María Izquierdo

The Artist as Image

by Cristina La Porta

For many artists, multiple self-portraits function as visual autobiography and as a way of creating a public persona. Frida Kahlo, whose centenary is being celebrated in a retrospective currently traveling in the United States,1 famously based her art in this genre. Her remarkable contemporary María Izquierdo used portraiture to explore cultural and ethnic identity, combining modernist experimentation and the figurative tradition. Izquierdo (1902–55) was one of the most important painters of the post-revolutionary period. An independent, charismatic woman, Izquierdo cultivated a personal style that emphasized her Indian heritage, favoring earth-colored cosmetics, which she concocted herself, and traditional Mexican elements in her clothes and hairstyle. Octavio Paz drew a vivid word picture of Izquierdo as a pre-Hispanic goddess:

A face of sun-dried mud perfumed with copal incense. Highly made up, with cosmetics not at all up to date but age-old, ritual: lips like red-hot coals, cannibal teeth, wide nostrils to breathe in the delicious smoke of supplications and sacrifices, violently ochre cheeks, crow’s brows and enormous dark circles surrounding deep-set eyes. Her dress was equally fantastic: jet black and magenta fabrics, laces, buttons, amulets, ostentatious earrings, sumptuous necklaces. 1

Izquierdos mexicanidad was rooted in reality, but it was also an artisitic invention. She was theatrical in the way she presented herself, in life and in photographs. Her highly stylized cosmetics, jewelry, hair and clothes all contributed to the image of a Mexican-Indian woman artist. Izquierdo was self-confident enough to explore different aspects of her persona. Her portraits demonstrate a personality in control of her medium, which she uses with a mixture of whimsy and seriousness.

<i>Self Portrait, </i>1940<br/>PRIVATE COLLECTION

A 1929 Izquierdo Self-Portrait (whereabouts currently unknown), shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1930 as part of an exhibit on Mexican art organized by René d’Harnoncourt, employs a simplified modernist composition. A seated Izquierdo wraps her arms around the back of a chair; her soulful face resembles an Indian mask. Photography played a role in Izquierdo’s autorretratos. A late 1920s photograph of Izquierdo shows her seated, arms crossed, with a meditative expression. Izquierdo collected photographs of family and friends, and her portraits and self-portraits were influenced by nineteenth-century photographic conventions, such as the carte-de-visite. This small, card-mounted photographic portrait became an international fad in the mid-nineteenth century. The subject was presented full figure, at a slight distance, usually against a painted backdrop and in fashionable dress. A contemporary lady of fashion noted: “People like clear hard outlines, and have a fancy to see themselves and their friends through opera-glasses, all complete, with the buttons etc. nicely defined.”3 The long exposures necessary for nineteenth-century cameras also promoted a certain stiffness and formality in the poses. Among the popular visual traditions Izquierdo inherited was portrait photography, although—as usual—she played with notions of self-representation, especially in dress.

<i>Mis sobrinas (My Nieces)</i>, 1940<br/>MUSEO NACIONAL DE ARTE MEXICO CITYPortrait photography is the starting point for her composition Mis sobrinas (My Nieces), 1940.4 In this family portrait, the woman sits flanked by two little girls. In photographs, Izquierdo is frequently portrayed similarly, with her two children, Carlos and Amparo. Painted specifically to be exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Mis sobrinas was the first artwork purchased by the government for Mexico’s Museum of Modern Art. It is now in the permanent collection of the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City. Izquierdo liked to present herself wearing traditional dress or the fashionable creole, colonial-inspired couture of nineteenth-century Mexico. In Mis sobrinas, the woman wears an elaborate blouse and dark skirt, typical of the upper-class señoras ofNew Spain. Her soft raspberry-pink blouse features fluffy sleeves with intricate black-lace cuffs, front placket and shoulders. The ensemble—exquisite blouse and long flowing black skirt bordered by three raspberry-pink stripes—is one which Izquierdo, also a talented seamstress, undoubtedly admired. In one hand, the woman holds a small bouquet of deep purple violets, chromatically keyed to the tonality of the raspberry blouse. Her fingernails are enameled in the same purple as the flowers, adding a touch of modern-day feminine vanity. In contrast to the woman’s nineteenth-century costume, the two little girls wear contemporary, brightly colored short dresses, both with short puffed sleeves and white collars. One girl’s dress has crisp white buttons, contrasting with the lace-covered placket on her aunt’s blouse.

The background for this group portrait is a lush screen of vegetation, perhaps an allusion to the fake nature backdrops of nineteenth-century photography studios. The dark green foliage—a tropical mix of yucca or agave, banana leaves and purple honeysuckle, with daisies in the lower right—seems to push forward, enveloping the figures. The plant forms are highly stylized, with the truncated yucca or agave plants arranged in a decorative chevron pattern. The child in the red dress wears her hair braided and coiled on the top of her head, tied with traditional bright-colored wool cords, a hair adornment called a tlacoyal. The woman wears her hair in tight little curls piled on top of her head. The little girl in yellow, who wears her hair smooth, simply tied in the back, stands with one hand on the woman’s shoulder, the other cocked on her hip. Mis sobrinas may owe something to Henri Rousseau’s (1844–1910) jungle paintings, which Izquierdo admired. She wrote about Rousseau in the journal Hoy, commenting on his “delicious decorativism . . . where every detail and the movement of every flower is so well defined as to arrive to a stylization of forms, just short of an easy objectivism or ordinary decorativism.” 5

By the 1940s, Izquierdo had become artistically and financially successful, showing her work in Mexico, the United States, and—with the help of her admirer Antonin Artaud—in Paris.6 In the 1940s, when Izquierdo returned to portrait painting, she depicted herself as a nineteenth-century gran señora de la nueva España, as a mater dolorosa, and above all as a contemporary woman, proud of her Indian roots and confident of her role as an artist. In a Self-Portrait from 1940, Izquierdo stares straight ahead, elegantly dressed in a traditional white ruffled dress, each ruffle coquettishly lined with black ribbon tied in a little bow at the front. A long, blood-red shawl falls sensuously off one shoulder. Her fingernails are long, well-manicured and painted blood-red to match. She holds a bouquet of pink roses. Although the presentation is frontal, Izquierdo does not meet the viewer’s eyes, but seems lost in her own thoughts. Her full sensuous lips are painted in her trademark lipstick color, fuchsia. The almond-shaped eyes and ochre-colored skin celebrate her Indian roots. Another homage to her Mexican/New World heritage is her coiffure: hair parted in sections and braided, pulled up, crowned with a tiara-like fuchsia-colored headband and three white roses. Izquierdo depicts herself seated in a corner of an elegant colonial balcony, playing once again on the compositional conventions of nineteenth-century photographic portraits, which often included painted architectural elements. The perspective is artificially tilted up, flattening the composition. The truncated branches of the reddish-brown tree behind the balustrade appear to touch Izquierdo’s head. By cropping the figure and architectural elements, Izquierdo creates an image that is as much an arrangement of shapes as a portrait in three-dimensional space.

The composition is coloristically unified by a limited palette. Greyish-black shadows model the white of the balustrade and the ruffled dress. Izquierdo’s ochre-colored skin echoes the tonalities of the backdrop, the lava-colored soil and the solitary reddish-brown leafless tree set against a black-grey sky. The painting is chromatically organized according to Izquierdo’s concept of color. In a 1953 interview with the Mexican author Elena Poniatowska, Izquierdo described her seven distinctive colors: “For a decade, I concentrated on only one color per year, and there are seven colors that matter to me: red, vermillion, crimson, ochre, pinkish white, Tamayo’s pink, chicle (gray), and tezontle (blood red), the burned earth of Michoacán.”7 Izquierdo often uses tezontle, alluding to the dark red porous stone employed in pre-Hispanic times, especially for ceremonial masks, and in many façades of colonial buildings in Mexico. All of Izquierdo’s “seven colors” are part of her everyday life, especially the pinkish white she saw in carnival dancers’ masks. Pinkish white and red symbolize wantonness and lust. Red is the prevalent color of the Tenochtli Dance, symbolizing the bloodshed that Malinche, the mistress of Cortes, brought on her own people with the conquest and fall of Tenochtitlán.8

How did others see Izquierdo? She lived for four years with the painter Rufino Tamaya who, like Izquierdo, was of Indian blood, in his case, Olmec. They both avoided the didactic Marxism of the muralists. Tamayo objected to Diego Rivera’s advocacy of realism as the signature style for contemporary art, citing the “limitless variety” of the Pre-Columbian heritage and arguing: “Culture must aspire to a universal feeling….wherever it is found on earth.”9 Tamayo’s philosophy of art and attitude towards Izquierdo are encapsulated in his portrait of her, Retrato de Maria Izquierdo (Art Institute of Chicago). He depicts his lover seated on a white chair, wearing stylish contemporary clothes, a white blouse, black skirt, white gloves and black beret. Her eyes are closed, as if she were in a dream state. Behind her floats a translucent white fish, which may have oneiric and erotic undertones. But this detail of the fish likely pays homage to her Tarascan cultural heritage, since Izquierdo came from the southwestern part of Mexico, Michoacán, derived from Nahuatl, meaning the “place of the fish.” The name refers to Lake Patzcuaro, and Michoacán is an Aztec word, not Tarascan.10

Both Izquierdo and Kahlo liked to depict themselves wearing traditional dress, such as the huipil, a short-sleeved cotton blouse. Izquierdo wears a dark-berry huipil, which matches the color of her lips, in her undated Autorretrato (Mujer Oaxaqueña), Self-Portrait (Oaxacan Woman). The image focuses on her head and shoulders. Turned toward one side, she gazes contemplatively into the distance. Her high Mexican-Indian cheekbones and strong jawline are highlighted, and her raven-black hair is braided with the violet woolen cords of the traditional tlacoyal. The dark forest green of the exotic, delicately veined leaves in the background contribute to an overall cool tonality. The warmest tones are found in her ochre-colored skin. Her complexion is clay-like, giving her the appearance of a mannequin’s head or a mask, with perfect penciled black brows arched over almond-shaped eyes. The shirt’s lush berry color gives it an almost velvety texture. In the state ofOaxaca, in the towns of Tehuantepec and Tuchitán, Indian women are known for their beauty, strength and business acumen; they travel beyond their own state to sell their hand-crafted goods. Oaxacan women are, above all, renowned for inspiring women’s dress styles beyond the Indian settlements.

In a 1947 Self-Portrait, a three-quarter view, Izquierdo sits with her arms crossed over her bent knee. She wears a headdress similar to Kahlo’s in her self-portrait Thinking About<i>Self-Portrait, </i>1947<br/>COLLECTION CLUB DE INDUSTRIALES, MEXICO CITY Death. Izquierdo’s red, modern-day rodete matches her jewelry, most likely made of red coral, a preferred material for Oaxacan jewelry.11 She wears the same necklace in a 1937 photograph by her friend Lola Alvarez Bravo. The pose is very similar, but the photographer has let the foliage push forward, casting a delicate fringe of shadow along her otherwise brightly lit face. Izquierdo’s face is a striking Indian mask, but not smooth. The brow is knotted in concentration, suggesting intelligence. Photography was a way to develop friendships. Bravo reveals “something more profound” of her sitter’s personality and thoughts. Taking pictures, she said, made her feel that her friends possessed qualities, “moral authority, goodness, and intelligence.” She liked to portray her friends in meditative poses. Bravo describes her photography as a “vivencia,” a living personal world or experience.12 Similarly, Izquierdo characterized her still lifes as “naturalezas vivas.”

In her 1947 Self-Portrait, Izquierdo wears a fashionable white dress, tiered from the waist down, featuring short puffy sleeves. The tiny red dots of the material match her immaculately manicured nails and perfectly colored mouth. Thin penciled eyebrows arch over dark dreamy eyes. The skin is again ochre-colored, yet rendered more ashen here, with a lighter palette of mixed yellow and white. Two notable attributes appear. A matching red umbrella hangs behind her, its wooden handle curved over a tree branch. The umbrella may refer to the regalia of certain masked carnival performers who carry umbrellas in an ancient custom to petition the gods for rain.13 Her second attribute is more mythological. By her side sits a coyote-like dog, like those frequently represented in ancient Mexican ceramics. In the ancient Mexican religion, this dog, the Nahual, is an animal alter ego which guides the soul into the world of the dead.14 The ancient Mexicans buried their dead with a dog. In ancient belief, after four years, the soul—having undergone the dangers of the underworld—finally arrives at the bank of the great river Chicunauhapan. The soul can only cross the river if its little dog awaits it. In Aztec belief, the dog was associated with the god Xolotl, god of twins, deformity, monsters and duality. This duality does not, however, represent dichotomous polarity—evil versus good. Rather, the dog represents the helpful spirit which transforms threatening forces into helpful ones. During ceremonial dances, the dog mask, called Maravilla, hunts the Tigre, the tiger, which represents the hostile environment. There may be another reason the dog and the umbrella appear together in Izquierdo’s painting: the dog is associated with rain, specifically with the lightning which splits the earth, opening a passageway to the underworld.15

The iconography of Izquierdo’s self-portraits is not always so complex. Set against a simple white-washed wall, Izquierdo’s 1943 Self-Portrait depicts her simply, with loose straight black hair. Gone are the fashionable or traditional feminine accoutrements—the tlayocal, jewelry, ruffles, puffy sleeves, lace, etc. Here, only her make-up accentuates her Mexican Indian features—eyes outlined to emphasize their almond shape, contoured cheekbones and the large, sensuous, fuchsia-colored mouth, matching the simple scooped-neck blouse. In another Self-Portrait (1944), set against a blood-red backdrop, Izquierdo depicts herself as mater dolorosa, framing her face and head is an ample white rebozo. Her face is lined with sorrow around the mouth and across the forehead. Her lips are once again her most dramatic feature. Izquierdo reproduces the curve of her own upper lip in her images of the Virgin Mary, for example, in her Altar de Dolores (1943). The altar, curtained with traditional paper-lace, centers on the figure of the Virgin, hands folded in prayer and haloed, who may be a painted icon or an apparition.

In photographs, Izquierdo presents herself as a strong, even defiant woman, proud of her Indian features. Izquierdo’s palette was consistent, whether she was painting a canvas or formulating her own make-up. The photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo reported that she mixed make-up from ochre and burnt sienna.16 Food also played a crucial role in both her life and her art. She painted ripe fruits and vegetables as well as the elements from the meals she cooked for her family and friends. Izquierdo’s portraits and self-portraits are often a celebration of the harmonious integration of an artist with her indigenous culture. For Izquierdo, the creation of a public persona was important, not because she was trying to fabricate a superficially attractive image, but because she saw physical form as a primary vehicle of cultural and psychic meaning.

Izquierdo flirts in her portraits with nineteenth-century photography, plays dress-up with nineteeth-century coiffure and costume, then presents herself in her non-colonial persona—a strong, confident modern Indian woman. In “dressing up,” J. Huizinga writes in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, “play reaches perfection. The disguised or masked individual ‘plays’ another part, another being. He is another being; the terrors of childhood, open-hearted gaiety, mythic fantasy and sacred awe are all inextricably entangled in this strange business of masks and disguises.”17 In her paintings, Izquierdo carried this process a step further by playing with notions of representation on two levels: first, in the way she appears in her self-portraits and, second, in the formal qualities she explores in her paintings. Izquierdo celebrates the sacred theatricality of everyday life.



  1. “Frida Kahlo,” on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis through January 20, 2008, travels to the Philadelphia Museum of art (February 20–May 18, 2008) and the San Francisco Museum of Art (June 14–September 28, 2008)
  2. Octavio Paz, Essays on Mexican Art, Trans. By Helen Trane (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1987), p. 249.
  3. Anne Isabella Thackery, cited in Sylvia Wolf, Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women (The Art Institute of Chicago, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 32.
  4. Dru Dowdy, editor, Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits (San Antonio Museum of Art, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, El Musco del Barrio, 2005).
  5. See Luis Martin Lozano, “Maria Izquierdo” in Maria Izquierdo (Chicago: Mexican Fine Arts Museum, 1996), p. 43.
  6. She exhibited in Californiaat the Courvoisier Gallery, San Francisco (1932, and the StanleyRoseGallery, Los Angeles(1938). In 1939, she participated in the First International Fair in New Yorkand the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, exhibiting Maternidad, an intimate portrait of mother and son. In 1940, she was included in a major show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art,” showcasing Mis sobrinas. She had a solo show at the Palacio de Bellas Artes inMexico City, and participated in the “Mexican Art Today” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was during this period that Izquierdo became the “Ambassador of Mexican Art,” showing with great success inPeru andChile, where her works were admired by the Poet Pablo Neruda.
  7. Elena Poniatowska, “Maria Izquierdo, On Horseback” in The True Poetry: The Art of Maria Izquierdo (New York: Americas Society Art Gallery, 1987), p. 87.
  8. Tenochtitlan, the Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus, the capital city of the Aztec empire, founded around 1325 and conquered by the Spanish in 1521, is the site of Mexico City. See Donald Cordry, Mexican Masks (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980), pp. 115, 170–71, 227.
  9. See Marta Traba, “Two Theories of Contemporary Mexican Painting,” in Readings in Latin American Art, ed. By Patrick Frank (New Haven:YaleUniversity Press, 2004), p. 88.
  10. It is not certain what the Tarascans called themselves. The name derives from the word tarascue, meaning “son-in-law” or “father-in-law,” arising with the marriages of Spaniards to the daughters of the Tarascan caciques. When their new indigenous family members were introduced to the Spaniards as tarascue, the Spaniards mistakenly interpreted this term to be the name of the entire people. In one of the first few ethnographic accounts of these peoples, written in 1759, Relación de Cuitzeio, the “native” name for Tarascans is Purépecha or Purhépecha. For more in-depth information on the Purépecha, see Julia Adkins, “Mesoamerican Anomaly? The Pre-Conquest Tarascan State, “ 3311 adkins-tarascan paper.htm.
  11. Fashionable in the 1940s, red glass beads had been used by the Spaniards during the conquest to barter with the Indians. Made of very thin glass and painted in brilliant colors, these beads were usually strung along with small silver objects. The coral in Izquierdo’s necklace is punctuated stylishly with round silver pieces. See Cordry and Cordry, Mexican Indian Costumes, pp. 162, 152.
  12. See Amy Conger’s essay for the catalogue Compañeras de Mexico: Mujeres fotografando mujeres (University of California, Riverside, 1990) in Lola Alvarez Bravo: Fotografias selectas 1934–1985 (Mexico: Fundación Cultural Televisa, A.C., 1992), p. 335.
  13. Cordry, Mexican Masks (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980), p. 70.
  14. David Carrásco, Religions of Mesoamerica: Cosmosvisions and Ceremonial Centers (San Francisco: Harper, 1990), p. 57.
  15. For further information on “Marvilla” and rain symbolism, see Cordry, Mexican Masks, pp. 189–92.
  16. Poniatowska, “Maria Izquierdo,” p. 84.
  17. John Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p. 13.



 American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2008, Volume 25, Number 1