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By Christopher Goodwin


Francisco Toledo has an almost pathological aversion to being photographed or interviewed, particularly by those with whom he is not familiar. It is an instinctive, perhaps a primitive fear, of being captured, defined, in someone else's notion of him.


But that is just a fragment of the man. Those who know him best say he is a creature of unfathomable complexity. Physically and intellectually elusive, he is also immediate and accessible, surely the most accessible artist of his stature in the world. And as the retrospective of his work at London's Whitechapel Gallery shows, Toledo is one of the great artists of our times. If he is little known outside Latin America, it is only because he courts anonymity, not celebrity.


Most mornings Toledo can be found on the quiet, shaded patio of the Instituto de Artes Graficas, a burnt-red adobe building across the square from Santo Domingo, the magnificent 16th-century Dominican church in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca. Toledo's presence can be felt throughout the city, thanks to his patronage of a multitude of artistic and environmental organisations. He founded the centre in 1988 by donating the large colonial building in which it is housed, together with the core of its collection of more than 7,000 prints and 25,000 books.


It is easy to miss Toledo. He is the darting figure in white cotton peasant clothes and dusty brown sandals. His hair is thick and distracted, and at the age of 60 his handsome face is as heavily etched as much of his art. His eyes are so fierce that they linger on you only sparingly, as if out of politeness; a moment longer and they would disturb the secrets of your soul. But then he smiles.


Toledo always seems to appear out of nowhere, as if by magic. His presence is a mirage, fleeting, evanescent. Turn around and he is gone. Yet, at the same time, he inhabits the most tangible physical space of anyone I have ever met. Toledo, a friend says, is a man who fosters "variable truths and contradictions". You might tag him as shy and modest, but look at the photographs he has taken recently - his erect penis and testicles thrusting through the mottled skin of an iguana that he has draped over his naked body.


Toledo's is the art of shamanism, in which people are transformed into beasts and animals may take on human characteristics. It is the art of the nagual , in which an animal is identified with a human, their fates intertwined. And it is the art of primal eroticism, in which an army of toads with human penises ejaculate in a joyous frenzy. "Subjects emerge from one another," wrote Veronica Volkow, a Mexican poet who has known the artist for many years. "A deer from a lion, an iguana from a woman, a cricket from the mouth of a toad. A chain joins all beings in the meshing of the gears of their devourings, their copulations, their mirrors, their metamophoses. The entire universe seems to be joined unto itself, emerging from and terminating in a circle that may begin from any mouth, any sex, any eye, any orifice, any touching."


In Oaxaca people approach Toledo every day, with the deference reserved for the man universally known as "El Maestro". He is a towering presence in the civic life of the city, its most valued and significant citizen, a "Promethean figure", the New York Times called him, but his sense of civic responsibility is also a heavy burden, too heavy say some.


Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-ha-ca) is the capital of the state of the same name, a city of some 300,000 people about 350 miles south-east of Mexico City. The state is one of the most beautiful but also most impoverished in the country, stretching from the cool, dense pine forests of the north to the thick, humid, mosquito-infested swamps along the Pacific coast.


Oaxaca sits at just over 5,000ft, in a high valley dominated by the ancient site of Monte Alban, a huge, ruined temple complex and ceremonial city first settled by the Zapotecs around 600 BC. Of the state's more than 3m inhabitants, around a third, made up of at least 14 Indian peoples, speak no Spanish.


Toledo is a Zapotec, born into a poor family in a small village just outside Juchitan on the hot Pacific coast. His grandfather was a cobbler, his grandmother's family were pig-slaughterers. When he was a child his father moved to a small town near the port and oil refining centre of Veracruz, where he became a successful shopkeeper.


Toledo remembers a childhood roaming "the rivers and mountains", where he was first exposed to the teeming animal and insect life that later populated his art. He remembers armies of toads invading the house, thick clouds of bats, crabs, iguanas, grasshoppers, scorpions and crocodiles - creatures that had sacred meaning to the Indian peoples and are still the repository of potent myths. Toledo's aunt would tell him about such fabulous creatures as the four-eyed fish - two eyes to see the world above the water, two to see below - and the milkmaid snake, which could quiet babies' cries by stuffing its tail into their mouths.


Toledo started drawing and painting early and was sent to Oaxaca to study when he was 12. There the library offered him his first exposure to modern painting, photography and the world beyond Mexico. He pored over the work of artists that would later inspire his own painting: Goya, Blake, Picasso, Hogarth, Klee and Tamayo, a fellow Zapotec and the pre-eminent figure in Mexican art. "I didn't know it was possible to be a painter until I came here," Toledo says.


When he was 17 he moved to Mexico City to study lithography, etching and engraving at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes. He was soon noticed by a prominent dealer and had his first exhibitions at the age of 19, in Mexico City and Fort Worth, Texas. With the money he made, Toledo moved to Paris. It was a difficult but valuable time: he was poor, painfully shy and lonely, but also very productive. He worked almost continuously under the dark stairway of the university dormitory in which he lived. Tamayo and the Nobel prize-winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz, who were living in Paris, took him under their wings. "It was wonderful," says Toledo. "Tamayo invited me to his house and he started to sell my paintings. When the collectors would come to visit him, he'd say, 'Here is a young painter whose paintings are much cheaper than you can buy mine for'."


He was taken up by two prominent dealers who got him shows all over Europe, then moved back to Mexico in 1965, desperate to reconnect with his roots. "I wanted to have a family from Juchitan," he recalls. "I wanted them to speak Zapoteco like my family." He moved back to Juchitan and married a Zapotec woman, with whom he had a child.


But almost as soon as he returned, he began to miss Europe and the sophisticated life he had tasted there. Over the next two decades his restlessness became a kind of rootlessness, as he moved back and forwards between Paris and Mexico, between New York and Oaxaca. He divorced and in 1969 married a prominent Mexican poet and sociologist, with whom he had two children.


He became mythologised as a kind of artistic vagabond, a man who had no home and no possessions other than what he needed to work with. He has always been astonishingly prolific, working on the ground, almost spontaneously, his fingers nimble, darting, fierce; he is as likely to work with tortoise shells or ostrich eggs as canvas or paper.


In the past 10 years Toledo has done little painting, although he continues to work as a printmaker and has begun spending more time on his photographs. He has undertaken a couple of major commissions, one for the Mexican presidency, the proceeds of which, and all his other art, he has used for his artistic endeavours in Oaxaca.


His personal needs are slight. He lives with his third wife, Trine Ellitsgaard, a Danish weaver with whom he has two young children, in almost extreme austerity and simplicity.


The critic Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues summed up Toledo's extraordinary world in 1964. "I know of no modern artist who is so pervaded, and so naturally, by a sacred sense of life, none who is bound to myth and magic with such seriousness and such simplicity; none who is so purely inspired by rite and fable."


• At the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1 (020-7522 7888) till June 7.

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