Santa Barbara Museum of Art highlights Alfredo Ramos Martinéz

Alexa Highsmith, Staff Writer

Just beyond the front doors of the Santa Barbara Art Museum, through the maze-like “Salt and Silver” photography display, past the mesmerizing cosmological “Observing the Universe” exhibition, and lying amidst the astounding Permanent Collection is the Alfredo Ramos Martinéz collection entitled “on paper,” or “sobre papel.”

Martinéz, who was born in 1871 and raised in Mexico, was recognized for his artistic abilities early on in his youth. He continued to expand his painting technique and capabilities as he went to study in Paris to develop a more impressionistic style. His work afterwards was crucial to the development of the Mexican Modernist movement in the early 20th century, shaping the idea of modernism in the country and influencing the stylistic attributes of the art at the time. Seen in many of his works are themes such as religious devotion, art education, and indigenous Mexican culture.

Specifically Catholic imagery and themes are highlighted in his works, primarily in pieces such as “Veneración” (“Veneration”), “Monjas ante la Crucifixión” (“Nuns Before the Crucifixion”), and “Virgen y Niño” (“Virgin and Child”). Within his more religious works, the imagery in the emotional contour varies from the woefulness and agony of the nuns suffering in Christ’s sacrifice to the angelic glow of the Virgin Mary in her gentle love for her son. Martinéz contrasts darker, more morose colors with vibrant bronzes and golds, such as in “Virgen y Niño,” in which the Virgin Mary is surrounded by an angelic golden glow which creates a halo around her.

The deep contrast of color with vibrant light is also seen in some of his other works of the late 1930s and early 1940s, including “Mujeres con flores” (“Women with Flowers”), “La escuela” (“The School”), “Indigenas Rezando” (“Indigenous Praying”), and “Vendedoras de Flores” (“Flower Vendors”). Each of these pieces represents his period of painting and sketching over old newspaper, a style which he developed when he found himself running out of paper and unable to afford more. The story goes that an innkeeper gave him newspaper as an alternative, and he loved the vertical organized space that the paper provided, deciding that it presented an entire landscape of new opportunity for his work.

As he developed his own style and continued to encourage and teach students in Mexico, Martinéz focused heavily on the importance he found in pursuing and preserving Mexicanidad, a movement described as one that “advocated for a new cultural nationalism rooted in Mexican imagery.” Through this, Martinéz and his students depicted scenes of the traditional Mexican life, especially as he and his wife moved to Los Angeles in 1929. Here, he saw the tension between traditional life and modern culture, exploring the dichotomy through his art. The exhibition opened on Oct. 27 and continues through Feb. 9, and is available to the public at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.