“Forests and marsh surrounded us and there were all sorts of animals,” Toledo has recalled of his childhood in Veracruz. “We lived nearby a marsh, which was filled with turtles.” The beginnings of his fantastic zoology date to these adolescent years, redolent with memories of roaming the land and encounters with the storied animals—monkeys and crabs, grasshoppers and crocodiles—held sacred within Oaxacan lore. Toledo studied lithography at the Taller Libre de Grabado in Mexico City in the late 1950s before moving in 1960 to Paris, where he met Octavio Paz and Rufino Tamayo; he returned to Juchitán, his birthplace, in 1965. Associated with the postwar Ruptura generation, which broke with the political mission of Mexican muralism in favor of experimental and sometimes abstract expressionism, his work is contemporary with such artists as Pedro Coronel, Alberto Gironella, and Rodolfo Nieto. Like Tamayo and Rodolfo Morales deeply invested in the cultural patrimony of the Isthmus and Pacific coast, Toledo has long since based himself in Oaxaca, his work and identity richly imbricated within its historical landscape and ecology.
Toledo has drawn amply from ancient American mythology and its animistic worldview, populating his images with sagacious and otherworldly anthropomorphic beings. “The pre-Hispanic world has been a source of inspiration,” he explains. “There are certain solutions that are decorative that come from pre-Hispanic art and at the same time there is much primitive art that is refined or simple but also very modern. It also comes from what I read—many fables from the Americas and other parts of the world.” His paintings celebrate the syncretic spirituality of the indigenous world, depicting fantastic creatures in myriad states of metamorphosis and in intimate rituals of creation and consummation. Animals were privileged and miraculous beings in Zapotec legend, the “connecting link between nature and society, mediators between man and the sacred energies of the natural ambience,” Erika Billeter has explained. “Animals were the real character of the myth, the sublimation of a whole cosmic imagination.” Toledo’s work swarms with the fauna of the natural and phantasmagorical worlds. His animals inhabit a charmed reality and have become, over the course of his career, an extended metaphor for the supernatural mysteries of the world.
Sea turtles abound on the Oaxacan coast, and in Tortuga poniendo huevos Toledo evokes the seasonal nesting event—the arribada—in which thousands of females come ashore to lay their eggs. Four turtles converge at the center of the painting, their heads and front flippers silhouetted against an overlay of sapphire-blue paint that washes over their mottled shells, camouflaging them against a richly variegated ground. Their corporeal assimilation within this amphibious environment conveys the evolutionary connection between the turtles and the shore, where the hatchlings will emerge from sand-covered nests and make their way to the sea. Toledo renders this ecstatic, life-giving moment with a deep reverence and joy that radiate from the turtles through the incubating coastal ground, rendered in gritty pigments of ocher and raw umber, into which their clutch of eggs—spherical and precious—is carefully laid.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Francisco Toledo, quoted in George Mead Moore, “Francisco Toledo,” Bomb 70 (Winter 2000): 114-15.
2 Ibid., 115.
3 Erika Billeter, “In the Cosmos of the Animals—The Adventure of the Fantasy,” in Zoologi´a Fanta´stica: Toledo, Borges (Mexico City: Prisma Editorial, 2003), 25.