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Behind the lines of Jose Luis Cuevas.

JOSE LUIS CUEVAS, born in Mexico City in 1933, works in lithography and woodcuts, paints with oil, acrylic and water colors, creates sculpture, is a Sunday writer and occasionally even acts. Through it all, however, he remains obsessively devoted to drawing. And an unusually fruitful obsession it has been. Nothing seems to pass through his hands without taking on the highly personal stamp of an unmistakable "Cuevas" drawing: the floor tiles of his childhood home, the papers he filched from his father's paper factory, the letters, the envelopes ... He uses line, sometimes infused with wry humor, to create a hallucinatory, haunting world of the anguished and the odd, of phantoms and impenetrable loneliness. It is a world full of people, but the people are veiled and elusive.

Since his first exhibition, at the early age of 14, Cuevas has travelled a long road, exhibiting virtually everywhere. International renown has come to him in the form of numerous honors and prizes. These include the First International Prize in Drawing at the Sao Paulo Biennial, Brazil, 1959; First Prize, International Black and White Exhibit, Lugano, Switzerland, 1962; First International Prize in Printmaking, Graphic Arts Triennial, New Delhi, India, 1968; and the coveted National Prize in Fine Arts of Mexico, 1982, which until then had been awarded only to Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Americas: It was at the headquarters of the Organization of American States that you had your first show outside Mexico, wasn't it?

Jose Luis Cuevas: Yes, I came to Washington for the first time in 1954 to show my work at the invitation of Jose Gomez-Sicre, who was then director of the Visual Arts Division of the Pan American Union, now the OAS. Gomez-Sicre was enormously important for Latin American art. For many artists, Washington was a springboard to New York and even European galleries, as in my case. My first exhibition here enjoyed a terrific reception from the local critics and, thanks to that, shows in New York and Paris followed.

A correspondent from Time magazine did two interviews with me. One was published in Time and the other in Americas, the cover of which showed my work entitled The Butcher. I then collaborated occasionally with Americas, illustrating Jorge Luis Borges's El Aleph and a short story by Julio Cortazar. Eventually I also did illustrations for magazines like Life - that was many years ago - and more recently I illustrated a short story by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel Prize winner.

What are the most important books you have illustrated?

I illustrated Franz Kafka in 1959, here in the United States. The book, The Worlds of Kafka and Cuevas, was a great success and enjoyed good reviews. Then I illustrated for other authors, almost always with U.S. publishers: the Marquis de Sade, Francisco de Quevedo and many others. Some were my own texts, for instance an autobiography entitled Cuevas by Cuevas (1962), whose lithographs were also exhibited in Washington, Violence and Crime (1966), Crime by Cuevas (1968), Cuevas' Comedies (1968) . . .

Do you consider these endeavors part of your work as an artist?

You might say it runs parallel to my work as an artist. Literature has always been important to me and that is why I have illustrated books. But I have chosen the authors; I've never been able to illustrate on commission. I remember that when Elias Canetti won the Nobel Prize he called me in New York to ask if I would illustrate his book of short stories, The Voices of Marrakesh. When I read them and found that camels appeared in all of them, I returned the book. I don't know how to draw either camels or donkeys! I wouldn't be able to illustrate Don Quijote, because I couldn't illustrate Sancho Panza's donkey.

Still, your illustrations generally have nothing to do with the plot.

I never stick too closely to the story. Through the illustrations I look for a kind of graphic parallel to the world the writer is evoking with words. That's what happened both times I illustrated Kafka. About three years ago I illustrated The Metamorphosis for the Limited Editions Club of New York, but I ran into a problem. Max Brod, who was Kafka's friend and held the rights to his work, left a will forbidding future illustrators to depict Gregor Samsa, the hero of The Metamorphosis, turned into an insect. Well, the whole story revolves around Gregor Samsa turning into a bug, so that really complicates matters, doesn't it? My solution was to illustrate what Kafka doesn't describe. The story begins by saying that Gregor Samsa, after a restless night, wakes up to find himself turned into an insect. So I illustrated the restless night Gregor Samsa was spending as he underwent the process of metamorphosis.

The illustrations I did on Kafka have to do with the Kafkaesque world, as those I did on Dostoievski have to do with the world of Dostoievski. I'm not a literal illustrator; I deal in interpretations. After all, one interprets things according to one's own feelings. Others definitely see the world differently from the way I see it.

Do you think your work distorts reality?

My intention is always to be absolutely realistic. But in the end things don't always turn out that way. I don't think El Greco, for instance, intended his figures to be elongated, but something strange drove him to make them like that. I'm a figurative artist and the human figure is the persistent theme in my work, an interpretation of the human being of our time.

What led you to go to mental hospitals to draw disturbed people?

For a time in my formative years I visited mental hospitals and dissected corpses, as a kind of self-training. The purpose of dissection is to learn about the human body. The painters of the Renaissance did it. I visited mental hospitals to gain insight into the human condition through the disturbed, the mentally ill. My adolescence was characterized by this desire to look for the most terrible aspects of the human condition. Somehow, in spite of the changes my work has undergone, that impulse, that child's or adolescent's fascination for these horrors, continued to show up in my work.

This may be due to my being Mexican, although I have Spanish blood as well. In Spanish art, there is always a kind of delight in human deformities; in Mexican art there is also an abundance of horrors. They are not gentle arts. The Spaniards and Mexicans generally do not display what the French call joie de vivre. A Matisse reflects joy in being alive, while the Spanish and Mexican tendency is to reflect the sadness of life.

However, the horror you depict is different.

Mexican art before me - and I'm not referring to pre-Columbian art, with which I feel most closely identified, but, say, an expressionist like Jose Clemente Orozco - serves up horrors in an attempt to bring about social reform. In my case I'm not looking for solutions any more than Kafka was.

What do you find interesting in horror and death?

I identify very strongly with writers like Kafka, whose horror is almost of an existential nature. He converts life into a kind of nightmare. What drives him to create that very special, very personal world is not so much what he perceives in others but what he feels in himself. That is why I think my language is one of the most personal in the Latin American visual arts. Hence the enormous influence I've had on many painters. That doesn't mean I invented expressionism, but I do offer a different way of interpreting humanity, the human being - in a word, man.

But I can't spend all of my energy on that because my autobiography project also makes demands on my time. Throughout my work I am profoundly preoccupied by autobiography, by what happens to me. I have been living in France for ten years, and my home is a really fantastic chateau that used to be called La Renaudiere. The first thing I'm doing, rather compulsively, is to make notes on all the objects in it, the things with which I'll be sharing the house. In other words, I'm keeping a kind of journal.

I publish a regular autobiographical column every week in Mexico City - many are already collected in books. In those columns I recount absolutely everything that's happened to me, very openly and very honestly.

Are the erotic drawings you are exhibiting in the Mexican Cultural Institute and the Kimberly Gallery in Washington part of that autobiography project?

Yes, that's the erotic diary I kept from 1978 to 1983. I stopped in 1983 not because my own eroticism came to an end but because to continue would have been to repeat myself. I had already produced over 600 works! The drawings of this series, which are in no way pornographic, are small and in color. These small water colors are a kind of oasis amidst all the horrors. The Marquis de Sade was kept out. There is no horror in them.

What other important shows have you had lately?

Right now I have a show in Seville, where I was invited by the Government of Andalusia. This exhibit could be called my suite andaluza, in line with my previous suite madrilena and suite catalana.

This series can't have much to do with the world of Kafka!

To do this Andalusian suite I followed exactly the same procedure as with other works, including a series on Hamburg, Germany, which was called Hamburg Meat Market. I'm reading the Soledades of Gongora, an Andalusian writer, and I'm even reading San Juan de la Cruz. He wasn't Andalusian but he wrote while in a monastery in Granada.

Andalusia has profound meaning for me. The cante hondo has influenced me strongly. I went to the best flamenco clubs - not the tourist traps - to see the best cantaores and bailaores. So I have put into these pictures everything Andalusia is, everything it represents to me. Not a dancer dancing, but the lamentation and terror that inform the cante hondo. Just as my reading enabled me to illustrate the works of writers, what I saw there made this series on the Andalusian city possible.

This show opens next month, in conjunction with the quincentennial commemoration, in the Mudejar Palace. I've produced 25 four-meter drawings for it, all on canvas and on huge sheets of paper. I absolutely insisted that they all be called drawings in the catalogue, regardless of the techniques employed.

Why do you insist on being recognized only as a draughtsman?

Out o honesty, because I express myself through form, not through color. With color I'm not conveying any emotion. I use it sometimes mostly to create a sort of atmosphere, to accentuate horror, to accentuate the erotic. I never stop being a draughtsman, and although there may be spots and bits of color in my work, I insist I'm not a painter. I use whatever is at hand - oil, water colors, gouache or whatever - but I express myself through drawing.

What makes you do daily self-portraits?

As I told you, my principal obsession is autobiography, and the self-portrait is autobiographical, especially for someone like me who does one faithfully every day. I start the day by observing myself in a mirror and drawing myself. It's a concern with the passage of time, with growing old, death. There must be something morbid in it. What's more, for the past 35 years or so, every day when I get up, before shaving or showering, my wife Berta takes a photograph of me. I file all that away to record the passage of time.

Does this have something to do with experiences in your childhood?

Definitely. The idea of death stalks me constantly. I am also a hypochondriac. I worry constantly about illness and, at times, I imagine myself into one. I can even develop the symptoms of an illness, and it will turn out that there's nothing wrong. But the anxiety is there, all the time. That's hypochondria, isn't it? And that indeed stems from having been sick as a child. It's frightful!

All this shows up in my work, and if my work is unique it's precisely because it's a reflection of me. Everything in it has been lived or experienced. If I paint a scene with drug addicts, for example, it's not an experience that I might have lived - being a hypochondriac, I couldn't take drugs for the world - but it's an experience I've observed and lived. I'm not crazy, but I represent the craziness of others. Prostitutes, who have been one of the enduring themes of my work, fascinate me, yet I've never been to bed with one.

Why do they fascinate you so much?

In my autobiographical book Cuevas by Cuevas I spoke of the way prostitutes tempt and, at the same time, terrify me. As I child I lived in a neighborhood where there were prostitutes, cheap whores, repulsive women, and my interest in them has never left me. There is eroticism in the drawings of my erotic journal, but that isn't mercenary love. I don't think my drawings of prostitutes contain the slightest hint of eroticism. More than anything, prostitutes lead me to reflect on another aspect of horror.

You have always been restless and rebellious. Are you at present pursuing any activity other than art?

I'll tell you what's really important for me at the moment, other than the show in Seville. The Jose Luis Cuevas Museum will open in a few weeks, with works I'm donating to Mexico City. It's in the historic city center, near the Cathedral, the National Palace, the Zocalo, in the old seventeenth-century Convent of St. Agnes. Berta has worked hard at that project too. The convent had to be rebuilt and restored because it was in a disastrous state.

This will be a museum of contemporary Latin American art. There will be works by other artists, especially of my generation, known as "the breakaway generation," which is not only Mexican but Latin American in general. This generation emerged with critics like Jose Gomez-Sicre and Marta Traba, who have both since died. A truly brilliant generation which breaks with the Latin American art of the past, with indigenismo, with social content in art and the muralists of all of Latin America. All those who broke with those things and ushered in a new era in the art of our countries are going to be represented in that museum, along with much of my work.

I have made a sculpture eight meters high, for instance, The Giant, that will stand in the center of the patio. It is a bronze of a naked woman, not at all erotic, half of whose body moves to the left while the other half points to the right. It's a tremendously realistic work, except for this slight distortion which makes her take off in two opposite directions.

In this museum there will be three rooms honoring three figures closely tied to my life as a painter: Jose Gomez-Sicre, Marta Traba, the Argentine critic who also lived here in Washington, and Fernando Gamboa, a Mexican who was undoubtedly one of the world's greatest museologists. He was going to be the curator of my museum, but he died in an accident. The three were great friends of mine, very close, and I think these three rooms bearing their names are the least I can offer as a homage to their great contribution to Latin American art.

Annick Casciero is a freelance writer and art critic.
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Author:Casciero, Annick Sanjurjo; Daniels, William
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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