What you see: Untitled (Tehuanas in Traditional Huipil Grande Headdresses), painted in the 1920s by Roberto Montenegro. Christie’s estimates it at $70,000 to $90,000.
The expert: Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American art for Christie’s.
How prolific was Montenegro? He was very prolific. He worked for five decades. He continued to paint into his sixties. He died in 1968.
Why hasn’t he received the scholarly attention that some of his peers have gotten? He’s a very well-known artist, and he’s always included in surveys of Mexican art. The market likes him. What’s missing is a volume that captures the depth of his career and really studies his accomplishments.
How do we know that he painted this sometime in the 1920s? It’s not dated, but stylistically, it’s related to a Montenegro painting of Maya women that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) owns, and that dates to 1926.
When–on what occasions–do Tehuanas [women native to the Tehuantepec area of Mexico] don this distinctive ceremonial garb? Weddings and funerals? To me, in this particular painting, because they’re holding flowers and almost appear to be compressed in a tight space, almost stacked against each other, it appears to be a processsion. Their demeanor is serious. It’s more an expression of reverence. The faces are not laughing or smiling. Do you remember the Diego Rivera painting from the Rockefeller collection? That picture was Tehuanas too. That’s a feast, a very different atmosphere, celebrating. This seems to be a little more serious. A religious offering, maybe a funeral, but we can’t tell.
What is mexicanidad, and how is it reflected in this painting? It’s a term that refers to putting elements of Mexican culture in the forefront of a painting or an artistic expression. A lot of artists reflect mexicanidad in different ways. Frida Kahlo was a master of mexicanidad. Everything she did or said or wrote deeply embraced her Mexican identity. She took it to another level in dress and in how she expressed herself.
The lot notes say that Montenegro traveled in Europe almost continually from 1905 to 1920, looking at historic and contemporary European art. Do we know how soon he painted this after he returned to Mexico? I wish we could, but sadly, no. His sister [who owned the painting] has passed away. She would have known.
This looks really Cubist to me. Do we know if he looked at Cubist works during his travels? I think he had seen avant-garde art in Europe, like Diego Rivera had. Montenegro obviously knew the work of other artists like Rivera, who had a Cubist period.
Is this the first time he plays with the geometric potential of these Tehuana outfits? I think Diego did it too. What’s different about this treatment in this particular painting–it’s very graphic, very frontal. It seems to confront the viewer. That’s what’s attractive about the painting. And it’s very sculptural.
Sculptural? Is the paint piled up on the surface of the canvas? No, no, the painting is flat. When I say sculptural, the shapes almost appear to be 3-D in the way that Montenegro overlaps the headdresses with the faces in the back. There’s a sense of transparency, almost.
Are his other depictions of Tehuanas this geometric? No, they’re not. If you look at his murals, the Tejuanas are soft and others don’t have headdresses. I think this is one of the few that do.
Do we know anything about his working style? Did he pose models for this, or take reference photos, or did he imagine this scene? I think these women are archetypes.
From memory? Yeah, from memory.
Why is this painting so effective? I think it’s very striking. Part of that is you’re looking at this very frontally. It’s almost them looking at you rather than you looking at them.
Is this typical or atypical of his work? I think it’s an outlier. He used a lot of Mexican motifs, but it’s an outlier in the way the picture is constructed.
What is the painting like in person? What’s interesting about the painting is it’s very tight. It’s effective in that you feel this is a group of women in a small procession. They’re very strategically placed in the picture plane, but they have their own personalities.
How often do Montenegros appear at auction? Normally there’s one every season. They don’t circulate too much. He’s not an artist people are trading constantly. When collectors find a Montenegro, they tend to keep it for generations.
From the looks of the lot notes, this has never been to auction before–correct? No, never.
How rare is it to have a Montenegro that’s fresh to market? Every two years, there’s a surprise. This was a total surprise. We didn’t know about the picture until [the heirs] contacted us. It was owned by his sister. She lived in California. Montenegro gave it to her on one of his trips to visit, and it’s been in the family all these years. I don’t know if it’s been published. It’s really the first time it’s been seen. It’s really great. It’s one of my favorite things in the sale.
What condition is it in? Very good shape. We cleaned it superficially, but it’s in great shape.
What’s the auction record for a Montenegro? It was set at Christie’s. It was one of his self-portraits in a sphere, from 1955. It sold in 2017 for $187,500.
So this could set a new record for the artist, maybe. Let’s just say it’s conceivable.
Why will this painting stick in your memory? It is a memorable painting. It’s very graphic. And it’s lovely in the flesh, really, really lovely. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get a rediscovered artwork. This example has never been seen or published in color. Now the image is out there, and people can refer to it. We love to sell things, and we love to contribute to the understanding of an artist by presenting something that’s so good and special.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.