While Diego Rivera he painted epic scenes of battles between Aztecs and conquistadors or between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces, Carlos Mérida (Quetzaltenango, 1891 – Mexico City, 1984) I preferred the dance of lines and colors. This Guatemalan artist, who at the beginning of the 1920s served as Rivera's assistant, took a different path from that of his teacher and most Mexican muralists: geometric abstraction. Without getting wet in politics, this total artist, who was choreographer, clothing designer, cartoonist and sculptor, as well as muralist, was the jarring brushstroke –and often forgotten– of this artistic movement.
On the centenary of Carlos Mérida's arrival in Mexico, the artist's universe returns to the scene after decades in the shadows. The National Museum of Art of Mexico (Munal) has dedicated a great retrospective –until the month of March–, the first in the country in almost thirty years since the one organized in 1991 at the Palace of Fine Arts, and the José Luis Cuevas Museum in the Mexican capital has also mounted a tribute. In addition, his family has recently created the Casa Mérida Foundation to help spread the work –they have just published a new catalog with the help of the National Polytechnic Institute and have teamed up with a designer to draw a clothing collection inspired by the work of the muralist–. "He has a place in universal art, but people do not know him," explains Cristina Navas, 74, the artist's granddaughter.
Mérida begins to open a gap in the artistic scene when he moved to Mexico in 1919, after spending a season in Paris. At that time Mexican muralism is in full swing. Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, the three large ones, cover walls and ceilings of painting that vindicate the values of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. But Mérida is not entirely comfortable with the political content, nor with a stage of which, as a Guatemalan, he feels somewhat alien. His family describes him as a peaceful man, cautious and aware of his status as a foreigner. "He said that art and politics did not get along; that art had its own policy, "recalls Navas.
A calm man with difficult lace inside the revolutionary and militant muralism. "It differs totally from the Mexican revolutionary aesthetic", explains María Estela Duarte, curator of the Munal retrospective. "Merida wanted creative freedom and not be subject to a theme." In contrast to the preponderant figurative style, the Guatemalan, of indigenous Quiché origin on the paternal and Spanish side, by the mother, finds that freedom in the geometric abstraction of the Mayan tradition. "He said he owed more to the Mayan murals of Bonampak than to the Velázquez meninas," says Duarte.
The sacred book of this Mesoamerican civilization, the Popol-Vuh, a kind of Genesis that tells the creation of the world, is one of his sources of inspiration and dedicates murals and several series of drawings, some in retrospect. "The sense of abstraction in which my ancestors were masters, took form in me so clear, so precise that I could not have accepted another interpretation of my visions", writes Mérida in his autobiography.
The Guatemalan not only innovates in style, but also in materials. His murals are not frescoes, but Venetian mosaics or enameled or glass plates that integrate with the architectural space – the so-called "plastic integration" between painting and architecture was one of his obsessions. In fact, his masterpiece was a giant mural in polychrome cement with pre-Hispanic motifs in the multifamily Presidente Juárez, a housing complex of Mario Pani, the great urban planner and architect of Mexico City.
In 1985, shortly after the death of the artist, an earthquake devastates the capital and that mosaic is irremediably damaged. A luck similar to the one that many of his murals have run. Art researcher Louise Noelle has attributed this deterioration to the lack of legal protection in Mexico of works made by foreigners – despite living in that country for much of his life, Mérida always retained his Guatemalan nationality. That lack of protection made his work vulnerable to the whims of owners, public leaders and even presidents of the Republic. In 1949 it was ordered to remove enameled mosaics that decorated an official building because Miguel Alemán, then head of state, seemed strange to them, according to Noelle.
Another cause of the deterioration is the lesser knowledge of the teacher's work compared to that of his fellow muralists. A lack of knowledge that extends to his native Guatemala, where, paradoxically, his murals decorate some of the most important institutions of the Central American country, such as the Banco de Guatemala or the Guatemalan Social Security Institute. "A few months ago, they were about to destroy a mural in a private home to build an evangelical university," says Cristina Navas, who also serves as an honorary cultural attaché for the Embassy of the Central American country in Mexico.
Despite the constant struggle that preserves the legacy, the family and the artist's Foundation are determined not to let him die. And that mission goes through surprising alliances. In November Lisa Carrillo, a Guatemalan fashion designer based in the Mexican capital, joined forces with the family and Munal to present a fashion collection inspired by Merida. "It's sad but he's not known and those who do, do not understand the magnitude of his work," says Carrillo, who describes the work in this collection as "a process of curatorship." The dresses, handcrafted and made with cotton and silk, will go on sale from February and a percentage of the profits will go to the coffers of the Foundation, which just starts to walk.
This recent hyperactivity of exhibitions, catalogs and fashion collections is encouraging. But perhaps the best example of the renewed interest in this painter is the restoration of the huge mural of Los Danzantes that functioned as a backdrop for an old movie theater in Mexico City. Lost for years, its geometric figures of 12 meters high now dance on the lobby of a modern skyscraper. Thanks to news like this, Carlos Mérida talks again: the best defense against oblivion.