“The ready supply of something to draw on, an endless stream of bizarre characters outside his window, and his own ill health...drove him to art...My first recollection is of paper trimmings...Scattered over the floor like fallen streamers and confetti from the paper punches, it was always a carnival at my house...”4
Jose Luis Cuevas was born in a middle class family in a paper factory in Triumph Alley in Mexico City in 1934. He is a draftsman, engraver, printmaker and painter. He is also a Mexican activist. His maternal grandmother, Felicia Carbonell I Llensa, always made sure that her grandson was in good health. Cuevas spent his childhood in the streets in which the local beggars, the family servants, the little clay figures you could buy for a few cents in the nearest market, all of these took their place in his mind’s eye and were then recreated in pieces of colored paper from his grandfather’s paper mill.1 Cuevas stated that “perhaps because I was born in a paper mill and pencil factory, paper has always had a great fascination for me.”1 He went to art school when he was just ten years old, attending the Escuela Nacinoal de Pintura y Escultura, ‘La Esmeralda,’ in Mexico City. At this age he also illustrated many periodicals and books. Then he went to the Institucion de Ensenanza Universitaria in Mexico City. When he was fourteen he created and held his first exhibition; however he received no visitors. In 1953, when he was nineteen he had his first successful gallery exhibition in Mexico City. His earliest award was in 1959, the International First Prize for Drawing at the Sao Paula Biennale, with 40 works from the series Funeral of a Dictator. In 1964 he was awarded the Prize for Excellence in Art and Design at the 29th Annual Exhibition of the Art Directors’ Club, Philadelphia. In 1981, Cuevas earned the National Prize of Culture, which was finally considered acceptable by the people of Mexico.
INFLUENCE ON HIS ART: Cuevas’s much inspiration came from the ideal people of society. He was influenced by the graphic art of Goya and Picasso as well as by Posada and Orozco, whose representations of deformed creatures, degraded humanity and prostitutes were of particular thematic interest. Cuevas’s drawings, which were done in pen and ink, gouache and watercolor, are mostly done on very large sheets of paper. In many of these drawings, the figures are transformed into animals.2 Jose Cuevas was fascinated by the artwork of Catalan Romanesque. Between 1942 and 1955 Cuevas did work that showed a discovery of reality. J.M. Tasende of California in 1983 wrote a testimony of Cuevas stating that for more than thirty years Cuevas has reflected through his work “the most sordid and least pleasing aspects of the world we live in.” Impressed by man’s own suffering and the act of becoming devastated, Siqueiros emphasizes on these themes in his work. He always, however, takes care to treat his subjects with great compassion and affection.2 In a recent article, Benjamin Walter described Cuevas’s work “In this world drawn from dream and memory, Jose Luis Cuevas, apersona of his own imagination, serves as a guide and a witness to the noxious tradegy of the human condition.”4 Cuevas was also involved with Latin America’s Neofigurative movement.
POLITICAL AND SOCIAL ASPECTS: In his early years Cuevas joined a political group of young artists who became opposed to the socialist artists favored by the Government and rebelled against the official mural art and became active in defining the contemporary artistic panorama of Mexico.3 Cuevas opposed the Mexican Mural movement. Jose Cuevas has endured harsh disapproval from the public. Cuevas, angering the public in 1966, had held an exhibition in Mexico City that caused a violent public reaction, with written insults and threats.4 His house was even machine-gunned. It seems that the most important feature of his work was described by a writer named Jose Gomez-Sicre “the insertion of the perpetual values of the aboriginal art of his own people: the archaic, hieratic strength of pre-Colombian sculpture, with its unshakable solemnity and interplay of volumes”1 In regards to Chicano art, Cuevas stated “Chicanos have created nostalgic art that refers back to something expressed by their parents or their grandparents. So powerful in this nostalgia with its references to Pancho Villa and the Virgin of Guadalupe that is sending tendrils across the border toward it source...we have these artists in Mexico now who are returning to nationalism...they have a tremendous influence from Chicanos working in the U.S.”4
1. Gomez-Sicre, Jose & Cuevas, Jose Luis. 1983. Jose Luis Cuevas: Self-Portrait with Model. Rizzoli International Publications, INC. New York.
2. Tasende, J.M. & Seiz, Peter. 1983. Intolerance-Jose Luis Cuevas. Tasende Gallery.
3. “Jose Luis Cuevas.” September 24, 2003. http://www.nuevosantader.com/cuevas.htm
4. “Jose Luis Cuevas, 1934-.” September 24, 2003. http://paccd.cc.ca.us/library/artists/jose_luis_cuevas.htm