Octavio Medellin and Mesoamerican Art: Influences and Inspirations

Octavio Medellin's art and sculpture was profoundly influenced by South American Indian cultures. In this case, he photographed a Mayan bas-relief sculpture of a hummingbird during his trip to Chichén Itzá in 1938 and made a tracing. The colorful linocut of the bird was created in 1975.

Octavio Medellin’s art and sculpture was profoundly influenced by South American Indian cultures. In this case, he photographed a Mayan bas-relief sculpture of a hummingbird in the Lower Temple of the Jaguar during his trip to Chichén Itzá in 1938 and made a tracing. The colorful linocut of the bird was created in 1975.

Xalapa Museum, Veracruz, La Venta, Olmec, 1959, slide by Octavio Medellin

Xalapa Museum, Veracruz, La Venta, Olmec, 1959, slide by Octavio Medellin

The Octavio Medellin: Works of Art and Artistic Processes digital collection contains nearly 4,000 digitized slides, sketches, photographs, and works of art held by the Bywaters Special Collections, a division of SMU’s Hamon Arts Library. More than 1,000 of the items depict or relate to Medellin’s travels to Guatemala and Mexico. In many cases, Medellin traveled to these countries to study Mesoamerican art, which had a profound influence on his own work. The art and ruins from a variety of South American Indian cultures are depicted in the digital collection, including the Aztec, Chichimec, Maya, Olmec, Toltec, Totonac, and Zapotec.

Bywaters’ digital collections are part of CUL Digital Collections, which contain thousands of digitized photographs, manuscripts, imprints, and works of art held by SMU’s Central University Libraries special collections.

Medellin’s Early Background

[Temple of the Jaguar. 19B. Block print.], 1938, slide of print by Octavio Medellin

[Temple of the Jaguar. 19B. Block print.], 1938, slide of print by Octavio Medellin. During his trip to Chichén Itzá, Medellin made great efforts to replicate the colors originally used by the Mayan Indians.

Born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, of Otomi Indian heritage, Octavio Medellin (1907-1999) made a home and career in the United States beginning in the 1920s when he studied at the San Antonio Art Institute with well-known Spanish artists José Arpa and Xavier Gonzales, as well as the Chicago Art Institute. In 1929, Medellin returned to Mexico in order to work with Guatemalan painter, Carlos Merida, and Colombian sculptor, Romulo Rozo, who were both living in Mexico City. Medellin eventually left Mexico City on foot to travel extensively through the Gulf Coast, where he studied local crafts and ruins as he lived in various South American Indian villages and worked alongside fishermen based out of Veracruz. Such experience is evident when considering that the following has been said of his work, “His principal concern has always been with the people—all kinds, though notably the American Indian race. His feeling for them is strong and simple and he translates it as simply and strongly into stone”  (Peck, August 9, 1942, ¶  5, 3).

Maya-Toltec Temples and Carvings, 1938

[Relief Carvings, Mayan Ruins, Chichen Itza] from Maya - Toltec Temples and Carvings, 1938

[Relief Carvings, Mayan Ruins, Chichen Itza] from Maya – Toltec Temples and Carvings, 1938, photograph by Octavio Medellin

By 1931, Medellin had returned to San Antonio where he spent several years teaching and pursuing artistic projects, some for commission. It was during this period that Medellin met Lucy Maverick, who became a longtime friend and patron of Medellin’s works. Maverick had traveled in Mexico in the 1920s and became enamored with Mexican culture, participating in early archeological excavations. Medellin met Lucy Maverick in San Antonio, Texas, at the La Villita Art Gallery that he and several other artists opened in the early 1930s. It was Maverick who encouraged Medellin to return to his native Mexico to study Mayan culture and eventually funded Medellin’s six-month trip in 1938 to the Yucatan in order to study Mayan ruins and artwork (Peck, August 9, 1942). Medellin brought along his family, wife, Consuelo, and their two children, Patsy and Sergio. The Medellin family’s trip is documented in the Maya-Toltec Temples and Carvings, 1938 photograph album containing 181 black and white images.

The Medellin’s journey began in New Orleans and then to Progreso, Yucatán. They visited towns as well as historical sites and ruins, which included Merida, Izamal, and Uxmal. Medellin and his family were accompanied by American artist and sculptor David Slivka and his wife, Kayla. Their trip culminated in Piste, located four miles from Chichén Itzá. After staying in Piste for three months, Medellin and family were invited by Dr. Sylvanus Morley to stay at the Carnegie Institute research center, located next to the Chichén Itzá ruins. In 1913, Dr. Morley had been instrumental in initiating and directing the first Chichén Itzá project, funded by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, but excavations did not start until 1923 due to the Mexican Revolution and World War I. The Carnegie Institution continued to support excavations at the site until 1944.

The photographs in Maya-Toltec Temples and Carvings, 1938 contain images of Medellin’s travels in Mexico, his family, the ruins at Chichén Itzá, people associated with the ancient Mayan sites, and his art and travel friends David and Kayla Slivka. Several photographs towards the end of the scrapbook [beginning on page 85] are of the Mayan site at Uxmal. One photograph is that of Mrs. Marrufo [first name unknown] and her daughter, Ophelia Marrufo. Mrs. Marrufo’s father was Edward Herbert Thompson, who was an archeologist and U. S. Consul in the Yucatán in 1885. In 1894, with the assistance of Chicago patron, Mr. Allison V. Armour, Thompson purchased the land that included Chichén Itzá and the old Hacienda Chichén. Thompson rebuilt the hacienda that would later become the compound for the Carnegie Institute research center established by Dr. Morley. Thompson is known for dredging the Cenote Sagrado, a natural sinkhole at Chichén Itzá which the Mayans considered to be a sacred well, from 1904 to 1910.  Mayan artifacts were found including items made of gold, copper, and jade.

Xtol: Dance of the Ancient Mayan People, [front cover], 1947

Xtol: Dance of the Ancient Mayan People, [front cover], 1947, portfolio by Octavio Medellin

Granted access to the ruins whenever he wished, Medellin would work from morning to night sketching the ruins’ artwork or creating paintings of that artwork in hues akin to the colors used by those who first created them. “Medellin would work his way inside the tombs where the color is still pure and bright, making careful notes on shades and tones. These completed, he would wait for the rain. The dampness would bring out patches of the original color of the figures carved there…” (Peck, August 9, 1942, ¶ 7-8 ). Medellin was able to reproduce the Mayan art, resulting in many sketches and paintings of the figures throughout the ruins. In 1947, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts published Medellin’s portfolio of 11 block prints titled, Xtol: Dance of the Ancient Mayan People; Murals from the Temple of the Tigers at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico.

Untitled (Temple of the Tigers, Chichen Itza), 1938, sketch by Octavio Medellin

Untitled (Temple of the Tigers, Chichen Itza), 1938, sketch by Octavio Medellin

Bywaters Special Collections has two pencil-on-paper sketches and a color block print of an image of a hummingbird, which are available online in the Texas Artists: Paintings, Sculpture and Works on Paper digital collection, as well as a linoleum block for printing. All images are from the bas-relief carvings in the Lower Temple of the Jaguar at Chichén Itzá. Plans were made to make three additional portfolios using the remaining three registers of the bas-relief carvings, but funding kept future publications from materializing. One pencil sketch from the first register was used for the Xtol portfolio, and the other sketch is from the second register. The linoleum print block is of an image also on the second register. The image of the hummingbird is from the lower register. Some of Medellin’s drawings were reproduced in the article, “The Shower of the Road:  The Democratic Approach to Mayan Mysteries” by American writer and anthropologist Oliver La Farge (Town and Country, September 1942).

Other Trips to Mexico and Guatemala

Medellin made several subsequent trips over the decades to Mexico to study not only the Mayan ruins, but also the art and architecture of the contemporary Mexico of his visits. The images and artwork Medellin documented are part of the digital collection’s Travels to Mexico series. Medellin’s 1959 trip to Guatemala is highlighted in the series Travels to Guatemala, in which he visited, among other locations, the Museum of Guatemala City and the ruins at Kaminaljuyu and Quirigua.

Text by by Brandon P. Murray, Digitizer/Metadata Creator, Central University Libraries, Southern Methodist University and Ellen Buie Niewyk, Curator, Bywaters Special Collections, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University

Additional Source:

Patricia Peck, “Plaster for Victory is Medellin’s Medium,” Dallas Morning News, August 9, 1942, 4D, America’s Historical Newspapers database.

 

 

About Cynthia Boeke

AA-CUL(CMIT)
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