Octavio Paz: a poet of the arts
Juan Manuel Bonet

The Mexican writer Octavio Paz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. A great poet, essayist and critic, he is the author of a work that seems to have everything: literature and linguistics, philosophy and history, politics and geopolitics, psychology and sociology, anthropology and the visual arts. He believes that culture reveals this world and creates other worlds. Paz’s writings about art and artists are abundant and very original. The words in them seek images and the images find words. Juan Manuel Bonet analyses them in this essay written for Electra, conducting an inventory and proving himself to be ‘as precise as a geometrician and as lucid as a poet’. This is how he shows us a less-known side of Paz. Bonet is one of the most prominent Spanish intellectuals: poet, essayist, art critic, curator. He has been the director of Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderna (IVAM), Reina Sofía Museum and Instituto Cervantes. He has published well-known works, including the monumental Diccionario de las vanguardias en España (1907–1936).


Octavio Paz photographed by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, 1977 © Photo: Scala, Florence / ADAGP Images, Paris


Octavio Paz belongs to the modern tradition of critical poetry, exemplified at the dawn of modernity by Charles Baudelaire (whose work as an art critic was the subject of an insightful essay by Paz in 1967) and later by J.K. Huysmans and other Symbolists; by Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars and other Cubists, and by André Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard and other Surrealists. The tradition was perpetuated by a variety of figures from the French post-war generation: Yves Bonnefoy, a good friend of the Mexican poet; Michel Tapié, the founding father of art autre; Julien Alvard, who invented nuagisme, and the Telquelian Marcelin Pleynet, who coined peinture-peinture. In the United States, it was embodied by John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and, latterly, by John Yau and Vincent Katz. The tradition proved rather less popular in Hispanic circles, although it was endorsed by some particularly prominent poets: Ramón Gómez de la Serna (who Paz greatly admired), Guillermo de Torre, Juan-Eduardo Cirlot, Ángel Crespo, and, nowadays, Andrés Sánchez Robayna, Enrique Andrés Ruiz and Enrique Juncosa in Spain; Aldo Pellegrini in Argentina; Severo Sarduy in Cuba; Juan Calzadilla and contemporary poet Luis Pérez Oramas in Venezuela; Joâo Cabral de Melo, Ferreira Gular and the Augusto de Campos brothers in Brazil.

look for Paz’s Complete Works on my bookshelf, finding my Barcelona edition from Círculo de Lectores, and open the two volumes in which the poet’s essays on art are compiled under the Gongoristic title The Privileges of Sight. He wrote more on the subject after the compilation was published and there are likely to be a few texts lost in the labyrinth of his papers, but these pages contain the essence of Paz’s fascination with the work of visual artists, which he expressed in prose and, more occasionally, in verse.

"Octavio Paz belongs to the modern tradition of critical poetry, exemplified at the dawn of modernity by Charles Baudelaire."


Frida Kahlo, Cocos gimientes [Weeping Coconuts], 1951 © Photo: Scala, Florence / Art Resource / Image Museum Associates / LACMA, Los Angeles



Philip Pearlstein, Two models with One Wicker Roker and Mexican Blanket, 1983 © Photo: Scala, Florence / Christie’s Images, London



Leonora Carrington, Big Badger Meets Domini Boys, 1986 © Photo: Scala, Florence / Christie’s Images, London


Although the first volume focuses on universal modern art and the second on Mexican art, the context in which Paz grew up makes it more logical to consider them in reverse order in our analysis of his approach to art, which has been the subject of several exhibitions in Mexico and Paris. Paz was one of the great Spanish poets, emerging onto the Mexican poetry scene as a prominent voice after the Stridentists and the Contemporáneos. He was also one of South America’s great essayists, alongside fellow Mexican poet Alfonso Reyes (with whom Paz had a close relationship, as his correspondence reveals). Many of the continent’s great creators were also masterful essayists, including Borges, César Vallejo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Alejo Carpentier, Lezama Lima and Luis Cardoza y Aragón. In his essays, Paz pondered Mexico’s fate, the work of Sor Juana, and the parochial poetry of Ramón López Velarde (which he compared with the parochial paintings by Spanish artist Julio Romero de Torres in an especially illuminating exercise in criticism) and Xavier Villaurrutia. He participated actively in artistic debates, taking a stand against the almost complete dominance of the muralists, highlighting the characteristics that distinguished Rufino Tamayo from the rest, analysing the work of Surrealists close to him, emphasising the unique gaze of photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and supporting emerging artists who sought to cast off stereotypes. As we will see later on, he had a particular affinity with Vicente Rojo, who was his clear favourite, not only as a painter (‘rigorous like a geometrician and lucid like a poet’) but also as a graphic designer and editor.

Paz’s imaginary museum would be filled with pre-Hispanic art and its sculptures and monuments, ‘works at once marvellous and horrible’, which he discussed as both a poet and an expert (although he felt like an intruso in the field, as he confessed in a text in his magazine Vuelta in 1987), the Baroque, Manuel Tolsá and the 18th century, the Academia, the art of the Independence era and the unique figures produced by José María Estrada and Hermenegildo Bustos (citing North American painter and critic Walter Pach, who compared Bustos’s portraits to Egyptian works from Fayum), the light-infused landscapes of the most diaphanous region painted by José María Velasco (who he rightly compares to the North American painters of the Hudson River School and their manner of conveying the grandeur of America’s natural landscapes), and José Guadalupe Posada’s woodcuts. While acknowledging the talent of many proponents of Revolution art, Paz repeatedly, almost obsessively, lamented their dogmatism and the tyranny they eventually imposed. He had serious reservations about Rivera and Siqueiros and, to a lesser extent, about Orozco. He recognised Leopoldo Méndez’s talent, deeming him the most interesting member of the communist Taller de Gráfica Popular, but considered that his work, like that of this entire group of painters, drew heavily on the ‘moral aberration’ of socialist realism. However, he was fascinated by Marius de Zayas and his activity in a pre-Dada New York, by Ängel Zárraga, Frida Kahlo and María Izquierdo, by José Juan Tablada’s Japanism, and the Stridentism of Manuel Maples Arce, under whom he had worked when he was posted to Tokyo shortly after the end of World War II.