” A European with Mexican eyes. ” That’s how Gunther Gerzso, the set designer and surrealist painter, described himself. This mix of European and Mexican culture made him become a key figure of modern art, especially in Mexico. He would be 100 years old today.
Gunther Gerzso was born 100 years ago and died in April 21st, 2000 at 84. In the meantime, he has left his mark on the Mexican world of art being considered as the first artist to produce abstract art in Mexico. Born in Mexico City to a German mother and a Hungarian father, he also lived in Switzerland for four years with his uncle who was an art historian and a collector. Gunther Gerzso’s paintings not only reflect this mix of culture but it is what makes his work unique. He blended “ the subtlety and psychological depth of European art with Latin America’s vibrant passions and tragic sense of life “ as said the New York Times critic Stephen Kinzer. In the 1940’s, Gunther Gerzso joined a European surrealist group based in Mexico. During this period, he got to know surrealist leading figures such as Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Benjamin Péret, Alice Rahón, and Wolfgang Paalen. While other Mexican painters were using art as a communication tool for social and political protest, Gunther Gerzso preferred to create what he called his ” landscape of the spirit ”.
As a surrealist painter, Gunther Gerzso’s intuition always had the last word but not to the detriment of reason and technique. To him, it was impossible to have much control on the painting. He ” obeyed inspiration “ as he said -despite his dislike of the term – because the process of creation was evolving while he was painting. Something else, something he didn’t plan to paint often came out. The poet and essayist Octavio Paz described him as a “ glacial spark ” i.e a “dazzling fire that is coldly controlled”. Even if Gunther Gerzso was guided by inspiration he always paid attention to technique and proportions, and he sometimes even used the concept of the golden ratio.
It is because Gunther Gerzso was able to let go that he succeeded in creating such poetic paintings. Ilona Katzew, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who specializes in Latin American painting precisely ” holds him in very high regard [because] he developed something uniquely his own, a crisp, clean artistic style that’s very intense and charged with emotion. ” The artist regularly nurtured his emotions. Some works of art like The Egyptian sculpture Seated Scribe and The Miracle of the Slave by Tintoretto always had a big emotional impact on him. That kind of feeling helped him to develop his artistic talent.
To Gunther Gerzso, a good painting had to be alive. ” The process makes the artist become a type of Frankenstein. […] The minute thunder rolls, that last thunder that bestows life on the piece, one says, “ It’s done!” From then on painting and painter are separated, and the painting has a life of its own.” he said to José Antonio Aldrete-Haas in an interview for BOMB Magazine. His successful career as a set designer undoubtedly gave him what he needed to create movements and life in his paintings.
Over time, Gunther Gerzso paintings evolved from surrealism to abstract expressionism. His mature paintings became simpler. They are often referred to as “architectonic abstractions” because he used to mix the geometric style of the architect Le Corbusier with pre-Columbian art. Architecture and pre-Columbian art have always inspired Gunther Gerzso, even in his way of working. He used to begin his paintings drawing many lines on the canvas until something came out. ” I’ve been working the same way since 1946 “, he said.
A retrospective of Gunther Gerzso’s centenary takes place today June 17th at 19:00 pm at Palacio de Bellas Artes (Mexico City).