Born at Estancia del Refugio in the state of Guanajuato. Magaña fled a rural Mexico laid waste by the Revolution for Mexico City. He was fifty-six and a porter at the Coyoacán Open-Air Painting School with no formal art training when he turned out his first clay models and wood carvings. Mexico in that era was trying to forge a new identity that embraced nationalistic aspiration, popular culture, and the country's pre-Hispanic heritage. The mandate of the Open-Air Painting Schools was to give students freedom to create, their sensibility and imagination unfettered by academic norms. Magaña innate gift for sculpture was quickly noticed by Ignacio Asúnsulo, Alfredo Ramos Martínez, the gallery owner Inés Amor, and Diego Rivera, who helped Magaña's first solo show at the Palace of Fine Arts in 1930. Mainly genre scenes with clusters of people and animals, the plain, rough-hewn figures of Magaña's powerfully ovocative works are oblivious to classic anatomical proportions. His "Snake" is part of the Rockfeller Center Collection in New York.

Papa Mar as told by his family

Thoughts on the Mardonio's Work


Well before the Escuela Libre de Escultura y Talla Directa opened its doors, Mexican sculptors were feeling the tug of the sculpture of old, in which artists cut directly into the material rather than bulding up "little balls of clay," as the art of the other school - the modellers - was summed up in an article translated from French and published in the journal Forma, co-edited by Gabriel Fernández Ledesma and Salvador Novo. This was a stinging rebuke to late 1900s academic sculptors who had spent little time with white marble, the medium then in vogue. Those sculptors had conceived a figure, modelled it in clay, then shipped it off to skilled artisans to translate the idiom of clay forms into the majestic language of stone. This was the method of choice of the reverend Rodin and the highly regarded Mexican sculptor Jesús Contreras. Mexican and Europeans sculptors, tired of the light, undulating forms to which the pliable clay medium lent itself, set off to explore other avenues. Rivera an Siqueiros came out strongly for direct carving, confident that with the legacy of pre-Hispanic sculpture to draw on and the country's skilled carvers and artisans, the future of Mexican sculpture was bright.

It was Diego Rivera who recognized the gifts of Mardonio Magaña. Magaña's wood carving Motherhood reveals the bold strokes of the knife that has pared away just enough to release the figure from the material, the original mass virtually intact in the final product. Magaña had left Estancia del Refugio in his native state of Guanajuato in 1920 for a job as porter at the Coyoacán Open-Air Painting School. A self-taught carver, in spare moments at the school he entertained himself by whittling figurines out of chunks of light wood. One day in 1928, Rivera came upon him contentedly engrossed in his carving. The muralist was very taken with Magaña's creations, which combined a delicious spontaneity with an ancestral tradition here embodied in wood. To Rivera, Magaña was living proof of what he had affirmed in an article about Mexican sculptor Guillermo Ruiz, written for Forma, titled "Sculpture: Direct Carving." Praising Ruiz's sculptures carved direcly into stone, Rivera comments: "Every region of Mexico has produced admirable sculptures in an assortment of media: some adorn buildings, some are figurines wrested from stone or constructed from clay, others are toys and moulds for sweets. Each is the work of a consummate artist."

Magaña's figurines recalled the freshness and simple charm of traditional Mexican toys. By an intersting coincidence, the first issue of Forma (1926) carried an insert on Mexican popular toys, proclaiming their "aesthetic spirit." Magaña managed to escalate the squat little figures of Mexican playthings that so apealed to the journal's editor, Fernández Ledesma, into his carvings without losing a whit of their powers to delight. His closed forms, the product perhaps of the self-taught carver, parallelled what Mexican and European sculptors were doing. His favoured subject - the bond between mother and child - was the theme of choice of many artists: witness for instance the "monumento to motherhood" erected in 1948, its sculptures commissioned from Luis Ortiz Monasterios, whose bronzes The Wind and Victory appear in this exhibition.

Maternal devotion, the loving couple, family life, and acts of compassion amidst human suffering were common themes in the sculpture of the time, in a country that was trying to rebuild itself around a people still reeling from a devastating war. In December 1924, when the battlefield chapter of the revolution had ended, the government of Plutarco Elías Calles turned its attention to the institutional underpinnings of the new Mexico. The family was to be the cornestorne of society; the image of woman as giver of life was to be front and centre. This no doubt influenced the sculpture that took shape in the years that followed, with its closed, earthbounds forms and profusion of curves. Though some are only a few centimetres in height, these sculptures are at once majestic and endearing. Intimist wood, stone, and bronze figures hint at the drama of seeds ready to sprout when they touch the earth, sculptures that embody the ancestral and the enduring.

National Gallery of Canada, 1999
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
1900-1950 Mexican Modern Art
Luis-Martín Lozano
With contributions by
Laura González Matute
Sofía Rosales
Ann Thomas
Eloísa Uribe
James Wechsler
Claudia Itzel Vargas

Under the general editorship of Mayo Graham
Published in conjunction with the exhibition Mexican Modern Art, 1900-1950, organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts