Saturnino Herrán, “Our Ancient Gods”, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico.
Born in July of 1887 in the city of Aguascallentes, Saturnino Herrán Guinchard was a Mexican painter of indigenous Mexican and Swiss descent. One of the pioneers of Mexican Modernism, he was also an educator, muralist, book illustrator, draftsman, and a stained glass colorist. Herrán was the first Mexican artist to envision the concept of totally Mexican art; he also laid the foundation for the development of its muralist movement.
In 1901, Saturnino Herrán began his studies in drawing and painting at the Aguascallentes Academy of Science where his father was a Professor of Bookkeeping. He studied under Chlapas classical painter José Inés Tovilla and Severo Amador, a painter known for his Mexican Impressionist and Modern work. After the death of his father in 1903, Herrán and his mother relocated to Mexico City where he worked to support his mother and studied at the city’s Academy of San Carlos. At the Academy, he studied under Mexican Symbolist painter and printmaker Julio Ruelas; Catalan painter, sculptor and draftsman Antonio Fabres; and painter Germán Gedovius who taught color, composition and chiaroscuro, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark.
An outstanding student in his courses, Herrán’s work was strongly inspired by the European theories of modern art which included Greek and Roman aesthetics and naturalism, the depiction of objects with the least possible amount of distortion. Strongly drawn to Mexican art, he united this cultural heritage with his academic European training to create work that would produce a spiritual experience. Herrán’s first figurative works were presented as allegories of nature and Spanish mythology; he also painted scenes of working people in everyday life.
Saturnino Herrán painted using the techniques drawn from the cultures of Spain, including the Catalonian area, and Europe. He preferred dynamic imagery, balanced colors, and strong contours. Herrán used blurred background colors to create ambiance and used free brushwork over drawings to capture variations of light. Through his refined draftsmanship and use of color, he combined drawing and watercolor to produce naturalistic works, a technique he adapted from Spanish painters.
By 1908, Herrán had gained recognition within the artistic community and was receiving awards and scholarships. In 1909 at the age of twenty-two, he was appointed a Professor of Drawing at Mexico City’s National Institute of Fine Arts; among his pupils were the future fresco muralists Diego Rivera and Roberto Montenegro Nervo. In 1910 Herrán, along with painter Jose Orozco, founded the Society of Mexican Painters and Sculptors which, in opposition to the official art exhibition at Mexico’s 100th anniversary of independence, staged an alternative exhibition of purely Mexican art. In this exhibition, Herrán presented his “The Legend of the Volcanos”, a canvas triptych depicting figures of an Indian prince and a European princess.
This exhibition of work by Mexican artists made a strong impression on lawyer Jose Vasconcelos who was to become the Secretary of Education of post-revolution Mexico. He realized that painting was not only for the elite but could in the form of murals reached a wider audience. Herrán was among the first artists commissioned by Vasconcelos to do mural paintings. In August of 1911, he completed his first large-scale fresco mural in the auditorium of Mexico City’s School of Arts and Crafts. This work by Herrán would serve as a model for future muralists in the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1914, Saturnino Herrán, at age seventeen, was commissioned to create a triptych of fresco panels glorifying Mexican heritage for the walls of Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts which also housed the National Theater. He completed a small 101 x 112 centimeter oil study of one panel. From this small study, Herrán was able to complete the larger fresco wall panel, “Our Ancient Gods” in 1916, two years before his untimely death.
For this work, Herrán abandoned his earlier bright colors in favor of somber, earthly colors with muted nuances. He used West Mexican men for his models due to their strong indigenous and ethnic facial features. He particularly chose local men around the Pre-Columbian archeological site of Xochicalco because of their strong Mayan, Teotihuacan and Matlatzinca ancestry. The warriors are portrayed lean and lithe with firm muscles; they stand in poses with a slight tension of impending action, caught in a balance of action and inaction.
The figures and objects in the fresco are heavily outlined with strong, thick and bold, black lines. Herrán used similar line-work in the illustrations and graphic work he had previously executed for books, magazines and stained glass panels. “Our Ancient Gods” contains images appropriate to elite members of Pre-Columbian society: among these are gold earrings, red feathers and leather sandals. Herrán’s extensive use of indigenous motifs, powerful style, and cultural richness elevate the figures in his fresco to a high godlike status.
A representative of both the Art Nouveau and the mural art movements in Mexico, Saturnino Herrán Guinchard, at the age of thirty-one, died suddenly from a gastric complication in Mexico City on the eighth of October in 1918.
Notes: An extensive article written by Deborah Dorotinsky Alperstein on Saturnino Herrán’s mural at the School of Arts and Crafts, its removal and relocation, and its restoration can be found at: http://www.dezenovevinte.net/uah2/dda_en.htm
Second Insert Image: Saturnino Herrán, “Alegoría”. 1915, Watercolor and Gouache on Paper, 34 x 21 cm, Museo Nacional de la Acuarela Alfredo Guati Rojo
Third Insert Image: Saturnino Herrán, “Study for Nuestros Dioses (Our Ancient Gods)”, 1915, Figures on the Left Panel
Fourth Insert Image: Saturnino Herrán, “Alegoria de la Construcción”, 1910, Oil on Canvas, 114 x 62 cm, Decorative Border for the School of Arts and Crafts, Mexico City
Bottom Insert Image: Saturnino Herrán, “La Ofrenda (The Offering)”, Study on Paper, 81 x 138 cm, Museo Nacional de Arte de la Cludad de Mexico