Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 49
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
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“TUG OF THE HAIR”: Francisco Toledo’s 1987 gouache and watercolor done with sand and pen and black ink, on paper, is among the works on view in “El Maestro Francisco Toledo: Art from Oaxaca, 1959-2006,” on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through January 8, 2008. The exhibit was organized by the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso and is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with essays by curator Joachim Homann, lecturer, department of art, the University of Texas at El Paso, and Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Princeton University Art Museum: Visions of Toledo in Malcolm Lowry’s Cantina

Stuart Mitchner

“No words can describe the terrible condition I am in …. This is the perfect Kafka situation…. I am in horrible danger …. Don’t think I can go on. Where I am it is dark. Lost.”
Malcolm Lowry, letter from Oaxaca

Much of the work in “El Maestro Francisco Toledo: Art from Oaxaca, 1959-2006,” currently on view at the Princeton University Art Museum, would make “perfect Kafka” illustrations for a new edition of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Having just finished rereading that novel, I wonder if there’s a painter on the planet who could do it justice. Good intentions aside, John Huston’s 1984 film falls short, its worst moment (the wild horse trampling the Consul’s ex-wife) a travesty of one of the book’s greatest passages. But Toledo’s art is something else again; with all its skeletons and scorpions, lustful rabbits and grisly grasshoppers, it could be hanging on a wall in the cantina of doom, the Farolita, where after drinking “two swift mescals,” the Consul looks into “one corner of the room” and sees “a white rabbit eating an ear of Indian corn” and nibbling “at the purple and black stops with an air of detachment, as though playing a musical instrument.”

Some hours earlier in another cantina, having made it through the better part of the Day of the Dead on whiskey, beer, and tequila, and thus being subject only to what Lowry once described as “good, clean D.T.s,” the Consul downs his first mescal and knowingly opens the door to hallucinations spawned in the Mesoamerican underworld, a dark wood teeming with infernal visions. What he sees after his next mescal makes for a passage Toledo might have sketched or painted:

“Dark coils of shadows lay in the deserted barroom. They sprang at him. ‘Otro mescalito. Un poquito.’ The voice seemed to come from above the counter where two wild yellow eyes pierced the gloom. The scarlet comb, the wattles, then the bronze green metallic feathers of some fowl standing on the bar, materialized.”

It’s worth mentioning that the menu at this cantina, where the drinks are served by a barman named Cervantes, features “onans in garlic soup on egg,” “poxy eggs, poxy in toast,” and the “spectral chicken of the house.” At this point on his deathbound journey, Lowry’s protagonist almost seems to be enjoying himself, in spite of seeing a tree “like a green exploding sea-mine,” “rows of dead lamps like erect snakes poised to strike,” “a phantom dance of souls,” and the “slight continual twitching and hopping within his field of vision, as of innumerable sand fleas.” It’s all a feast of phantasmagoria for the Consul, who tells himself “I love hell. I can’t wait to get back there.”

It doesn’t take much reading in Lowry’s letters to know that he didn’t love the hell he went through in Oaxaca; nor was he anxious to experience it again — except to mine it for his work.

Toledo’s Underworld

Besides offering a feast not unlike the one Lowry cooks up (there’s even a spectral chicken on the menu), Francisco Toledo’s “Art from Oaxaca” can be enjoyed both on its own amusing terms (like Lowry, Toledo has a strong comic sense) and as a haunting sequel to Under the Volcano. The Toledo Web site ( offers a clever tour of the artist’s world. Just click ”Enter” under the sign of the pig and pumpkin, and see what happens. Even better, of course, is the journey through the nightmarish anthropomorphic underworld at the Princeton University Museum, where you see midnight-blue surfaces scored with sinister markings fashioned in oil and sand on a wood panel (Cubista) that could have been ripped from the walls of the Farolita; a trussed cow bleeding surreal ponds and buckets of blood (Man Slaughtering Cow); gigantic mixed-media grasshoppers in a foliage collage such as the Consul might have seen at the bottom of a tumbler of mescal (Leaf with Grasshopper). Then you have those hares and rabbits, all fantastically lustful as in La lujuria/Lust and Terroso/Earthy where the creatures look as spiky as the cacti they’re cavorting amid (more hints of mescal). Look into another dark corner of the cantina and you see a crocodile-dragon casting its red shadow on a milky white wall. Over here you have a Cubist hacienda painted in the beige tones favored by Braque. You’ll see a bull kissing a balletic matador, skeletons making love, a mask painted on a tortoise shell, a crazyquilt maze of crickets and lingams, an elephant, a grasshopper playing a harp, shoes and toads, skeletons making love, blue men, turtles, scorpions, snails, and sewing machines. In case you begin having too much fun, take a good look at History of the Eye, the fierce self-portrait of the artist, a face as relentless and deadly as the ones surrounding the Consul in the last minutes of his life. Another nightmare image is the delirium of bats spilling out of a moon-like bat womb in Birth/Nacimiento, one of the artist’s most recent works.

Even without Lowry’s citing of Kafka in Oaxaca, and even without Toledo’s mixed etchings based on Kafka’s story “A Report to an Academy,” the presence of the author of “The Metamorphosis” can be sensed in any number of the works on view. Versions of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa (who woke up to find himself “transformed into a gigantic cockroach”) could be inhabiting Toledo’s insects, toads, and wildlife. Look at the work (Tug of the Hair) featured on the cover of the exhibit monograph, which includes an article by Joachim Homann that mentions Toledo’s “admiration for Klee” in relation to the cover image, a gouache and watercolor done with sand and pen in 1987. The element of insect horror suggested by those twisted mandibles and that scary mouth is surely a region traveled less by Klee than by Kafka and Lowry. More than anything else, the roots of the image go back to the same dark wood of the region’s history that Malcolm Lowry lived through, was haunted by, and tried to exorcise on paper.

Enough mescal. Time to quit the cantina.


I recommend a trip to Hernandez, New Mexico after darkest Oaxaca. All you have to do is walk to the back of the same floor and take a right and you’re out of the underworld and into a very real moment in time scientifically estimated to have been captured by Ansel Adams’s camera between 4 and 4:05 p.m. on October 31, 1941. “Moonrise: Print the Legend” features four different versions of Adams’s most famous work, including one that would be appreciated by Francisco Toledo or anyone with an eye for the mysterious effects of a natural spectacle looming over a human scene, in this case an old adobe church and some crosses in its cemetery.

“El Maestro Francisco Toledo: Art from Oaxaca, 1959-2006” will be on view through January 6, 2008, “Moonrise: Print the Legend” through January 13. The museum is open to the public without charge Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. It is closed on Monday and major holidays. Highlight tours of the collection are given every Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. The museum is located in the center of the Princeton University campus, next to Prospect House and Gardens. For further information, call (609) 258-3788, or visit

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