieja fábrica de este material.  

Un aĖo después de comenzado el renacimiento pictórico por Montenegro, Enciso, Ledesma, Diego Rivera me escribió de Europa por conducto de Alfonso Reyes y de Pani. Al llegar me pidió trabajo.  Le tuve prevención porque pintaba cubismo y este no era[2] adaptable a mi juicio para obras del Estado.  Traía en la cabeza a Picasso––  Lo puse a estudiar un mural de tema universal––en la Preparatoria––en el Anfiteatro––  Esto fue por Diciembre.  En ese mes me acompaĖó a un viaje a Yucatán, junto con Best. Escuchó Diego las conferencias de Best sobre arte Mexicano.  Esto lo inspiró quizás lo decidió al tema nacional––  Para fomentarle esta inclinación, le aconsejé y le di facilidades para un viaje a Tehuantepec.  

Antes de este viaje se había inaugurado su mural del Anfiteatro que no gustó.  La prensa toda nos criticó a los dos.  Se inventó la palabra feísmo y todo el mundo estaba contra Diego. 

 Para salvarlo le insistí en que la decoración del Ministerio acabado de inaugurar tuviese temas nacionales y le di los temas.  El trabajo del salón de recibir y de la escalera lo ofrecí originalmente a Best–– pero este no presentó bocetos, entonces le di el salón a Montenegro y la escalera a Rivera, dandole como tema el ascenso de la costa, al altiplano.  Fue esto la primera obra de Diego de inspiración mexicana.  El plafond lo completó Montenegro con un vitral que representa según tema que le di “El flechador del cielo.” 

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Como tema para los patios di a Diego los trabajos y las fiestas. 

Al fin de 22 llegó Siqueiros  por su cuenta.

Por encargo de Diego le di la oportunidad como pintor desconocido––la escalera del patio chico de la Preparatoria.  Pasaron los aĖos y nunca hizo nada––  Su obra de pintor es sin duda posterior a mi gestión en la Secretaría. 

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En la Preparatoria, independentemiente de Diego y por recomendación de Julio Torri empezó a pintar Orozco––también con poco éxito  La reputación de este pintor se hizo en los E. U. independentemiente de mi labor en la Secretaría––  Pintó en Preparatoria en 23. 

Al mismo tiempo pintó por encargo mío con temas que le di por la escalera del patio principal Fernando Leal; me le recomendó Ramos Martínez––  El otro lado de la escalera lo pintó Jean Charlot a quien me recomendó Diego––  Después Charlot hizo el precioso fresco del volantín en la Secretaría.

Conocí a Atl hace aĖos pero entró a trabajar por la Secretaría cuando estuvo a mi cargo––por junio de 1923–– Hizo labor independiente en el Anexo de la Preparatoria. –– El creó sus temas. 

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Spoken:

El único que hacía lo que decía era Diego. 

Por el cariĖo que le tenía a la escuela. 

Me pedía Best mucho dinero y en ese tiempo no pude dárselo. 

6 nietos tengo.  Todo lo que hago después del trabajo es jugar con los niĖos.

 

Torri says Clemente illustrated “Dante” for the Govt. 

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JOSE VASCONCELOS

SERAPIO RENDON No. 76

MEXICO. D. F.

 

Toward the end of 1920, Montenegro[3] accompanied me with Fernández Ledesma (Gabriel)[4] to Manzanillo. 

In Manzanillo Montenegro and Ledesma painted some watercolors of Mexican types.

Afterwards Montenegro and Ledesma went to Oaxaca to teach and orient the makers of pottery––changing them, modernizing their systems of decoration.  From that point starts the high point of the pottery of Oaxaca, which today has a market in New York.  

The first essays in fresco painting were done by Montenegro in the group of San Pedro and Pablo, with maguey sap.[5]  That church was redecorated by Montenegro, Enciso,[6] and Fernández Ledesma. 

Enciso painted the mural decoration in flowers and garlands in colonial style.

Montenegro made the central mural and the stained-glass windows.  In this way Montenegro initiated stained-glass windows as well. 

Fernández Ledesma made the wainscoting of mosaics, making the mosaics in Aguascalientes where he renovated an old factory of this material. 

A year after the beginning of the pictorial renaissance by Montenegro, Enciso, and Ledesma, Diego Rivera[7] wrote me from Europe through Alfonso Reyes[8] and Pani.[9]  When he arrived, he asked me for work.  I was cautious because he painted cubism, and this in my judgment was not adaptable to works of the Government.  He had Picasso in his head––  I put him to studying a mural with a universal theme––in the Preparatoria––in the Amphitheatre––That was around December.  In that month he accompanied me on a trip to Yucatán along with Best.[10]  Diego attended Best’s lectures on Mexican art.  That inspired him, perhaps decided him on a national subject––  To encourage this inclination, I counseled him and gave him the means for a trip to Tehuántepec. 

Before this voyage, his mural in the Amphitheatre had been begun, which did not please.  All the press criticized both of us.  The word “Uglyism” was invented, and everyone was against Diego.

To save him, I insisted to him that the decoration of the Ministry which had just been started would have national subjects, and I gave him the subjects.  The work in the reception room and the staircase I offered originally to Best––but he did not provide sketches.  Then I gave the reception room to Montenegro and the staircase to Rivera, giving him as subject the ascent from the coast to the plateau of Mexico.  This was Diego’s first work of a Mexican inspiration.  Montenegro completed the ceiling with a stained-glass window that represented, according to the subject that I gave him, The Archer of the Sky. 

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As subject of the courtyards, I gave Diego labors and fiestas. 

At the end of 1922, Siqueiros arrived on his own.[11]  

On Diego’s responsibility, I gave him the opportunity as an unknown painter––the staircase of the small court of the Preparatoria.  The years passed, and he never did anything–– His work as a painter is without doubt posterior to my administration in the Ministry. 

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In the Preparatoria, independently of Diego and on the recommendation of Julio Torri,[12] Orozco began to paint––also with little success.[13]  The reputation of this painter was made in the United States independently of my work in the Ministry––  He painted in the Preparatoria in 1923. 

At the same time Fernando Leal painted the staircase of the main court, on my orders and with subjects that I gave him.[14]  Ramos Martínez recommended him to me––  Jean Charlot, whom Diego recommended to me, painted the other side of the staircase––  Afterwards Charlot made the precious fresco of the kite in the Ministry.[15] 

I knew Atl[16] for years, but he started working for the Ministry when I was in charge––around June of 1923–– He did independent work in the Annex of the Preparatoria. –– He created his own subjects. 

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Spoken:

The only one who did what he said was Diego.

For the affection that he felt for the school. 

Best asked me for much money, which I was not able to give him at that time.

I have 6 grandchildren.  All I do after work is play with the children.

 

Torri says Clemente illustrated “Dante” for the Govt.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Charlot, Jean, 1963, 1967. The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920–1925.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Charlot, John, 2008.  “Patrocinio y libertad creativa: José Vasconcelos y sus muralistas.”  Parteaguas, Revista del Instituto Cultural de Aguascalientes, Year 4, Number 13, Summer, pp. 97–105.  

Fell, Claude, 1989.  José Vasconcelos: Los AĖos del Águila (1920-1925): Educación, Cultura e Iberoamericanismo en el México Postrevolucionario.  Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

 

 



[1] This date is given on Jean Charlot’s transcription: "Written by Lic. Vasc. October 17, 1945."  

[2] Replaces: hubiera. 

[3] Roberto Montenegro, 1887–1968. 

[4] Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, 1900–1983. 

[5] Vasconcelos may be remembering mistakenly an episode with Diego Rivera, Charlot 1967: 257–260.

[6] Jorge Enciso. 

[7] Diego Rivera, 1886–1957. 

[8] Alfonso Reyes, 1889–1959. 

[9] Alberto J. Pani, 1878–1955. 

[10] Adolfo Best Maugard, 1891–1964. 

[11] David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1896–1974.  Vasconcelos is mistaken in his memory.  In fact, he made a great effort to bring Siqueiros back to Mexico, Charlot 1967: 198–201. 

[12] Julio Torri, 1889–1970. 

[13] José Clemente Orozco, 1883–1949. 

[14] Vasconcelos states here that he gave Leal the subject for his mural.  However, this contradicts his earlier statements as well as those of Leal (Charlot 2008: 98 ff.).  Vasconcelos uses here much the same words he used for Rivera (“Como tema para los patios di a Diego”;le di los temas”) and Montenegro (“según tema que le di”).  In my opinion, his memory has mistakenly extended his selection of subjects to the younger artists.  The statement does show, I believe, that in the 1940s he appreciated those artists more than he did in the 1920s.

The present transcription reveals a major fault in my article (2008), for which I apologize most sincerely.  At the time of writing, I followed Charlot’s transcription: “en lugar que le di.”  The more accurate transcription, “con temas que le di,” can certainly be used as an objection to my thesis that Vasconcelos provided subjects for the older artists but not for the younger ones.  However, the evidence of the earlier statements, which were much nearer to the events, persuades me that Vasconcelos was making another mistake in this text. 

[15] On Vasconcelos’ confusion of temas, see Charlot 2008: 103, n. 41

[16] Dr. Atl, Gerardo Murillo, 1875–1964.