By Julie Etra
Francisco Toledo, was a Mexican painter, sculptor, graphic artist, philanthropist, environmentalist, humanitarian, and promoter of Mexican culture, particularly of Oaxaca, his home state. To a large degree, he relied on his roots for the source of his artistic inspirations. Although born in Mexico City, this exceptional artist considered himself a Zapotec native of Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, and spent most of his childhood in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz. His media varied, and included engravings, watercolor, and oil.
Toledo showed talent at an early age, and as a fourth grader won a drawing contest with his portrait of Benito Juárez. At age 11, his parents, both bilingual but speaking Zapotec at home, sent him to junior high in Oaxaca City. Supportive of his early interest in the arts and indigenous cultures, at age 14 they approved an apprenticeship to the engraver and lithographer Arturo García Bustos, who himself had been a student of Frida Kahlo in Coyoacán, Mexico City. During much of his early adult life, Toledo studied and traveled extensively as part of his studies and career, before finally settling in Juchitán. His artwork drew in part on childhood experiences with his grandfather Benjamín, a shoemaker, from the Oaxacan town of Ixtepec, whom he would accompany through farmlands in search of plant resins while being told fantastic stories and local legends.
Toledo’s first show was in 1959 at the Galería Antonio Souza, Mexico City, followed by a show at the Fort Worth Art Center, Texas. Following these shows he received a scholarship to study in Paris with the engraver Stanley Hayter, one of the most important 20th-century printmakers. There he worked on refining his techniques and met the Oaxacan painter Rufino Tamayo.
Shows followed in Paris and a year later in Toulouse, then the Tate Gallery in London, and in New York. He gained a reputation for artwork that expressed a mystical, mythical, and sacred sense of life. Upon returning to Mexico in 1965, he began to incorporate Western with indigenous art as he developed his particular style.
He is said to have been influenced by the painters Albrecht Dürer, Paul Klee and Marc Chagall. In 1983 he published a book of engravings entitled The Beginning, and in that same year, he was asked by the publishing house Fondo de Cultura Económica to illustrate the mythical creatures Jose Luis Borges and Margarita Guerrero described in the Manual of Fantastic Zoology (1953, expanded until final edition in 1969). The book was published in 1984, the illustrations have been shown around the world since then, and a new edition was published by Artes de México y el mundo in 2013.
“What I do is a mixture of things, but the pre-Hispanic world has been a source of inspiration,” Toledo once explained. “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.” He used innovative materials, including sand and amate paper, the pre-Columbian paper made with crushed bark of the amate tree (Ficus insipida, a species of fig). He created images of insects, snakes, toads, iguanas, bats, which can be described as fantastic realism.
Toledo was an artist, not a businessman, and had little interest in promoting and/or commercializing his work. Many pieces went to collectors who purchased them in advance.
He was a man committed to the environment and social struggle, and even distributed books to prisoners. He dedicated his adult life to promoting Oaxacan culture and opposed the construction of a McDonald’s in Oaxaca City as a perceived affront to it. He founded Ediciones Toledo, the Institute of Graphic Arts of Oaxaca (IAGO), the Museum of Contemporary Art of Oaxaca), the Alvarez Bravo Photographic Center, the El Pochote Cinema Club, the Oaxaca Paper Art Workshop, and the botanical garden of the former convent of Santo Domingo, one of the most extraordinary and beautiful ethnobotanical gardens I have ever explored. He also provided support for the protection of ecologically important areas such as the archeological site Monte Albán on the outskirts of Oaxaca City and the Papaloapan River, which flows from Oaxaca to Veracruz (papaloapan means “butterfly” in Nahuatl). Almost always disheveled and simply dressed, he became a symbol and expression of the deepest myths of pre-Hispanic of Mexico.
His daughter, Natalia Toledo Paz, is a well-known Mexican poet, writing both in Spanish and Zapotec, and has helped with the revival of the Zapotec language.