Carlos Mérida – The Eighth Heaven (1961)

With his extensive travels through Europe and the Americas, Carlos Mérida was lucky enough to experience two very different approaches to painting. On one hand, there was the European avant-garde with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Paul Klee who were moving towards an abstraction of art. On the other hand, there was the resurgence in national pride amid Latin Americans, which translated into using folkloric motifs and cultural references in painting. The Guatemalan artist thus became particularly interested in alluding to the Maya and Aztec civilizations while resorting to an increasingly geometric abstraction.

One thing that is rather striking about Mérida is that there is often an inherent rhythm in his works. In his most orderly paintings, the shapes take their place quietly in the composition like notes on a music sheet.  But more often than not, there is an enchanting music reverberating from his art, with its interlocking forms and poignant use of line.

Carlos Mérida - The Eighth Heaven
Carlos Mérida – The Eighth Heaven (1961), oil on canvas

Such is the case for The Eighth Heaven (El Octavo Cielo), an abstract artwork revealing highly geometrized figures, overlapping in their display. We can tell from the eye-resembling ellipses that we’re looking at the profiles of at least five different figures, though it’s difficult to tell them apart. According to Aztec mythology, the eighth heaven (out of thirteen) is the place of storms and thunder, “where the obsidian knives are creaking”. Ruled by Itztlacoliuhqui, the god of frost, darkness, storms and disease, it is said that the deities who couldn’t climb to the higher heavens gathered here. These included the married god and goddess of death (Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl), as well as the god of thunder, rain and the earth (Tlaloc) with his wife (or sister, by some accounts), the goddess of freshwaters (Chalchiuhtlicue). The presence of these grim deities might explain the limited and somber color palette that Mérida uses. It’s an unlikely heaven from a Western perspective, filled with obsidian knives and tempests, but fascinating nonetheless for the power and rhythm it exudes.

Next time: Femme damnée

6 Comments Add yours

  1. ReinventIngrid says:

    I love Merida’s works and I thoroughly enjoyed your references to Aztec mythology, Gabriela, particularly the obsidian knives, arching back to the very first Neolithic tools made with obsidian. Now, obsidian was also used in its polished state because as a form of natural glass, it provided the very first mirrors and in Merida’s work, I definitely see this mirror effect as well, rendered with matt and somber colors which nonetheless shimmer to my eye because of their rhythmic and contrasted arrangement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Ingrid, it’s so great that you can rely on your background as a gemologist to better appreciate these artworks. Thank you so much for the additional info! The whole thing with the obsidian knives made me think of Game of Thrones, haha. But I love Merida’s use of diagonals, triangular shapes and color to offer the illusion of piercing. There’s something very dynamic about this.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Emma Cownie says:

    Ohhhhh lovely explanation/descriptions. Very ominous. Obsidian knives were also used for human sacrifice by the Aztecs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      I didn’t know that obsidian knives were used for sacrifices! Thank you for telling us, Emma.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Eric Wayne says:

    The musical analogy I think really works here, less so the painting beyond relative competence. But I don’t know the artist, and I wouldn’t want to judge Kandinsky, Klee, or Miro on one painting. I do think it’s a nice reminder of the potential painting has for this kind of emphasis on rhythm and repeated motifs. It risks being merely decorative, and not exploring color or shape much beyond a Backgammon board (I tend to find those rather beautiful).

    I suppose there are forms in there, but they are so abstracted that it would be a stretch to invest much content into them. It would have to be entirely on a symbolic level, in which case the association and projection has to happen in the viewer, and is not conveyed by the art.

    Just Googled the artist. Had to look away. Ouch! Seriously, his work hurts my eyes and I find myself grimacing looking at it. Then I switch him out for Klee and I breath a sigh of relief. What soothing colors and shapes! I don’t wanna’ be negative. This guy is OK. But he just doesn’t have the subtelty of a Klee or Miro. I switch to Googling Miro and I gasp and put my hand on my chest. Amazing! What vision, what subtlety!

    Merida is to Miro what Quiet Riot is to Led Zeppelin (if you don’t know the references, well, it’s an annoying, second-rate version). But we know I have flat spots when it comes to luminaries like Matisse and even Cezanne, so this might just be my personal tastes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Ouch, I’m sorry Merida hurt your eyes. I personally like the rhythm in his works and some of his most geometric paintings. I think I’ll be content if you like 1 in 10 paintings I feature. Perhaps I should start keeping track! But I’ll admit, sometimes I’m more concerned with finding a new name or an obscure painting to bring to light… Because some of the best art we know of has already been extensively covered.


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