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Between popular music and painting: Isabel Villaseñor

Posted on 29 January, 2018

Leticia Torres

A mutifaceted artist, Isabel Villaseñor was an engraver, painter, writer, popular music compiler and interpreter, composer of corridos, screenwriter, actress and muralist. She was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, on May 18, 1909, the daughter of Adela Ruiz Valencia and Ramón Villaseñor Quevedo. In 1917, the family moved to Mexico City along with the maternal grandmother, Eduarda Valencia, who taught her granddaughter the love for Mexican popular music. In 1922 she took part in the literacy campaign organized by the Public Education Secretary José Vasconcelos. Influenced by her paternal grandmother, Isabel Quevedo, she began writing short stories and poems, something she would do for the rest of her life. With the poem Primavera she won in 1927 the La Flor contest, organized by the periodical El Universal Ilustrado; the following year, her short story Nuestra Señora de los Zacatecas won first prize at a contest organized by the government of Zacatecas.

In 1928 she enrolled in the Centro Popular de Pintura headed by the painter Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, where she began to learn painting and engraving, two fields she cultivated with striking originality. The subjects she chose for her engravings at that time were women inside the private realm, in their everyday chores: gossips, women washing clothes or kneading tortilla dough on the metate, mothers holding their children, but alsosingers as well as illustrations for corridos such as La muerte de la güera Chabela or Elena la traicionera.
Isabel got acquainted wth artists and intellectuals. Soon she was invited, along with Alfredo Zalce, to paint the exterior walls of the Escuela Rural de Ayotla; for this work she used colored cement. The artist was veryactive in those years: she was part of the ¡30-30! group ; she presented her engravings in a collective exhibition with
Fermín Revueltas, Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Díaz de León, among others; she worked as a rural teacher; she played the part of María, the protagonist of the Magueyes section of ¡Que viva México!, the film directed by Sergei Eisenstein; she had her first individual exhibition at the vestibule of the Biblioteca Nacional; and in 1933, she married Gabriel Fernández Ledesma.

The following year, her first child, a boy, died. This is reflected in her work, which goes through a significant change. She abandons woodcuts for drawings and color monotypes. Her characters are faceless mothers and children, some playing others embracing each other, or dead children on their mother’s lap. Her work became more intimate and less fecund; however, her activity as a composer of corridos and an interpreter of popular music reemerged. Her corridos deal with the major events of that time, such as the oil nationalization,the economic crisis, worldconflicts and fascism, among others. Any event was viable for ha corrido : the birth of the Paricutín volcano, the farewell tribute to a friend, or the American Continental Congress for Peace.
In 1941 she tried to carry out a project that would fulfill her musical passion: to make a record of the songs of “Mamá Ballita” and publish a book with the lyrics. She went to New York with this purpose. The project was met with interest, but never came into fruition. The following year, her daughter Olinca was born. From that moment on, her life became more modest;she painted little, but made three major works: Flor de Manita, Serpiente emplumada and Mestiza Tahmek.
In those last years she wrote a script for a ballet, El Maleficio, which was produced in 1954 at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, with music by Blas Galindo, coreography by Elena Noriega and sets designs by Gabriel Fernández Ledesma. She also wrote a few short stories.
Isabel Villaseñor died on March 13, 1953. Her face lives on in the works of several painters and photographers, such as Manuel and Lola Álvarez Bravo, Juan Soriano, Francisco Díaz de León, Angelina Beloff, José Chávez Morado and Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, among others, and in her numerous self-portraits.
Gómez del Campo, Carmen and Leticia Torres, En memoria de un rostro: Isabel Villaseñor, Mexico, Lola de
México-Xul, 1997.
Alanís Figueroa, Judith, Chabela Villaseñor, catalogue of the restrospective exhibition, Mexico, Gobierno de Jalisco, Dirección General de Patrimonio Cultural, Instituto Cultural Cabañas, 1998.

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