El Corcito. A critical and multidisciplinary artist
Posted on 6 November, 2017
Guillermina Guadarrama Peña
Art, for those who make it, is not a pleasure, it is a hard toil
involving sacrifices and great discipline. The enjoyment of art is for
the peope or the audience, who even though cannot make it, loves it, understands it and desires it. The phenomenon has been produced, and those who are bitten by this spider can never get out of its webs.
José Antonio Antolín Estevan de la Luz Ruiz Vázquez del Mercado, known as Antonio M. Ruiz El Corcito (1892-1964), was an artist engaged in achieving a multidisciplinary training. To his arts studies, begun in 1914 at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, he added technical drawing classes at the Escuela de Arquitectura, located in the same building. This provided him with the tools to understand the distribution of stage spaces, a knowledge he perfected during his Hollywood sojourn between 1926 and 1927.
What drove him to the Mecca of cinema, when most artists went to New York to promote their work? It was his early interest in stage arts, as shown in his Alegoría teatral (1923), which I will discuss later in this paper, and his sketches for cinema and his stage designs for the theater, which he made using the Best Maugard Method, a drawing system taught in Mexican public primary and technical schools by teachers such as himself. Gabriel Fernández Ledesma advised him to go to Hollywood because he thought his stage designs were outstanding.
This interest is manifest as well in his correspondence with Miguel El Chamaco Covarrubias, his coworker at the Communications Secretariat where he worked as a cartographer. Covarrubias was working in the United States at that time and he asked El Corcito to go to New York, but he decided to go to Hollywood instead, since he was more interested in film production than on promotng his art work.
Regarding your business, listen up. I’ve met just a handful of directors and the like, who would be the more suitable people for your business. I only know stars, but I’m sending you in another envelope letters for Malcolm St Clair, Pola Negri’s director, a very nice man who fancies himself a cartoonist; for Howard Green, the designer at Paramount, another very nice man; and for Manuel Reachi, Agnes Ayres’ husband. I think these are the most suitable people, since actors and other people in Hollywood are absolute stones when it comes to the arts. I advise you to go to New York, because in Hollywood they haven’t the slightest notion of modern art. I’ll expand on this wen you get to New York. Keep working; the more material you have, the better.Give my best regards to Cartography. (1)
He arrived in California on January 9, 1926, although judging from a letter from Covarrubias, dated August 29, 1925, he might have arrived earlier. “I’m very glad you are already in the cardboard city, but I regret you didn’t come here [New York] instead […] I advise you to start working in California matters […] I’m in talks with the New Gallery to have an exhibition. They’re very interested in finding new painters, and in a few days I’ll show them the paintings. For now, I think it’s the best place for you”. (2) Once established in Hollywood, in April 1926, El Corcito made the decoration of a building for the play Leland Way, at Grauman’s Egyptian Hollywood theater. He was not satisfied and he returned to Mexico to work again as drawing teacher in primary and secondary schools.
Throughout his life, education was his most constant and prolific field of work, including the training of both artists and non-artists. In the Escuela Superior de Ingeniería y Arquitectura of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional, for example, from 1936 he taught drawing and architectural models; his work El maquetista probably dates from this period. Two years later he was appointed professor in the visual arts schools that preceded, along with the Escuela de Escultura y Talla Directa, the current Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado La Esmeralda, of which he was the first director. During his term, he consolidated a higher education project that offered an academic alternative to UNAM’s Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas.
Antonio Rodríguez, a well-known critic at the time, wrote in the El Nacional newspaper:
In less than five years, the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura, [which] started working in a veritable tenement on Esmeralda street, has become a decorous and dignified establishment. This miracle is due in large measure to the enthusiasm with which the painter Antonio Ruiz, the director of the school, has devoted himself to its improvement [and] to the direction of all teaching tasks as well as the running of the school, which strives to become a breeding ground for painters and sculptors. (3)
Dr. Atl remarked:
To fully expand the so-called Escuela de Esmeralda, which under the direction of the painter Antonio Ruiz has produced excellent results, in spite of the lack of sufficient financial means assigned to it. Its program must continue as it is, there is no eed to establish it, it is already in operation. What is needed is to provide it with a large sum in the next budget, and give the director enough freedom to carry out his work. (4)
The curriculum programmed by Ruiz emphasized arithmetic and geometry, two fields of interst for several modern art tendencies. He also stressed the teaching of the Pre-Hispanic past, as well as foreign languages, particularly English and French. He included two labs, for painting and sculpture, to experiment with new materials such as industrial enamels, plexiglass and other recently invented plastics, and ferrocement, also called artificial stone. (5)
These labs were genuine materials experimentation spaces, something quite important in those years.
Antonio Ruiz was not only the director but also a professor at thisinnovative school. One of his pupils, Guillermo Monroy, recalls: “I enrolled formally and received a scholarship, 30 pesos per month; I left my job to study there for five years. I was fortunate to work under Antonio Ruiz, a great painter and teacher at the Politécnico. Through him, renowned artists came to work at “La Esmeralda”: Frida Khalo, Diego Rivera, Agustín Lazo, Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, María Izquierdo and Jesús Guerrero Galván, among others”.
He pursued his other passion, stage design, in a professional manner from the 1930’s onwards, with all his accrued knowledge of stage space. He headed the stage design department at C.L.A.S.A. Films, creating sets for such films as Vámonos con Pancho Villa (1935), directed by Fernando de Fuentes, with an adapted script by Xavier Villaurrutia, supervised by Celestino Gorostiza, and music composed by Silvestre Revueltas. In 1936 he designed the sets for two lesser-known movies:Hotel paraíso and Su gran ventura, and in 1937 for Las mujeres mandan, also directed by Fernando de Fuentes.
In theatrical stage design he usually worked alone, although he sometimes collaborated with artists from the Contemporáneos group, as in the case of plays staged at the Teatro de Orientación, directed by Celestino Gorostiza. This theater opened on September, 1931, in a small venue at the SEP building. In these plays he also designed the costumes. Ruiz took part in three plays during the inauguaral season of the Palacio de Bellas Artes theater in 1934, along with Agustín Lazo, Gabriel Fernández Ledesma and Rufino Tamayo: El Simún, by Lenormand; Diferente, by Eugene O’ Neil; and Lo primero y lo último, by John Galsworthy. (6)
Later he did the sets for Anfitrión 38, by Jean Giraudoux, staged by the Compañía de Bellas Artes directed by Julio Bracho. In 1947 he did the sets for Rodolfo Usigli’s emblematic play, El gesticulador, which was staged several times in the Palacio de Bellas Artes. This play was first produced nine years after it was written, probably because it is an indictment of the post-revolutionary regime and exposes the society that had emerged from the armed struggle. After the opening, Xavier Villaurrutia and Salvador Novo, the latter being head of the Departamento de Teatro y Literatura at the time, judged it to be inappropriate and anti-revolutionary. (7)
The works of Usigli and El Corcito have in common their critical discourse
and the use of popular language.
Later stage designs were used in private theaters. In 1950 he made stage designs for Los fugitivos, produced in the Teatro Arbeu, and in 1952 Aguas estancadas in the teatro Colón. (8) His last work in this field apparently was Un día de éstos, by Usigli, staged in the Esperanza Iris theater in 1958, for which he made a sketch for the curtains with an emblem that read Indolandia, indivisa y libre.
For this artist, “stage design beauty does not relate excusively to the poetic, but rather to a set of harmonies and geometric relations deloyed in the decoration. Therefore, all stage design created for this kind of theater must be as visually beautiful as its purely theatrical counterparts. The sets must preserve a balance between the atmosphere and the actor, since any sets that obscures the actor is absurd”. He effectively used geometry in this designs, executed with precise architectural drawings.
He also ventured into stage and costume design for the dance, both classical and modern, with Ana Sokolow, as well as popular dance with the Campobello sisters. For Sokolow she collaborated in Entre sombras anda el fuego, with music by Blas Galindo, (9) Don Lindo de Almería, titled Mojiganga in the program, and Lluvia de toros, both by Bergamín with music composed by Rodolfo Halftter, staged in 1940 in the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The latter included “Escenas de capricho, desastre y disparate siguiendo las figuras de Goya”. For the Compañía de Danza de la Ciudad de México, directed by the Campobello sisters (a society established in 1942, of which José Clemente Orozco was a board member), Ruiz designed sets for the second season, in 1945, which included Vespertina, with music by Mozart, and Circo Orrín by Hernández Moncada. Two years later he collaborated in Feria by Martín Luis Guzmán, coreographed by Nellie Campobello, adapted by Blas Galindo, with Carlos Chávez as conductor. This work was produced with the Markova-Dolin Ballet, with which they exchanged repertories. His last collaboration was La dama de las camelias, by Alejandro Dumas, musical adaptation by Robert Zeller, who was also the conductor.
According to Luisa Barrios, his work for dance productions inspired El Corcito to write a treatment for a ballet based on Debussy’s La Mer, entitled La sirena y el mar. For this work he painted eleven gouaches, as well as set designs and costumes. However, it was never staged.
His passion for stage arts is expressed in Alegoría teatral (1923), an easel painting that has been regarded as metaphysical because of its iconographic approach and its palette. There is an obvious reference to Giorgio de Chirico, but it also displays the critical irony that characterizes El Corcito’s work. This is why I decided to reinterpret it; several events in the theater and cinema worlds around the same time that he painted this work lead me to this reassessment.
On October 17, 1922, the Federación de Trabajadores de Teatro, later called the Federación Teatral, was founded by seven organizations: Unión de Tramoyistas, Escenógrafos, Electricistas, Utileros y Similares del Teatro (TEEUS), Sindicato Mexicano de Actores, Unión Mexicana de Apuntadores, Sindicato de Filarmónicos del D.F., Sindicato Nacional de Autores, Unión de Empleados de Teatro y Espectáculos Públicos and the Sindicato de Empleados Cinematográficos; three days ater it gained official recognition.
They demanded that theater impresarios hired their members according to a pay rate established by their union: “no theater could open its ticket booth without previously hiring those elements designated by the Federation”. This led to clashes even among Federation members, and on Saturday, March 4, 1923, all theaters shut down with the excetion of the Arbeu and the Colón. Afterwards, shows were divided among Federation members and dissidents. In the Esperanza Iris, María Guerrero, Ideal and Eslava theaters, Federation artists cornered the shows; in the Hidalgo theater, productions were staged with members of the dissident Sindicato Mexicano de Actores. The situation was so extreme that several impresarios decided to switch from theater productions to the exhibition of movies, disingeniously arguing that the latter only required one employee.
This is probably what inspired El Corcito to paint his Alegoría teatral. It shows a stage with a classical uilding and a modern one, a reference to classical theater and the renewal of the theater that was taking place at the time. A man ressembling a Greek sculpture (another classical reference) runs amok towards the spectator, as if trying to get away from the tragedy portended by the clouds and the lightning bolts, which would symbolize the aforementioned labor disputes. This figure projects an unusual and somewhat grotesque shadow, stressing the horrific situation. The different kinds of floorings in the painting can also be explained by this event. One is cobbled or perhaps covered with cockroaches, and a small snake slides over it: possibly a reference to one of the union leaders in the Federation. The other is made of wood, more suitable for a theater stage, but it is not level: an allusion to the unstable situation. There is a box that alludes to the prompter’s box in a theater. The cone that lies on the ground, like those used by film directors, would indicate the medium to which several theatrical impresarios migrated due to the labor disputes.The car tire would reference the ensuing crash. Only the meaning of the floating boat, an image he used in later works, remains to be determined.
This reinterpretation reaffirms El Corcito as an artist who elegantly criticized grotesque situations, union-related in this case. This was his line of attack in political matters, as can be seen in Líder orador, a clear criticism of dim-witted politicians who manipulate the people (the latter symbolized as pumpkins, in his characteristic costumbrist style). In Alegoría teatral, instead, he deployed elements from the European avant-gardes.
Most of his works deal with the memories, the spaces, the territories and customs of a by-gone Mexico, but always treated with irony, sarcasm and even in jest. In these paintings he incorporated anthropological and sociological issues along with everyday aspects of life, as in El lechero, a trade that has disappeared from our midst.
Ruiz was an artista who followed an independent path from groups and ideologies. But he was not a soitary man, he frequented Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo y Roberto Montenegro. He kept an intense correspondance with both Kahlo and Montenegro. He demonstrated his independence in his freedom to paint whatever he wanted without fear of causing resentments, of which there were some. Such was the case with Los paranoicos (1941), in which he portrayed in his sarcastic-humorous style Montenegro, Salvador Novo, Manuel Rodríguez Lozano and Xavier Villaurrutia, who gathered around the journal Los Contemporáneos; his patron Antonieta Rivas Mercado and her friend Lupe Marín, Rivera’s former wife, alluding to homosexuality, which prompted Novo to brand him as homophobic, accusing of being part of a witch hunt against homosexuals, in a painting he called Los espiritifláuticos or Los megalómanos.
He painted Montenegro again in Autorretrato (1956), with sarcasm and humor, referencing Montenegro’s nickname of “El guajolote”, portraying him as he gazed at himself as a peacock and he painted himself as a Futurist parrot. Montenegro remained his friend, in spite of this.
Octavio Paz regarded El Corcito as one of the most original painters, one whose small compositions combined lyricism and humor. For Paz, Ruiz’s paintings smile at the spectator. For my part, I think they laugh at the spectator.
 A reference to the Department of the Communications Secretariat where both
worked in 1917. Letter from Miguel Covarrubias to Antonio Ruiz, September, 1925, in Luisa Barrios, “Antonio M. Ruiz ‘El Corcito’ y la plástica contemporánea”, pp. 28-29, <http://lacolmena.uaemex.mx/index.php/lacolmena/article/view/2543/3130>.
 Quoted in Luisa Barrios, “Antonio Ruiz, ‘El Corcito'”, op. cit.
 Antonio Rodríguez, “Vida Teatral. Teatro Político y Teatro de Propaganda”, El Nacional, undated, in Luisa Barrios, op. cit., p. 28.
 Quoted in Luisa Barrios, “Antonio Ruiz, ‘El Corcito'”, op. cit.
 Arturo Rodríguez Doring, “Presencia y legado de la Esmeralda”, Discurso Visual, núm. 36.
 Antonio Magaña Esquivel, Imagen y realidad del teatro en México (1533-1960), Conaculta, INBA, Escenología A. C.
 Guillermo Schmidhuber de la Mora, El itinerario dramático de Rodolfo Usigli.
 Giovana Recchia, digital catalogue, CITRU/INBA.
 Larry Warren, Anna Sokolow, The Rebellious Spirit, p. 247.
 Luis Mario Moncada, Cronología de Teatro en México (1900-1950), <http://www.artesehistoria.mx/sitio-contenido.php?id_sit=126&id_doc=2070>.
 Margarita Mendoza-López, Primeros renovadores del teatro en México (1928-1941), México, Subdirección General de Prestaciones Sociales, Coordinación de Teatros, IMSS, 1985, p. 15.
 Salvador Novo, Lo marginal en el centro, México, Ediciones Era, 2004, p. 83.