Leo Matiz: “El Quijote”. Photo by Leo Matiz
By Miguel Angel Flóres Góngora
Leo Matiz, a legend in 20th century photography. was born in 1918 in Aracataca, Colombia, the hot and marginalized mythical territory on the banks of the Magdalena Riverthat is also Gabriel García Márquez’ birthplace.
Matiz was not only a photographer, but a painter, caricaturist and creator of newspapers and art galleries. As a gallery owner, in 1951, he held the first exhibition of the Colombian painter Fernando Botero in Bogotá.
As a 24-year-old in 1940, Matiz set off through Central America on foot to reach Mexico where he hoped to to live off of painting, cinema and caricaturing. He defined his artistic vocation by affirming: “I am a painter because of atavism, photographer because of hunger and crazy because of talent.”
Much of his youth took place in the anarchic and agitated atmosphere of Colombian and Central American cafés and newsrooms, earning money by selling caricatures to illustrate the literary and political pages.
His abundant long hair, his absurdly colored jackets, his mustache in the style of a Mexican cinema gangster, his indiscreet and impulsive guffaws, the folder under his arm full of caricatures and color drawings turned him into the center of the intense intellectual bohemia of Bogotá and Central American capitals.
Matiz scrutinized the faces, gestures and defects of the people he observed, converting his caricatures into scathing and incisive commentary. Important film makers, painters and caricaturists like Gustave Doré, George Grozt, Nadar and Guadalupe Posada influenced the caricatures of Leo Matiz, providing his drawings with agility, penetrating observation and irony. Above all, he refined his sharpness for outlining faces—an art that he subsequently transferred to photography and which he exercised with mastery in portraiture.
The Colombian photographer’s arrival in Mexico in 1940 transformed his vital and aesthetic perspective. The discovery of cinema, muralism, the polychromy of the landscape, the Mexican history plagued with popular insurrections and betrayed revolutions and the cultural inheritance of the Aztec and Maya civilizations, served as a fountain of existential liberty and artistic creation.
He traveled around Mexico, taking photographs for magazines such as Así, Life, Reader’s Digest, Harper Magazine, Look and Norte. Matiz evokes that intense journey through the rich and diverse Mexican geography, affirming that “The magazine Así launched me as a graphic reporter in Mexico. I began to look for themes and discovered the old and deep Mexico, eternal and fleeting. There before my eyes was the baroque architecture, the paintings, the murals, the Maria islands and the poignant histories of its presidents, the pulque, the starving coyotes in the desert, the day of the dead, the sacred temples and the purity of Yucatan, the red ants in the desert, the women of Pancho Villa, the dead trees, the divas in the movies, the cemeteries, the colour of the folk crafts, the peasants and the remote hope of their redemption.”
Matiz’s camera recorded cinema and art celebrities painting throughout the 1940s. With his inseparable Rolleiflex he achieved portraits endowed with intimacy, fascination and profound sociological penetration. Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Ester Williams, Janice Logan, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Agustín Lara, the first castings of de María Felix, Gabriel Figueroa, Esther Fernández, José Clemente Orozco, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”, Luis Buñuel, Marc Chagall, Dolores del Río and Pablo Neruda all figure in his memorable, seductive and nostalgic galleria of people.
AN UNEXPECTED EXILE
Matiz’s friendship with Mexican muralists, especially the the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, led to the visual documentation of the mural Cuauhtémoc contra el mito through more than 500 photographs. However, a few years later, Siqueiros exhibited 70 paintings inspired by the photographs of Matiz in Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes. Indignant at seeing his images redrawn and unauthorized murals, Matiz made strong accusations of plagiarism against Siqueiros in the Mexican press.
In turn, the muralist politicized the case, accusing Matiz of being a North American imperialist agent and an enemy of muralism. He set fire to Matiz’s studio and had him expelled from Mexico.
Leo Matiz died in Bogotá, on October 24th in 1998. His images and artistic legacy are conserved and promoted by the Foundation Leo Matiz as an intense and suggestive breviary of the 20th century, which Matiz was able to communicate with beauty and expressive force.
Miguel Angel Flóres Góngora is a Colombian journalist and he is the author of La metáfora del ojo, a biography of Leo Matiz.