As a young Mexican artist, Alfredo Ramos Martínez had spent almost a decade in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, bathing in the light of Impressionism and being hypnotized by the vibrancy of Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s works. While he never joined the French avant-garde circles, his stay in Paris turned fortuitous when he befriended Rubén Dario, a Nicaraguan poet. Much like the connection between Joan Miró and André Masson, poetry and painting fused, one inspiring the other. The two of them traveled together, often to Brittany, to enjoy the simple, country life, and outside France, to Netherlands, Spain and Italy.
“I will never forget the hours when he painted golden afternoons in Holland and gray melancholy days in Paris. One must understand the intimate union that exists between a painter and a poet. There is much poetry and much of poetry in painting. One is but to be reminded that in the Renaissance nearly all painters were poets—those who did not write verses painted poems. Ramos Martínez is one of those who paints poems; he does not copy, he interprets; he understands how to express the sorrow of the fishermen and the melancholy of the villages”, Dario later recalled.
When Ramos Martínez finally returned to Mexico, the country was in political, social and cultural turmoil. During two stints as the Director of the Academy, the artist tried to modernize and unify the Mexican art scene, mostly through his Open Air Schools – an initiative to get artists to paint en plein air, following the French example. He was thus hailed as the Father of Mexican Modernism, although his approach was still rather conservative for what was yet to follow.
In the 1920s, due to his apolitical stance, Ramos Martínez found himself on the periphery of a new art movement – Mexican muralism – that was sweeping over his country. Dominated by los tres grandes – Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Sisquieros – the movement used vibrant colors and elaborate narratives to praise the Indigenous roots of Mexico, as well as its workers, peasants and intellectuals, all while railing against the bourgeoisie.
It wasn’t until he moved to southern California, seeking treatment for his one-year-old daughter following her diagnosis with a debilitating bone disease, that Ramos Martínez’s art finally matured. He started depicting Indigenous women in static poses, often as flower vendors, beautiful and stern, with braided hair and an inherent sense of timelessness, whether suggested by the architectural backgrounds or the beauty of the landscapes.
Juanita Amongst the Flowers (Juanita Entre Las Flores) is one such example, a close-up, semi-profile of a young, beautiful, Indigenous woman, surrounded by lush flowers and with blue mountains as a backdrop. There is harmony in the way the yellow, orange and ochre hues complement the icy blue of the landscape, as well as in the ceremonial way in which the woman is holding the pink flowers in her hands, like an offering to the gods. Beauty, peacefulness and heritage blend intimately to evoke nostalgia for an ancient paradise.