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Carlos Mérida – a pioneer of Latin American Modernism – was born in Guatemala City in 1891 and grew up in the western mountain valley of Quetzaltenango. His first passion was music. But when an illness left him with permanent hearing damage, he turned to the visual arts.
In 1908, Mérida graduated from high school. The following year, the family returned to Guatemala City, where he enrolled at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios. During that time, he met the artist and writer Jaime Sabartés, and in 1910 Sabartés helped him organize his first exhibition at the offices of the newspaper El Economista.
Encouraged by Sabartés to study abroad, Mérida and his good friend Carlos Valenti traveled to Paris in 1912. Tragically, Valenti committed suicide soon after they arrived. But Mérida continued the journey. In Paris, he lived next door to the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and Roberto Montenegro. He studied with the Dutch Fauvist Kees van Dongen and the Catalonian painter Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa. He also met Pablo Picasso (a friend of Sabartés), Amedeo Modigliani, Piet Mondrian, and other leaders of the European avant-garde. He then spent time in New York and Mexico.
In 1914, he returned to Guatemala, where he had a showing of work he had done in Europe. Living again in Guatemala, Mérida immersed himself in learning about the art and culture of his native Maya and Zapotec culture. This changed him. “The impressions I received overshadowed everything I had learned in Europe,” he said.
Mérida's next show was in 1915. It featured the vivid colors, textures, and figurative motifs of Maya art. At the same time, it maintained the Modernist sensibility he had developed in Paris. This exhibition – using Cubism and abstraction to restructure the art of Guatemala’s indigenous culture – is considered to be the beginning of Modernism in the country.
In collaboration with his friend Rafael Yela Günther, a sculptor whose work had also been inspired by pre-Hispanic art, Mérida then set out to establish a uniquely Central American art form – one that the two men called folklorismo. Mérida and Yela Günther were the first well-known artists to shine the spotlight on Guatemala’s indigenous designs and themes.
In 1919, Mérida moved to Mexico. A year later, he showed his new work at Mexico's Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes. The show was a success. As historian Courtney Gilbert noted, artists and critics hailed him as “a model for the development of an art rooted in the Americas at a time when they sought to separate themselves artistically from Europe.”
In 1922, Mérida helped Diego Rivera with his La Creación mural in Mexico City’s Bolívar Amphitheater. Though Mérida greatly admired Rivera, he disliked art like Rivera’s – art produced to make social statements. The work he did on his own, including a mural commissioned by the Secretary of Public Education’s children’s library, was personal, not social, and executed in his own distinctive style. From 1927 until 1929, Mérida lived in Paris and spent time with Paul Klee, Joan Miró, and Wassily Kandinsky. Due no doubt to their influence, he soon abandoned figurative painting. Using elements of Mayan imagery, he began to experiment with Surrealism. Surrealism, he felt, was a way for Central American artists to develop a unique aesthetic that disconnected them from the Social Realism that was dominating Mexican painting. He continued to experiment with Surrealism during the 1930s and 1940s. Then, in the late 1940s, his paintings became more geometric – a fusion of European Modernism and pre-Columbian Latin American themes. These are the paintings for which he is best known.
In 1950, he traveled to Italy to learn Venetian mosaic techniques. In the 1950s and 1960s, he created many murals with ceramics, glass, and enameled copper. He also incorporated unusual materials like barkwood paper (papel amate), animal glue, parchment, sand, and cloth into his paintings.
Although Mérida spent so much of his later years in Mexico, he never cut ties with Guatemala. He returned frequently to his native country and showed his work there. As a result, as the critic Guillermo Monsanto pointed out, he had a significant and direct influence on the development of Modernism in Guatemala.
Carlos Mérida died in Mexico City in 1984 at the age of eighty-three.
Awards and Honors for Carlos Mérida
1957 - won the Premio de Adquisición at the IV Sao Paulo Bienal, Sao Paulo, Brazil
1958 - awarded the Orden del Quetzal
1966 - given the Orden al Mérito Cultural y Artístico by the Dirección General de Bellas Artes, Guatemala City, Guatemala
1979 - won the Premio Elías Sourasky
1980 - received the Orden del Águila Azteca, the highest honor given by Mexico to foreigners