Several years have passed since Pedro Diego Alvarado last presented his work to the public. This was back in 1995 at the Galería de Arte Mexicano, around the same time when the painter, for several personal and work-related reasons, determined to fly with his own wings. My friendship with Pedro Diego goes back to the moment when he decided, not without some qualm, to promote himself and to organize abroad a retrospective exhibition of his work. This experience gave me the chance to visit his studio on several occasions, to learn about his painting and observe how he works.
Pedro Diego Alvarado’s art is very pleasurable. However, in times like these, this might be considered counterproductive. His still lifes are most certainly decorative, to the degree that they might be considered a provocation. Who, nowadays, dares to dedicate himself to a genre so fallen into disuse? What’s more: who today can brag about continuing to paint, when its imminent demise has been announced and it is tolerated only under the condition that it is based on a conceptual proposition? These debates that rattle contemporary art and are fed periodically by its protagonists (visual artists, critics, gallery owners, curators) do not appear to bother Pedro Diego. Secluded and preferring to remain on the periphery of discussions and profound questionings, Pedro Diego carries on his daily work in a studio he had built on the roof of his two-story home in the Roma neighborhood, as if to validate with this isolation a need to remain distant from the ruckus in order to dedicate himself completely to what is truly important to him: the painter’s craft.
What is traditional about the works of Pedro Diego Alvarado? Mostly, his naturalist style. The themes that have captured his attention since he first began to paint in 1974 are still lifes, landscapes and sometimes portraits. For Pedro, the pomegranates, onions and pitahayas, the bananas and tomatoes, besides being beautiful, are tasty, fleshy objects that possess obvious erotic and hedonistic connotations; artistic objects that compel one to draw constantly, to a formal search that, despite being confined to the conventional for some, in this case evokes a return to the line, which will never be considered antiquated in itself.
Pedro Diego Alvarado’s trajectory reveals a persistent struggle to learn everything about his craft. Educated at the National School of Painting, Sculpting and Engraving "La Esmeralda" and at the Academia de San Carlos, Pedro Diego traveled to Paris to continue his studies at the l' École des Beaux Arts. His most valuable learning experience, however, happened while in contact with professional artists. He joined the group of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who met regularly with other painters to draw at the botanic garden, a short distance from Luxemburg and the Latin Quarter. Ricardo Martínez, in turn, introduced him to the art of oil painting, generously inviting him to work in his workshop in 1983. In 1994, in London, Pedro Diego was an assistant to the Nicaraguan artist Armando Morales, master of the pictorial technique, who transmitted his passion for the pictorial artifices to him. Eventually, in Mexico, he studied under Gilberto Aceves Navarro and Vlady, among others. With regards to his family, its legacy has weighed heavy on him: it cannot be easy to be the grandson of Diego Rivera, especially when one is starting out and has to face the criticism and prejudices of the art world. Critics, however, has assessed him lucidly. In 1995, Raquel Tibol emphasized his "preferred, cultivated attachment to some of the ways of the Riverian style, unconcerned with anachronisms or stylistic calendars” and recognized Morales’ positive influence of a "very complex, essentially pictorial artistic kitchen, which provokes in the young Mexican creative energies in terms of everything relating to light, color, atmosphere, distances” (Proceso, No. 995, November 27, 1995).
Today, Pedro Diego Alvarado’s most recent work displays some variants that indicate a possible (and necessary) evolution and aperture toward other areas of exploration and, why not, formal experimentation. Last year, the author created a very large-format painting called Puesto de Verduras y Frutas II (Vegetable and Fruit Stand II), commissioned by a private collector. This commission represented such an effort, considering the size of the piece and the degree of elaboration it required (inspired, undoubtedly, by the famous Fruit Merchant, painted by Olga Costa in 1951, and kept in the archive of the Museum of Modern Art), that the author came to see the painting as holding countless paintings within itself. He decided to "take advantage" of this and, cut out imaginary sections or fragments from its surface. He realized that this improvised method generated new, fruitful solutions from the semantic and formal points of view. Of course, it wasn’t just a matter of limiting himself to copying the different surfaces that integrated the original painting and reproducing them separately as simple details. First of all he needed to find other scales, new ways of framing compositions. The smaller format forced the author to “re-cut” the image; as if it were a close up, an approximation that didn’t privilege the object itself (a fruit, a vegetable) so much as it did the perspectives and the dialogue of lines that its execution on the canvas inspired. I believe I can detect, in the recent work of Pedro Diego Alvarado, three general ways of approaching still lifes: the opposition of circle-square; the saturation of the pictorial space with divergent structures; and a geometrization focused toward abstraction.
Consequently, two watermelons, for example, are placed on the canvas according to a perpendicular order and the border’s straight line mutilates their extremities. In another painting, four wooden boxes draw the eye, not because of their tasty contents (green oranges, mangos, peaches) but because of the arbitrary logic that presides in their arrangement and favors the straight angles, as if the sensual load of the fruit, the heap of colors and the sensitive textures can be assuaged by the geometric intention. This valuation of line over volume shifts the composition slowly toward design. In another one of his paintings, the vertical line indicated by a pile of grapefruits creates an opposition to the horizontals rows of oranges above a group of pumpkins. The elements invade the canvas leaving no empty space, the composition is progressively tighter, and literally concentrated in closed structures of circles versus straight lines, of struggles between connecting surfaces, vanishing points and sharp angles. We can find in this turn toward abstraction and in his most radical, synthetic solutions, echoes of paintings by Gunther Gerzso.
The landscapes also suffer alterations. It is not the “beauty” of the panorama that interests us, but the internal organization of the representations; we could almost say its architecture. This becomes clear in the symmetrical alignments of haystacks that cancel out the rural landscapes or the almost impressionist view of the bridges of Paris, which Pedro Diego was so fond of painting several years ago. The naturalist obsession is in the process of being surpassed in the paintings of Pedro Diego Alvarado, as are the Mexicanist vestiges that refused to let him loose from the historical tutelage of his beginnings.
Aware of the technical progress he is capable of, today the author prefers to study comprehensively the internal articulations of the language of painting, the economy of images and the strict organization of the spaces, without having to give up the visual and sensorial stimuli of his favorite themes. This search was already apparent in several of Pedro Diego’s earlier works, especially in a series from the early 80’s (a created in the studio of Ricardo Martínez), in which such trivial subjects as the borders of canvases leaning against a wall translated into interesting diagonal effects, surfaces and framed compositions on the canvas surface. This type of exploration was suspended for several years, though today Pedro Diego retrieves it as a significant alternative for the future evolution of his work.
What else has changed in Pedro Diego Alvarado’s work? We know for a fact that his workmanship has always been very careful and that it responds to extremely refined, complex technical procedures. The photographic model and the charcoal sketch reinforced with tempera is maintained, as is the oil ”scraped” with a blade to thin out the material, and the varnish that gives his paintings a polished, impeccable finish. Nonetheless, the author does take some liberties, such as introducing coarseness to accentuate the tactile qualities in the skin of a melon, for example. The palette itself has also been darkened somewhat: the light is less direct, less vibrant than the previous series; it has been moderated and achieved a subtlety and virtuosity that suddenly has impact, as in a group of pears that suggest to me the delicate still lifes of Armando Morales. The work of Pedro Diego Alvarado delves, with obvious pleasure, into sources of the past, into European pictorial traditions and into the old Mexican avant-garde; however, he is now set upon the path of renovating his own language and resolving those contradictions inherent in him.
Pedro Diego Alvarado is a young, traditional painter. This may sound like a contradiction, but in his case, it is a joy. His beautiful, decorative still lifes have achieved much success among Mexican collectors. It is now time for them to meet the European public. Pedro Diego is currently preparing an exhibition that will open in Paris by the end of the year and will travel to Germany and other countries on the Old Continent. To be sure, this manner of painting which seems to belong in the past makes its author appear to be from some sort of marginal species when compared to the generally bolder, more contemporary painters. Under these conditions, why continue painting traditionally?
Initially, "to learn the craft,” responds the artist, born in Mexico City in 1956. "It’s more than just painting traditionally, it was about learning to draw from the natural. There is so much freedom in the fine arts today that it’s difficult for an artist to start from nothing, with no previous pictorial culture or know-how.” Pedro himself has a solid professional and artistic education behind him. He studied at La Esmeralda and the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City, and then at the L'ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. But the real learning for him came when he met up with several veteran artists. In Paris, he introduced himself into the group of photographer and sketcher Henri Cartier-Bresson; later, he passed through the famous graphic workshop of Clot, Bramsen et Georges, and afterward became an assistant to the Nicaraguan painter Armando Morales. In Mexico, he became the student of Gilberto Aceves Navarro, Ricardo Martínez and Vlady. Then again, Pedro Diego was born with an advantage that very well could have become a stigma for him: his grandfather on his mother’s side was Diego Rivera (1886 -1957), founder of the Mexican muralist movement in the 1920’s, and who continues to be one our most highest valued painters on the international market. He died when Pedro Diego was not yet two, but bequeathed to him the love of art and an obsession for impeccable craftsmanship.
Alvarado grew up in a family of artists. His grandmother, Lupe Marín, gave him his first push in this direction when she loaned him a catalogue of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Pedro Diego became excited and decided there and then to become a photographer. However, soon he realized that the photographer’s path wasn’t for him and he took up painting instead in 1974. Today he displays a great command of the technique and has found his own style.
He is passionate about the play of light. To represent it in his paintings he pushes himself to the extreme, to constant exercises. His work method is somewhat complex: on the linen canvas, he first draws the subject with charcoal and then paints over it with tempera. He immediately applies a layer of oil that he completes with discrete brushes of color, in order to create atmospheric effects. He ”cleans” off the first layers of pigment with a blade. A final layer of paint is applied with very thin brushes until this delicate, sophisticated production is complete.
So then, is Pedro Diego Alvarado’s painting anachronic? No, because by basing his work on the line, he foreshadows a return to the sources of drawing. Indeed, he does not take risks. His choice of still lifes was spontaneous, instinctive. This cosmopolitan, cultured artist is a refined peasant. He likes his native soil; he enjoys rustic, essential things. For him, country harvests possess beauty in shapes, and fulfill their promise of strange flavors, along with tropical fruits, that provide a joy to sight and taste. He is a sensual man, what the French call bon vivant.
There is clearly another factor in his calling for still lifes: his passion for color. Pedro Diego Alvarado knows how to represent the iridescent texture of a kilm rug, the rough skin of the mango, the creamy flesh of a halved papaya. He brings objects to life by provoking intense associations and sunny contrasts. The elements in his compositions are products that he has just purchased at the market; ripe fruit (bananas, pomegranates, guavas, limes), chilies, corn, squash flower, prickly pear leaves. The items next to them are objects from his home: the mortar, the knife, the porcelain vase, the lacquered gourd and the straw mat. They are classic still lifes, with something else: the Mexican accent. The festive palette confirms this: brick red, indigo blue, acid yellow, lime green…
Pedro Diego Alvarado’s objective is not to create folklore, but rather to paint atmospheres. When he travels, he takes his easel along. Whether in Paris, Provenze or Tuscany, his interpretation of the theme varies. “In the same way that the impressionists or Turner painted the light around them, I paint the light surrounding me.” So when he paints a landscape in Loire or a visit to the Garden of the Tuileries, he almost becomes an Impressionist…. However, the light in Mexico is coarser, the color vibrates more. When he paints still lifes, he carries on an old Mexican tradition that reached its peak with magnificent rural painters such as Hermenegildo Bustos and Agustín Arrieta, a tradition that culminated in the twentieth century with Rufino Tamayo, María Izquierdo, Frida Kahlo, Olga Costa and Luis García Guerrero, among many others: a tradition that is revitalized today by the work of Pedro Diego Alvarado.