The Work of Art
Editor's note: For a high-res image of the Tamayo mural, e-mail Marti Hobbes.
NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—Great works of art often travel from museum to museum for exhibition, but that was certainly not the intent of the fresco created for Smith College by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo on the wall of the original Hillyer Art Library.
Had Smith College considered that the building would one day be too small and need to make way for a larger art complex, the college or artist might have made a different decision. Instead, in 1943, Tamayo created a true fresco—a process that literally fused the painting to the library wall.
To conserve Tamayo’s 43-feet-wide by 9-feet-high mural would take eight years. It would take another several decades to create the appropriate space at Smith College to install the monumental artwork again. That day is now near.
Beginning Tuesday, March 15, Tamayo’s “Nature and the Artist: The Work of Art and the Observer” will be installed on the wall of the atrium within the Brown Fine Arts Center, which houses the Hillyer Art Library, Smith College Museum of Art, studio space and art history classes. It will be secured to the wall permanently in a location close to where it was originally painted; an official opening will be held April 1.
“It’s like a homecoming for me,” said David Dempsey, associate director of museum services, who will install the piece while students are on spring break. The mural will command the view from the stairway in the Smith College Museum of Art that overlooks the atrium.
Smith commissioned Tamayo to create a fresco to honor Elizabeth Cutter Morrow, Class of 1896, for her service to Smith, including a year as acting president of the college. Elizabeth’s husband, Dwight Morrow, was a U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and they resided in the country for three years.
Tamayo selected the wall opposite the entrance to the Hillyer Art Library for “Nature and the Artist.” He plastered a section of the wall, drew his design on that section and painted it within the next seven hours—before the plaster set.
In vivid colors, Tamayo created a mural that represented the power of nature and the primal elements of earth, air, fire and water. He also included a portrait of himself turning away from onlookers to concentrate on his painting.
About his self-portrait, Tamayo wrote: “The Observer stands looking at the Work of Art, and his eyes are fixed on it to the complete exclusion of his surroundings. To emphasize the idea that when judging a work of art one must take it as a new creation, independent of the source from which it sprang, the Observer stands with his back to the group that symbolizes Nature.”
Conservation and Installation
In preparation for its removal in 1969, layers of paper and cloth were glued to the face of the fresco with a strong water-based glue. Conservators then carefully pulled the painting off the wall and transported it to a studio in Boston. There, it was cut into 22 segments and mounted onto hollow-core wood panels. The final stage of the conservation process was the removal of the paper facing, revealing the image once again.
Upon completion of the process, “Nature and the Artist” was taken to the Guggenheim Museum in New York for the 1979 Tamayo retrospective before traveling to several museums around the world. Most recently, it was on view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.
But the recent $35-million renovation and expansion of the Brown Fine Arts Center provided the opportunity to bring the Tamayo back to Smith. At the request of Museum Director Suzannah Fabing, architects designed an atrium wall with the mural in mind.
Linda Muehlig, associate director for curatorial affairs, met the artist’s widow, Olga Tamayo, in 1993 and assured her that every effort would be made to find a permanent location for the fresco.
“Although Mrs. Tamayo did not live to see the fresco permanently installed, the museum is glad to be able to fulfill its promise and return this wonderful work of art to public display where it was first created,” said Muehlig.
Located on Elm Street at Bedford Terrace, the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 to 4, and Sundays, noon to 4; it is closed on Mondays and major holidays. Admission is free for members as well as for the Smith community, Five College students and faculty, and all children ages five and under. For all others, admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for students with ID and $2 for youth ages 6 to 12. Free passes are available at Forbes Library in Northampton with a Forbes library card (20 West St., next to the Smith campus). No admission fees are charged on the first Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to noon. For additional information, call (413) 585-2760 or visit www.smith.edu/artmuseum.
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