Published  19/02/2008

Revisiting Juan Soriano in Philadelphia

Revisiting Juan Soriano in Philadelphia

An interview with Edward J. Sullivan

Mexican artist Juan Soriano is an intriguing figure among the personalities animating the history of Mexican art and literature following the Revolution. Although the charismatic artist influenced and affected his better-known contemporaries (eg Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes), Soriano and his work remain best known in his own country, and to scholars, collectors and dealers of contemporary and modern Mexican art. In fact, Soriano began making his mark on Mexican art while still a teenager.

Born in 1920 in Guadalajara, the capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco, Soriano was, indeed, a child of the Revolution, which ended in the year of his birth. His parents championed the movement's political and social objectives and hoped that their son would become active in promoting its ideals. But Soriano's fragile bearing, due to frequent illnesses, introspective nature and tendency toward fantasy did not fit him for such a future. However, two of his four sisters encouraged him to pursue art and one, Martha, ten years his senior, introduced him to local artists who could nurture his artistic leanings.

At age 14, Soriano began to study with collector and painter Jesús Reyes Ferreira (Chucho Reyes) in Guadalajara; that same year, he exhibited his work for the first time. Through Reyes, Soriano was exposed to art in a wide range of styles and from different periods. From this, he developed particular interests in Mexican folk art and 19th-century portraiture. These interests can be detected in much of Soriano's work, as can certain recurring themes: religion, sexuality and death. The colonial architecture that dominated Guadalajara drew Soriano like a magnet, and he spent many hours during his young adult years observing the interiors of colonial-era churches, convents and other structures.

At the suggestion of a growing group of supportive artists, Soriano moved to Mexico City in 1935 and continued to study 17th- and 18th-century art. Soriano soon connected with the most visible artists, collectors and critics in Mexico City including: photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo, who captured Soriano in some tellingly iconic images; painters María Izquierdo and José Chávez Morado; writer and critic Octavio G. Barreda; and Inés Amor, director of the Galería de Arte Mexicano. Exhibitions of his work rarely failed to elicit praise from established artists, poets and writers, who were moved by a disarming combination of fragility, strength and disconcerting imagery in his paintings. While artists like Rivera and José Clemente Orozco pursued social realism in their state-approved murals and paintings, Soriano distanced himself from overt political and social themes and traditional Mexican objects, scenarios and symbols. Mexican folk and religious art still featured in his work, but transmuted into more personal and, simultaneously, universal themes.

After moving to Mexico City in 1935, Soriano spent time with Rivera, Kahlo and other artists and writers who moved in the orbit of the Contemporáneos group, as well as European surrealists who had travelled to Mexico as war refugees during the late 1930s and early 1940s.1 The dynamic artistic climate in the city fed Soriano's passion for painting, poetry and theatre, and he thrived. In one of his many essays discussing Soriano, Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz described his friend with words that aptly define Soriano's paintings, '... intelligent, passionate, fantastic, real.'2 In fact, Soriano's passion for theatre and dance widened his social and professional circle to include dancers (Amalia Hernández and Ana Mérida) and film stars (Dolores del Río and María Félix). Associations with such performers led to commissions for portraits and designs for costumes and sets.

Soriano's frail physique attracted attention, with most commentators remarking on this quality as part of his artistic persona, yet his images proved quite a contrast; they were strong, confident, haunting and unlike any that older, successful Mexican artists were producing. In this way, he mirrored Kahlo, one of Mexico's most celebrated artists. Both Soriano and Kahlo faced physical challenges; Soriano was small, thin and childlike, while Kahlo had sustained irreversible spinal damage after a streetcar accident and subsequently underwent 30 surgeries. In addition, both developed sensualised imagery blending traditional Mexican motifs, established European conventions, modern modes of expression and their personal perceptions of contemporary life and psychology.

Soriano's death in February 2006 provided a space to revisit the artist's work, which the Philadelphia Museum of Art has filled with 'Fragile Demon: Juan Soriano in Mexico, 1935-1950', the first exhibit in an American museum to focus on the artist's early years in Guadalajara and Mexico City. Curated by Edward J. Sullivan, an authority on modern and contemporary Mexican art, the show consists of 16 works on view from 16 February-11 May 2008.3 The Philadelphia Museum of Art is, perhaps, the most likely host for such a show; its curators have a long-standing commitment to Mexican art, and the museum has extensive holdings of works dating from the colonial period onwards. In the 1940s, Henry Clifford, curator of paintings at that time, met Soriano and acquired examples of the artist's works. During his tenure, Clifford maintained relationships with many Mexican artists and with gallery operator Inés Amor. Soriano painted one of Clifford's acquisitions, 'The Dead Girl'(1938), at age 18; this painting shows that, even as a teenager, Soriano was capable of confident handling and sophisticated imagery. Visitors to the exhibit will see 'The Dead Girl' and, fortuitously, have an opportunity to view a concurrent and complementary Kahlo retrospective (20 February-18 May 2008) at the same venue.

A 60-page, full-color catalogue accompanies the exhibit, with an essay by curator Sullivan and the first English-language translations of texts written by Paz and Fuentes. Perhaps the lengthiest scholarly study of the artist's work, the catalogue is an excellent window into Soriano's strangely alluring world. Sullivan's overview of Soriano's early life and works provides a vibrantly detailed context, while the lyrical, deeply felt words of Paz and Fuentes indicate Soriano's effect on fellow artists and writers, and the quality of the friendships that he formed.

Prior to the opening of 'Fragile Demon', Studio International spoke with Sullivan about Soriano's early life and work, his place in Mexican art history, and the exhibit's potential to bring Soriano greater notice throughout the world.

Cindi Di Marzo: Soriano's physical presence and personality have been eloquently described by his contemporaries. For example, in 1941, when Soriano was 21, Paz suggested that his face resembled '... a bird, a lost orphan colt ...' and described him as a '... boy conscious of his boyhood, repenting his boyhood, mercilessly attacking his boyhood ...'. When did you meet Soriano, and how would you describe him at that time?

Edward J. Sullivan: I met Juan Soriano in Paris in about 1985. He had lived there for many years, eventually buying an apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Martin. In the last decades of his life, he divided his time between Paris, European cities such as Warsaw, and Mexico City. I knew Juan for more than 20 years and became a close friend of his companion and muse, Marek Keller. In the last 20 years of his life Juan was incredibly lively, with a keen sense of humour, which often ran to the ironic and caustic but never mean-spirited or cutting. He was a great repository of stories about his contemporaries in the 1920s through to the 1960s - a grand moment in the continuing drama of Mexican art. His apartment in Paris was, like his house in Mexico, a wonderful combination of highly sophisticated modern painting and sculpture, and Mexican folk and religious art.

CDM: Certainly, Soriano had an unusual childhood. Although his parents hoped to instill in him the ideals of the Revolution, he was a sensitive, imaginative child who, because of illness, spent much time alone. His sisters' efforts to immerse him in Guadalajara's arts community were critical to his success, but there must have been something in Soriano himself that attracted established artists. Can you describe Soriano's activity in Guadalajara from the time he began showing his work there at age 14 until his move to Mexico City?

EJS: I can't say that Soriano had any definite impact in Guadalajara. He did, of course, start showing at the regional museum as a 14 year old, where he met his life-long friends Lola Alvarez Bravo, José Chavez Morado and María Izquierdo. But he was so young, and the Guadalajara art world so conservative, that it did not take any real notice of the boy's talents, which is why, in the end, he followed the advice of his friends and went to the Mexican capital.

CDM: Connections between Soriano and Cubism and Surrealism appear in many studies of his work. In the catalogue, you discuss how certain paintings, for example, his 'Portrait of Martha', an oil painting from 1934, reveal the influence of Cubism. And frequently, his works feature objects that seem surreal in combination. In Soriano's early work, I see layers of symbolism that anchor his images to dreams and point to a rich interior life. How do you define Soriano's work in terms of what was happening in art internationally?

EJS: Soriano was like a sponge, from his earliest youth until old age. He was constantly interested in what was happening in art north and south and on both sides of the Atlantic. As a student in the atelier of Chucho Reyes in Guadalajara, he was first introduced to international art through the many magazines to which the older artist subscribed.

Later, he continued this curiosity mainly by looking through publications. He describes his first trip to Europe - to Rome in 1951 - as a total revelation and transformation. He was able to see all sorts of new art first-hand and his vision was transformed. In fact, after his first European sojourn he radically re-formed his art, leaving aside figuration (at least temporarily) to dedicate himself to abstraction. The Surrealist-related art of the 1940s disappeared and he entered into a new phase that corresponded to gestural abstraction of both Italian and French painters. Italy represented, of course, his first direct contact with classical forms. Soon after his early experience there, he began to dedicate substantial efforts to sculpture and it is here that one can see the deep impact of the Greco-Roman tradition that he so admired.

For the exhibition in Philadelphia, I chose to concentrate on his pre-European art as it represents, I think, such a quirky, personal vision, not often associated with him because most people who know his art well tend to think of the post-Fifties work.

CDM: Although Soriano actively distanced himself from programmatic movements and didactic content, he did become associated with the Contemporáneos. Where did Soriano fit within the Contemporáneos group?

EJS: The Contemporáneos was really a literary movement that had its greatest moment in the 1920s. By the time Soriano moved to Mexico City, the group had lost its cohesiveness. Nonetheless, its ideals of aestheticising non-engagement with the issues of social realism were still very much in the air within a certain realm of the Mexican intelligentsia, both artistic and literary. Octavio Paz, for example, became a very important force in Soriano's imagination as he represented the triumph of the aesthetic over the prosaic in Soriano's estimation. Soriano also disliked what he saw as a mundane and dull emphasis on the everyday in the art of many of his fellow painters. He felt that the type of socially committed art, that was admittedly very significant in the Twenties and Thirties as a force for social change, had outlived its usefulness, and he wished to wipe that slate clean. He simply had no interest in social protest in his art and had little use for artists who clung to that ideal. He protested against the work of Siqueiros and Orozco and was not too fond of them as individuals, although he certainly respected them.

CDM: A strong homoerotic thread runs through works by many members. Some of Soriano's imagery can seem, on first viewing, disturbing as it touches on death and human fears from childhood and beyond, but at the same time his portraits are lush and sensual, acute personality studies. His 'Portrait of Diego de Mesa', for example, is a touching and tender rendering of one of Soriano's companions.4 How do you see this painting, and his 1937 portrait of Martha's lover, Rebeca Uribe, within the scope of his work?

EJS: Portraiture was always very important to Soriano, and studying his career from c1934–2006 we find hundreds of likenesses of his friends, and sometimes his family. I like to think of Soriano as a real humanist, who was able to inject a sense of warmth and, sometimes, sensuality, into his images of people he knew. His many later depictions of Marek Keller are among his most beautiful, convincing and often erotic works.

CDM: Two years after Soriano's death, we have an opportunity to reconsider the early years of his career at a museum that has championed Mexican art for decades, and which houses four of the artist's major works. In his native country, of course, the artist's name has a firm place in Mexican art history. Yet, his name is virtually unknown in the USA and, perhaps, around the world. How did you conceive of a show that will likely finally bring Soriano attention on an international scale?

EJS: The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a very distinguished collection of Mexican paintings from both the colonial and the modern era. Among the most outstanding pieces are four works by Soriano from the late Thirties and Forties. These are sometimes shown but not regularly. I felt that it was time to bring together in a highly focused exhibition, some of the most significant paintings of this period, which has not been adequately studied by scholars. Certainly this work, and Soriano's art in general, is better known in Mexico than abroad, and there have been some recent excellent shows there, such as the retrospective at the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City in 2007. There have been exhibitions of Soriano throughout the world but this is the first major American museum to mount an exhibition of his art. I was inspired by the series of 'dossier' exhibitions that the Louvre used to do which focused on specific works or discrete bodies of work by an individual artist and delved into them in-depth. I am hoping that the catalogue will also serve as a stimulus for other scholars to shed more light on this facet of Soriano's art.

CDM: Do you see a connection between Soriano and the work being done today by young painters? Fuentes, for instance, has spoken of the importance of the figure in Soriano's art and of Soriano as a bridge between past, present and future, saying that '... like all great painters, [Soriano] is present in this present that doesn't sacrifice its past or its future ...', and that his work '... evokes its origin and projects its future ...'.5

EJS: As we all know, realism is again a major force in the art world. Realism in Mexican art has always been significant, but in answering your question I am thinking in broader terms. I am interested, for example, in the serious spotlight placed in the USA on the work of John Currin. He takes realism far from the level of mundane representation and places it into the realm of the obsessive fascination with the grotesque, as in his most recent highly eroticised work. I would have been enormously curious to hear what Juan Soriano would have made of this very talented American artist's paintings.

Thank you for speaking with Studio International, Professor Sullivan, and for giving readers greater insight into an artist who will, no doubt, make an impact on contemporary audiences.

Cindi Di Marzo


1. The artists and writers that participated in the Contemporáneos group focused on experimental, non-nationalistic works influenced by modes of expression and styles from Mexico, Europe and the USA. A significant goal for group members was helping to place Mexican arts within the international arts community, and they considered the arts of Spain and the USA as part of their broader history. Unlike the social realists, many within the Contemporáneos group embraced the popular culture developing in the USA and recognised capitalism as beneficial to the arts.
2. 'The Faces of Juan Soriano' by Octavio Paz, translated by Eliot Weinberger, in Fragile Demon: Juan Soriano in Mexico, 1935 to 1950 (published in the Bulletin of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2008). This essay was first published in Spanish in 1941.
3. Friend of Juan Soriano and noted authority on the artist's work, Edward J. Sullivan, is professor of fine arts and dean for humanities at New York University. Sullivan's areas of expertise include Latin American art, 19th- and 20th-century art of the Iberian Peninsula and Caribbean art dating from the 17th-20th century. Among his publications are: The Language of Objects in the Art of the Americas (Yale University Press, 2007); Aspects of Contemporary Mexican Painting (Americas Society, 1990); Women in Mexico (National Academy of Design, 2000); Tomas Sanchez, written with Gabriel García Márquez (Skira, 2003); and Latin American Art of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press, 1996). Sullivan serves on advisory committees at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and El Museo del Barrio in New York. He is vice-president of the American Friends of the Fundación Ludwig de Cuba, located in Havana and an honorary member of the Hispanic Society of America.
4. Diego de Mesa was a Spanish writer who became Soriano's companion in Mexico. Later, they lived together in Europe.
5. The Eye of Dawn: Juan Soriano by Carlos Fuentes, translated by Alfred MacAdam. Originally published in Viendo visiones, revised edition (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2006).

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