Orphaned at the age of eight, Tamayo was taken in by an aunt, who worked as a fruit vendor in Mexico City.  Although she forced him to study business, he meanwhile attended the San Carlos School of Art.  In 1921 he found a job at the Museum of Anthropology, where be became head of the department of ethnographic drawings. Having Zapotec ancestry, Tamayo enjoyed drawing traditional art objects dating back to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic period for the museum archives. His first exhibition was in Mexico City in 1926, in a vacant shop on Madeiro Street.  In 1933 he was commissioned to paint a fresco for the inner courtyard of the Mexico City Conservatory of Music.  Backed and encouraged by his wife, Olga, whom he married in 1934, Tamayo obtained a teaching position in 1938 at the Dalton School, a private progressive school in New York.  He then split his time between the United States during the school year and Mexico in the symmer.  his painting was influenced by Picasso’s monumental exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1939.  Up till then, he had painted frozen figures, with mask like faces.  Now he evolved from static to dynamic.  Tamayo said that after a period when he studied “the form of things in themselves,” he became interested in “the new form they assume when in motion.”  He reached this conclusion, “The point is not to represent things but their action.”  In 1948 he had a retrospective at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, where he was asked to execute two murals, Birth of a Nationality and Mexico Today.  Having decided to move back to Mexico, he bought and restored an old house in the Coyocán borough of Mexico City.  His friend José Gomez Sicre visited him there and remarked, “A true Indian, he is withdrawn and rarely talks.  Aside from painting, his great passion in life is pre-Columbian sculpture.”
In 1949 and 1950 Tamayo traveled for the first time to Europe, exhibiting in Paris, Brussels and Rome, and meeting with great success at the Venice Biennial.  André Breton made much of him, and assured him his place in surrealism: “Nothing, to this extent, gives the first sensation of something never seen before. Nothing after orders itself better emotionally to celebrated the moment in all its palpitation…Tamayo’s brushstrokes remind me of the wings of sphinx butterflies of which certain species boast his colors.”  Breton considered this work surrealist because it conveyed the collective unconscious- Tamayo was possessed by the spirit of the Tarascan civilization, which he introduced in the technique of modern art.  He painted frescoes using a vinyl-based paint that allowed him to cover large surfaces, as it dried almost instantly.  His frescoes from 1956, in the library of the University of Puerto Rico, on the theme of “Prometheus bringing fire to mankind,” we were compared by Tamayo to a “dark volcano in eruption.”  His fresco for a bank in Houston, Texas, expressed a combination of Native American and Caucasian cultures.  The relationship between man and the cosmos is omnipresent in his paintings, either in the simplest form- representing lovers gazing at the sky, or birds signifying “the poetry of flight,” (Women Reaching for the Moon, 1946, Cleveland Museum of Art)- or symbolizing metaphysical anguish (Cosmic Terror, 1954, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City; The Great Galaxy, 1978, Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City).  His career was a series of successes, but his generosity permitted others to benefit from his good fortune.  In 1974 he gave his home town of Oaxaca 1,300 Native American objects to found a museum of pre-Columbian Art.  In May 1981, in the Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, he inaugurated the Museo Contemporeano Internacional Rufino Tamayo, containing his collection of works by 168 artists and a great many of his own paintings.  Octavio Paz, explaining why Tamayo seemed to him a surrealist, said, “In looking at his paintings we are not seeing the revelation of a secret- we are participating in the secret that every revelation constitutes.”

Rufino Tamayo

Born 1899 at Oaxaca, Mexico; died 1988 at Coyocán, Mexico. 

Lion and Horse, Oil on Canvas, 1942