Top Image: Carlos Mérida, “The Three Princesses”, 1955, Lacquer and Casein on Parchment on Laminated Wood, 41 z 32 cm, Saint Louis Art Museum
Bottom Image: Carlos Mérida, “Los Hechiceros (Sorcerers)”, 1958, Oil and Polytec on Panel, 70.2 x 109.9 cm, Private Collection
Born in Guatemala City in December of 1891, Carlos Mérida was a Guatemalan artist who was one of the first artists to fuse European modernism to Latin American themes. His heritage was of mixed Spanish and Maya-Quiché ancestry, a culture he promoted throughout his career. Although initially studying both art and music, Mérida, due to the partial loss of his hearing at age fifteen, concentrated his talents on his artwork, with a particular emphasis on painting.
Mérida entered Guatemala City’s Institute of Arts and Crafts, and later enrolled at the Institute of Science and Letters, where he became interested in the avant-garde movement. In 1910 at the age of nineteen, Mérida, with the help of Catalan artist, poet and writer Jaime Sabartés, organized his first solo exhibition at the offices of EL Economista, one of Guatemala City’s newspapers. Later in the same year, seeing little opportunity for an art career in Guatemala, he traveled to Europe where he settled in Paris, sought employment, and traveled the continent.
During his stay in Europe, Mérida became acquainted with many of Europe’s emerging artists, such as painters Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and Amedeo Modigliani. He also met Latin American artists who were studying in Europe at that time, including Diego Rivera, Ángel Zárraga, and Gerardo Murillo Cornado. Mérida exhibited his work, primarily figurative and landscape, at the Independent Salon and the Biroux Gallery, both located in Paris.
Returning to Guatemala in 1914, Carlos Mérida developed an interest in the diversity of his country’s folklore and pre-Hispanic art, which he began to use as a theme for his work. He exhibited his new work in the following year at his second show in Guatemala, an exhibition that would mark the beginning of modern painting in Guatemala. In 1919, after staying five years in Guatemala, Mérida moved to Mexico City. Gaining recognition for both his easel and mural works, he had his first exhibition in Mexico in 1920 at the National School of Fine Arts and, in the same year, his first show in the United States at the Hispanic Society of New York. One of Mérida’s earliest projects in Mexico was working on the great 1922 mural at the National Preparatory School as an assistant to Diego Rivera, who introduced him to the politically driven Mexican Social-Realism movement.
In the late 1920s, Mérida returned to Europe, where his work underwent a shift inspired by the avant-garde works he encountered. Over the two decades from 1928 to 1948, Mérida had forty-five exhibitions in the United States, including New York’s 1922 Independent Artists Exhibition , and eighteen shows in Mexico, including the 1940 International Surrealist Exhibition in Mexico City.
Carlos Mérida is best known for his mural and canvas work, most of which was executed in Mexico. He also did engraving, theater set design, and mosaic work; however, his preference was towards works on canvas. Like his contemporary Rufino Tamayo, with whom he shared a 1930 exhibition at the Art Center of New York, Mérida generally did not paint large-scale narrative paintings, and was more interested in painting than politics. His work was not concerned with the representation of things, but rather a concept of them.
Mérida’s body of work shows a progression of experiments in form, color and techniques, with music and dance, two passions in Mérida’s life, influencing the work’s rhythmic flow. From 1907 to 1926, during the art world’s transition from Impressionism to Cubism, his early work in Europe was figurative, influenced by the works of Picasso and Modigliani. Mérida’s surrealistic phase began in the late 1920s and continued to the middle of the 1940s. At this time, he became one of Mexico’s first non-figurative painters with a series of works leaning towards abstractionism. From 1950 until his death, Mérida’s work is marked with a focus on geometric forms, particularly those found in indigenous cultures such as the Maya.
Carlos Mérida, convinced of a need to establish a natively American art form, felt it was important to emphasize his New World identity and culture. His work reflected on both Aztec and Maya cultures, including its folklore, and promoted its indigenous motifs. Mérida painted the indigenous people and landscapes of Mexico and Central America without the sentimental overtures of his predecessors. The discovery of the Bonampak ruins in 1946, with its temple frescoes, bas-reliefs, and burials, inspired him with new ideas which eventually led to his integrating painting and sculpture into architecture.
In 1932, Mérida, along with Carlos Orozco Romero, founded the dance school of the Secretaiat of Public Education which he oversaw for three years. His interest in dance led to designing stage sets and costumes for twenty-two performances from 1940 to 1979. He also documented one hundred and sixty-two examples of indigenous dance, including pre-Hispanic. Mérida’s first retrospective was in 1966, followed by one in 1981 and again in 1992. A man committed to promoting the handcrafts and folk art of Latin America, particularly those of Guatemala, Carlos Mérida died in Mexico City at the age of ninety-four on December 21st of 1985.
Carlos Mérida’s works are held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Brazil’s Museo de Arte Moderno in San Paolo, the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others.
Top Insert Artwork: Carlos Mérida, Untitled, 1925-27, Lithograph, Images of Guatemala Series, 22.8 x 33 cm, San Antonio Museum of Art
Bottom Insert Artwork: Carlos Mérida, “El Ojo del Adivino (The Eye of the Fortune Teller)”, 1984, Oil on Canvas, 105.2 x 90.7 cm, Private Collection