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Fragile Demon: Juan Soriano in Mexico, 1935–1950

February 16–May 11, 2008

Fragile Demon: Juan Soriano in Mexico, 1935–1950, the first exhibition of its kind in a major U.S. museum, examines the early work of one of modern Mexico's most intriguing artists. Although Juan Soriano (1920–2006) holds a critical position within the history of Mexican painting and sculpture from the 1930s until his recent death, his art is curiously almost unknown outside of Mexico. While recent exhibitions on Soriano have examined his paintings and sculpture from 1950 onward, very few have focused on the artist's exceptional paintings from the 1930s and 1940s. These works—portraits of friends and family, images of children, still-lifes, and landscapes—offer a distinctive variation on the themes and artistic styles that preoccupied Soriano's contemporaries. When Soriano moved to Mexico City in 1935 he entered into a lively visual and personal dialogue with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, among others. In addition to responding to the work of these prominent Mexican artists, he drew upon his deep interest in popular and indigenous arts, as well as Cubism, German Expressionism, Fauvism, and Surrealism, creating his own personal style of romantic realism. The exhibition features a selection of sixteen objects, highlighting four by Soriano that are in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the only U.S. museum with a substantial number of his works. Girl with a Mask (1945) manifests the artist's poetically enigmatic style, as does Dead Girl (1938), seen above, in which disembodied hands add to a sense of the unreal. Still Life (1942), which is dominated by lush pinks and reds, and Girl with a Bouquet (1946), a study in varying tones of white, are outstanding examples of Soriano's mastery of form and color. A focused presentation of some of Soriano's best paintings, Fragile Demon: Juan Soriano in Mexico, 1935–1950 grants a rare glimpse into a critical period in the career of a major Mexican artist.

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About Juan Soriano

Juan Soriano was born in Guadalajara to a middle-class family. His father, Rafael Rodríguez Soriano, fought in the Mexican Revolution, later becoming a minor politician and, eventually, a spiritist. His mother, Amalia Montoya, who had followed her husband into battle as a "soldadera," or female soldier, kept the house that included Juan's thirteen aunts and four sisters. His precocious talents led him to enter the circle of the renowned artist Jesús Reyes Ferreira, known as "Chucho" Reyes, who introduced Soriano to pre-Columbian and colonial Mexican art as well as art from outside his country.

Soriano began exhibiting in Guadalajara at age 14. His first show in the regional museum attracted the attention of such influential Mexican painters as María Izquierdo and José Chávez Morado as well as the photographer Lola Álvarez Bravo, all of whom became close friends of Soriano and urged the young man to travel to Mexico City. The following year (1935), Soriano moved to the Mexican capital and soon entered into a lively visual and personal dialogue with Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Orozco, Siqueiros, as well as the more vanguard artists and writers who composed the famous Contemporáneos group.

Soriano considered the work of all these diverse artists with care, drawing on a deep interest in popular and indigenous arts, as well as the expressive modes derived from Cubism, German Expressionism, and Fauvism as well as the School of Paris artists of the interwar period. In addition, he became acquainted with the imaginative forms of painting that were behind the creations of the European Surrealists who had come as war refugees to Mexico at the end of the 1930s and into the 1940s.

While all of these elements are at play in Soriano's unique works done during these two decades, he cannot be directly connected with any one trend, creating a personal brand of romantic realism. Soriano was also in contact with the most distinguished art dealer of the time, Inés Amor (of the prestigious Galería de Arte Mexicano), who was instrumental in placing Soriano's works in important local and foreign (especially American) collections, and had a pivotal role in the acquisition of Philadelphia's four Soriano paintings (the most extensive collection of works by the artist in the United States). Both Amor and Soriano were close friends of Henry Clifford, chief curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the 1940s and a champion of Mexican art.

After 1950, Soriano began several long periods of residence outside Mexico. He experimented with various approaches to abstraction in both painting and sculpture, and also expanded his frame of artistic reference and did extensive set and costume work for the Mexican theatre company "Poesía en Voz Alta." His years spent in Rome definitively changed his art as he absorbed what his life-long friend Rufino Tamayo would call "universalist tendencies."


This exhibition is made possible by Telcel, Fundación José Cuervo, and a generous anonymous donor


Edward J. Sullivan • Professor of Fine Arts, New York University
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art:
Michael Taylor • The Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art
Emily Hage • Modern and Contemporary Art

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