About Maria Izquierdo

  • Suffering & Death
  • Influences & Analysis

In the early 1940s, it appeared as though Maria Izquierdo’s life was about to take a turn for the better. She was at the height of her artistic career, focusing primarily on portraits and still-lifes, reminiscent of her early subject matter. In many ways, she was now producing a deeper, more mature quality of work than ever before. Many of her paintings reflected the surrealist influence of Antonin Artaud, but Izquierdo retained elements of her earlier style, refusing to confine herself to the label of “Surrealism.” She had also begun drawing inspiration from more personal sources, making the paintings from this period some of her most impressive and profound.

It appeared as though her personal life was coming together as well. In 1944, Izquierdo married her second husband, Raul Uribe, a Chilean painter. After a lifetime of struggling under the pressure of being a female artist and a single mother, constantly at odds with society’s expectations, it seemed that Izquierdo was finally finding a measure of happiness.

Unfortunately, this positive outlook did not last long. In 1945, Izquierdo was vying for an important mural commission from the Palacio Nacional of Mexico City. She had submitted sketches and was on the brink of receiving the job, when Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siquieros stepped forward to publicly disapprove of the offer, claiming that Izquierdo was not qualified to paint the mural. As two of the “big three” muralists working in Mexico during the time, Siquieros and Rivera’s opinions were well-respected and Izquierdo was denied the commission.

After the incident, Izquierdo looked for support from the community but found herself largely on her own. Rita Pomade writes, “When she dared to denounce [Rivera and Siquieros] in public, she received little help and a lot of strong criticism. She lost a lot of money, and her heart was broken.”

The consequences of this event were not confined to her professional life: “Izquierdo began to experience nightmares that left her sleepless. One day, she arose and drew what she remembered… a clear vision of herself, in a window of metaphysical dimension, holding her own decapitated head as her body, still walking, becomes lost in the distance of steps leading to a void” (Pomade).  This image turned into her work Sueño y Presentimiento (Dream and Premonition), painted in 1947, which eventually came to be known as the last of her great works.

In a way, Izquierdo’s premonition came true. In 1948, just a year after completing the work, Izquierdo suffered an embolism that left her partially paralyzed, effectively “cutting” her off from her body, as predicted in her dream. Facing any artist’s worst fear, Izquierdo struggled to train herself to paint with her non-dominant hand instead. She produced all of her final works this way, until the time of her death, but the paintings she did left-handed never reached the same caliber as her previous works.

Izquierdo’s home life was suffering, as well. Her second marriage was failing, and she and Uribe finally divorced in 1953. Izquierdo died two years later, in Mexico City, at the age of 53.

María Izquierdo lived a short life, filled with personal and professional difficulties. She faced two failed marriages, raised three children on her own, and never received due recognition for her artistic accomplishments. Her life was a constant battle as she fought against society’s expectations of what she should—and could—offer the world. Through it all, however, Izquierdo pushed back against the stereotypes of the time, standing proud as a single mother and a female artist during a time when those labels were not socially acceptable. She also turned her suffering into meaningful art with Sueño y Presentimiento which, according to some, was her greatest work of all. “On October 25, 2002…. [she] was declared a Monumento Artistico de la Nación by Mexico City’s National Commission for Arts and Culture…. [guaranteeing] that her work will be protected, catalogued, studied, and conserved to ensure that her legacy will be there for future generations” (Pomade). It has come a little late, but María Izquierdo is finally receiving the recognition she deserves.

Throughout her painting career, María Izquierdo experimented with many different styles and subject matter. However, there were common elements in most of her works, including a sense of intimacy that draws viewers into her paintings. She avoided strictly political themes because she felt that they lacked emotional depth; she focused instead on the personal. In her article “María Izquierdo: Monumento Artistico de la nación,” Rita Pomade writes that “[Izquierdo’s] work became imbued with the nuance of intimacy—a feeling of quiet personal communion between herself and the viewer. She claimed that art was a language that brought to light the hidden, and she strived for this in her paintings.”

This intimacy keeps viewers interested as they delve deeper in the work, realizing that there is more to her paintings than first meets the eye. “Her work… pulls you into the paintings and leaves you with a dreamy nostalgia and a subtle feeling of unrest. Her people and still lifes appear bold and up front. But behind the obvious is something undefined—haunting, ephemeral. The strong colors have disquieting shadows. The figures of the children are odd, the shoulders exaggerated—just a bit” (Pomade).

Another common thread in Izquierdo’s style is the feeling of primitivism to which she frequently returned throughout her career. Pomade writes: “Vigorous strokes, strong color and texture, and a world of primitivism and dreams—so typically Mexican, yet so universal in expression—are Izquierdo’s strengths.” She adds that:

“In body and temperament she seemed like an extension of her work. The Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, captured this connection between woman and work when he wrote: ‘María looked like a prehistoric goddess. Her face like mud dried by the sun… and smoky like copal incense… but that woman with the terrible air of a prehistoric goddess was at the same time sweetness, shy, intimate.’”

Indeed, María often straddled a difficult line between all of her various identities; she produced surrealist and nationalist works from a female perspective—a perspective that was not widely accepted during her time.

Izquierdo began her career painting portraits and still lifes. In these works she often utilized rich, ocher-earth colors and a realistic feel. Even early-on, these still lifes were out of the ordinary. According to Edward Gomez, “[w]ith their broad, brushy passages of thick color and sometimes-unusual perpectives, Izquierdo’s still lifes and seemingly ordinary scenes can seem charged with restless energy.”

Izquierdo eventually switched her focus from portraits and still lifes to popular culture and tradition. Through her art, she attempted to address and help define national identity. However, she did so outside of the typical framework of male dominance, through which many of her nationalist counterparts structured their work. Birbragher writes that “Izquierdo managed to remain a pioneer, at both the artistic and political levels, and a leading figure of the women’s emancipation movement.” For instance, in her sketch for a mural project in 1945, Izquierdo depicted an Aztec leader paired with a modern Mexican woman, an indication of the vital role she believed women should play in society, a role into which they were not fully being allowed to live.

Izquierdo differed from the muralists in another important way in her depictions of the historical and cultural values of her country. As in many of her earlier works, Izquierdo focused on the intimate over the political, “reject[ing] social realism and propaganda art, [and] developing instead a personal, intimate and poetic style which allowed her to express a universal message while at the same time maintaining her ‘Mexican-ness’” (Birbragher). In other words, Izquierdo sought to offer a representation of Mexican identity that went beyond politics, to the deeper root of human emotion and cultural identity.

During the early 1930s, Izquierdo painted a number of circus-themed works which, according to Meg Nola, “particularly capture her skill at contrasting dualities of bright color before a backdrop of displacement or sadness.” In Mexican culture, the circus is a tradition rich with history. The practice can be traced back to the Aztecs, when performers would entertain the king’s court.

The “carpa” was a type of Mexican theatre, similar to, but different from the more European type of circus. González and Sloan explain that “[o]ne could go to a carpa in the late 1800s and expect to see feats of acrobatics, talented singers, plenty of bawdy humor, and a fair amount of political satire” (2). Izquierdo had a special tie with the carpa from her childhood; circus performers frequently visited the town where she was raised, and when she was two years old, she was actually kidnapped by a circus troupe for 24 hours. Here she experienced firsthand a world of unconventional bohemian magic that was quite different from her strict religious upbringing.

The carpa clearly had a profound impact on Izquierdo as a child, as she later depicted it in several of her paintings. Among these were Circus Bareback Rider (1932), The Circus Woman (1932), and Circus Horsewoman (1932). Francine Birbragher writes that these circus works were an important time of new exploration for Izquierdo, as she experimented with color and style: “These pieces recreate female figures frozen in time, artists without a public, melancholic and solitary atmospheres… In this series, Izquierdo changes her palette to include pinks, blues, and yellows inspired by the Mexican popular arts. From this time on, this color becomes a constant feature of her pictorial style. The circus works also introduce the horse, a recurrent reference in her later work.”

The 1930s were also a time when Izquierdo produced a number of allegories. In some of these allegories, Izquierdo depicted feminist themes such as oppression and sacrifice, to which many women of her time could relate. The paintings clearly speak to the experiences of a woman living in a world dominated by man. For example, Birbragher points out that “[i]n Allegory of Work (1936), male legs appear as a symbol of this domination in which women live and suffer under” while the column to the right of the painting suggests male authority and control, as well.

Columns take on a similar meaning in another of Izquierdo’s works, Prisoners (1936):

“The sacrificial mood of the painting… is reinforced by the depiction of enslaved women, shown nude or partially clothed with their torsos exposed and their hands or entire bodies tied up with rigid ropes. Classical columns stand incongruously in desolate spaces. Traditionally, columns are interpreted as symbols of culture, and because of their phallic shafts, of manmade culture. Given that over time columns have also served as sacrificial stones, Izquierdo seems to have combined these various traditions to symbolically show women as the sacrificial victims of the dominant patriarchal culture.” (Mirkin 30)

Through these works, Izquierdo contributed to a larger conversation regarding women’s place in Mexican culture, historically, as well as the position they should have been allowed to hold in the society of Izquierdo’s time.

One of these feminist issues that certainly resonated with Izquierdo in particular was the idea of an arranged marriage. Her grandmother convinced her to agree to an arranged marriage to a military officer when she was only 14 years old and, as such, she likely felt as though her childhood had been taken away too soon. In her essay, “To Paint the Unspeakable,” Dina Comisarenco Mirkin discusses the theme of an unhappy bride seen in one of Izquierdo’s paintings.

“The Bride’s Veil (1943) by María Izquierdo may reflect the artist’s personal experience of an unwelcome arranged marriage… In particular, the small size of the furniture, the low perspective, and the disordered elements of the composition call to mind the world of childhood that had been stolen from Izquierdo and many other young girls forced into arranged marriages in such a brutal way.” (23)

Izquierdo made it clear through her paintings that she believed women could be active members of society, helping to perpetuate culture and define the national identity of Mexico. Her altar scenes in particular bring her intimate style together with themes of feminism and nationalism, drawing connections that were profound for her time. Through these cupboard altars, Mexican women were able to add a rich religious context to their everyday domestic roles, and thus “propagate their national culture, generational traditions, and religious beliefs” (Donovan 162).

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the creation of some of Izquierdo’s most difficult and profound work. In Sueño y Presentimiento (1947), she depicted a premonitory dream in which she held her own decapitated head, and in Towards Paradise (1954), Izquierdo painted “an almost abstract picture in which the world is divided into the hot earth, where a fire burns, and a cloudy sky, where we can see a small window, perhaps suggesting the possibility of a world different from that in which she lived and painted, a paradise far from the early world which she was to leave the next year” (Birbragher).

Indeed, Izquierdo died in 1955, but not without impacting the art world in a critical way. She was a master of intimate still lifes and haunting circus themes. She incorporated feminist themes into her works; not in a vague, political sense, but in way that was personal, real, and relatable for so many women who were struggling with the same issues. In all, it’s impossible to deny that María Izquierdo was a pioneer for Mexican women artists, leaving behind works that are still studied and respected today.