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The pictures of Juan Soriano appear to have been painted after an excess of fever and they express an intimate condition, the very soul of the painter.
- critic Lorenzo Valera (1940)
He reveals to us, and reveals to himself, a part of our intimacy, of our being.- Poet, essayist and Nobel Prize Laureate Octavio Paz (1941)
The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present Fragile Demon: Juan Soriano in Mexico, 1935-1950, the first exhibition to focus on the artist’s early years in Guadalajara and Mexico City and the first to be seen at a major U.S. museum. Juan Soriano (1920-2006) is one of modern Mexico’s most distinguished and original artists. His work draws upon regional traditions as well as Cubism and Surrealism to create a distinctly romantic, representational style. This focused exhibition is guest curated by Edward J. Sullivan, Professor of Art History at New York University, where he also serves as Dean of Humanities. Sullivan is the author of numerous texts on Soriano’s work. On view from February 16 to May 11, 2008, Fragile Demon presents 16 works, including the Museum’s four paintings by the artist, offering visitors an opportunity to experience Soriano’s art in relation to the retrospective Frida Kahlo (on view February 20-May 18, 2008). Although he was 13 years younger than she, Soriano and Kahlo were friends and moved in the same artistic circles in Mexico. The Soriano exhibition and its accompanying catalogue examines the artist’s contribution, placing him within the context of both Mexican and international art of the 1930s and 40s. It includes loans from private collections and museums in Mexico, as well as the U.S.
The Museum first acquired works by Soriano in the 1940s, under the auspices of then-Curator of Paintings Henry Clifford, who actively collected modern Mexican painting for the institution. The Museum’s four of paintings by Soriano make it the most important holder of his work in the U.S. The enigmatic and compelling Dead Girl (1938), painted when he was only 18, relates to a long-standing Latin American visual tradition focusing on mortality that has particular strength in Mexico in both painting and photography. Combining pathos with an almost otherworldly tenderness, Dead Girl has come to be seen as the quintessential example of its genre.
The Museum’s others paintings by Soriano – Still Life (1942), Girl with Mask of 1945 and Girl with a Bouquet of 1946 – are representative of his principal themes during these years, when he was associated with the so-called Mexican School and some of its principal adherents, among them Frida Kahlo, María Izquierdo, Raul Anguiano, and Jesús Guerrero Galván. Soriano’s subjects from this time include portraits of friends and family, images of children, still lifes and scenes with surrealistic overtones, such as Saint Jerome of 1942, which portrays the naked saint contemplating a skull in a modern Mexican bedroom. Soriano avoided the use of political overtones or ‘Mexicanist’ imagery, preferring instead a more poetic approach.
“Now is an especially meaningful moment to present the work of this remarkable artist, just two years after his death at the age of eighty-six,” said Museum Director Anne d’Harnoncourt. “His work speaks eloquently in relation to Frida Kahlo and contemporaries in Mexico, whom the younger artist admired, and also finds resonance with our distinguished holdings of European art and American modernism.”
Born in Guadalajara in 1920, Soriano grew up in a family that included thirteen single aunts and four sisters. His family was instrumental in encouraging the solitary, sickly, precocious young boy to express himself in drawing and painting. He was influenced by Catholic culture and the colors, events, objects, architecture and oral culture of the Jalisco region. The young Soriano established ties with local artists who fostered the painter’s interest both in folk art and European art history.
Soriano began exhibiting in Guadalajara at age 14, where his show in the regional museum attracted the attention of influential Mexican painters including Izquierdo and José Chavez Morado and the photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo, all of whom befriended Soriano and urged him to travel to Mexico City. He lived there from 1935 to 1950 and entered into the circle of Rivera, Kahlo, Orozco, Siqueiros and met other artists and writers of the vanguard “Contemporáneos” group, which was committed to an experimental, non-nationalistic mode of expression. He thrived in this lively environment and also became acquainted with European surrealists who had come to Mexico as war refugees in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Theater and literature were of exceptional importance for Soriano, who integrated both into his intellectual and artistic life. “The influence of Soriano has been decisive not only among painters and sculptors, but also on theater and poetry,” declared the distinguished Mexican poet and author Octavio Paz in his Essays on Mexican Art (1993), reflecting the artist’s place in the history of art.
After 1950 Soriano spent prolonged periods in Europe, experimenting with abstract painting and sculpture and developing what his life-long friend Rufino Tamayo would call “universalist tendencies.” He died on February 10, 2006, in Mexico City.
Fragile Demon: Juan Soriano in Mexico, 1935-1950 was made possible by Telcel, Fundación José Cuervo, and a generous anonymous donor.
In conjunction with the exhibition the Museum is producing an illustrated publication (60 p.) with an essay by Edward J. Sullivan and the first-ever English translations of texts on Soriano by two distinguished Mexican writers, Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. It will be available for $19.95 at the Museum Store or online.