Francisco Toledo — the life and art of ‘El Maestro’

Francisco Toledo — the life and art of ‘El Maestro’

Diana Bramham

November 2019


Latin American art specialist Diana Bramham on ‘one of the most important contemporary artists in Mexico’, whose recent passing left an art world in mourning — illustrated with works offered at Christie’s.


The son of a shoemaker, Francisco Toledo was born in 1940 on the outskirts of Juchitán, a tropical town in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. His family was Zapotec, a pre-Hispanic culture whose fables and folklore became his main source of artistic inspiration.


In his homeland, Toledo went by the nickname of ‘El Maestro’ (The Master). He died in September 2019, aged 79, prompting Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to declare that ‘art is in mourning’.


Toledo had worked in an array of media, from pottery to weaving. However, it’s painting for which he is best known. This season Christie’s presents an extraordinary selection of works by El Maestro from the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation, the proceeds of which will benefit children through the Harlem Children’s Zone, a cause which Toledo, a tireless advocate for human rights, would no doubt have appreciated.


‘He was undoubtedly one of the most important contemporary artists in Mexico,’ says Diana Bramham, a specialist in Latin American Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘He has also long had an international following.’


In the 21st century, Toledo has been the subject of solo shows at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, the Princeton University Art Museum in the US, and Whitechapel Gallery in the UK. 


Alligators, turtles and French avant-gardistes


Toledo preferred to stay out of the limelight. He disliked attending the opening of his exhibitions and seldom spoke to journalists. In a rare interview in 2000, he looked back to his youth, recalling how ‘forests and marsh surrounded us, and there were all sorts of animals too’.


Among those animals were alligators, whose skin his father used to make shoes; and turtles, four examples of which can be seen laying eggs in his 1973 painting Tortuga poniendo huevos, which sold at Christie’s in 2018 for $1,032,000 — a world-record price for the artist at auction.


As a boy, Toledo’s love of art was so pronounced that his parents allowed him to paint all over the walls of their house. Aged 17, he moved to Mexico City to study printmaking, before crossing the Atlantic in 1960 to settle in Paris.


Here he came under the tutelage of fellow Mexican expatriate and Zapotec, Rufino Tamayo. Tamayo’s richly worked canvases embossed with sand and incised by the hand of the artist were a revelation to Toledo, who soon began experimenting with adding texture to his own paintings, a practice he would continue throughout his career.


Toledo also shared with Tamayo a penchant for veering towards but never surrendering to abstraction; the figure, whether animal or human, remains a constant presence in the work of both artists, no matter how minimally rendered.


The birth of his signature style 


By 1965, Toledo was beginning to enjoy success on the Parisian art scene. However, the pull of ‘nostalgia’ (his word) prompted a return to Mexico. There he hit upon the imagery for which he’s best known: a menagerie of curious, sagacious, otherworldly creatures, which drew heavily on Zapotec myth, where animals are seen as holding a privileged position, mediating between mankind and the sacred energies of nature.


Toledo’s creatures can often be seen in states of metamorphosis, as seen in Vaca Roja  (1975), in which the body of a red cow coalesces with a sea of crabs and other marine life.


In the Latin American Art sale on 20 November in New York, Christie’s is offering Toledo’s El Elefante  (1978), which depicts a sentient elephant turning its head toward us with a gaze that’s all-seeing and worldly-wise.


The mixture of sand with his pigment (also employed in Vaca Roja  and Tortuga poniendo huevos) in El Elefante gives the beast’s skin a mottled texture, subtly articulating its contours and lending it a crystalline glimmer. More broadly, the use of sand allowed the artist to connect with nature, not just through his subject matter but through his material.


La Ruptura


Toledo was part of a post-war generation of Mexican artists known as ‘La Ruptura’. These loosely affiliated figures rejected the overtly political approach of the previous generation — most famously its muralists, such as Diego Rivera, who painted scenes on public buildings championing the Mexican Revolution.


By contrast, the vision of La Ruptura artists was more personal and tended slightly more towards abstraction. In Toledo’s case, he eschewed the political in favour of the magical realist.


A life of art, philanthropy and social activism


In later life, Toledo became renowned for his social activism and philanthropy almost as much as for his art. He masterminded and helped finance the opening of a host of cultural institutions in Oaxaca City (the capital of his home state). These included the Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art, the Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca, the Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photographic Centre, and the Jorge Luis Borges Library for the Blind.


He also went to great lengths to ensure the preservation of the city’s historic centre. One successful campaign saw him stop municipal government plans to convert a former 16th-century convent into a luxury hotel. His strategy entailed painting ‘For Sale’ signs — with diocese approval — on churches across Oaxaca. The resultant media furore did the rest.


He launched another protest in 2002, when an international fast-food chain was about to open a branch in the city’s main square. Oaxaca is widely considered the heartland of traditional Mexican cuisine, and Toledo duly handed out free tamales throughout the plaza and led chants of ‘tamales, yes; hamburgers, no’. The fast-food restaurant never opened.


The market for Toledo’s work


The stand-out period of Toledo’s career was the 1970s. ‘By then, he had fully matured as an artist and had the confidence to work in oils on big canvases,’ says Bramham. He’d also assimilated his various influences — Zapotec and international modernism, above all — and started fusing the two in stunning fashion.

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