Juan Soriano

Sculptor and 'perpetual rebel'


Juan Francisco Rodríguez Montoya Soriano, painter and sculptor: born Guadalajara, Mexico 18 August 1920; died Mexico City 10 February 2006.

Juan Soriano stumbled naturally into the "Mexican School" of painting and sculpture which blossomed out of the 1910-17 revolution with Diego Rivera at its head. But he soon rebelled against the movement's Communist-influenced politicisation of art, later attacking Rivera's murals as "dogmatic" and "monstrous".

Soriano, a prodigy who had his first exhibition of paintings at the age of 14 and liked to call himself a "perpetual rebel", had a 70-year career which encompassed more than 130 exhibitions, many abroad, and peaked when King Juan Carlos of Spain presented him with the Velazquez Prize for Plastic Arts at the Prado in Madrid last June.

In his acceptance speech, read for him by a friend, he said: "All my life I rebelled. Against my family, against tradition, against painting itself." The previous year, he had been awarded the Légion d'honneur by France, where he spent much of his time in later years.

Many of Soriano's oil paintings are considered on a par with those of the 20th-century greats, Rivera himself, Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo and José Clemente Orozco, notably his Niñas jugando ("Girls Playing", 1944), which shows two little girls in a magnificent splash of colour at a table by a window. Another, Cuatro esquinitas tiene mi cama ("My Bed Has Four Little Corners", 1941), portrays the artist sleeping in a bed with an angel on each bedpost.

Soriano also produced a host of engravings and ceramics as well as directing plays. His friend the Mexican writer Octavio Paz, who wrote several essays about the painter and his work, once described him as "a boy of 1,000 years, an old man of 20".

In his later years, however, Soriano became best known for his monumental sculptures, usually bronze and most often featuring abstract birds, many of which decorate public spaces in Mexican cities, such as Paloma ("Dove", 1989) at the entrance to the Marco museum in Monterrey. He worked on such sculptures indefatigably, and left at least 10 of the giant sculptures unfinished in his workshop at his death.

His most famous monumental sculpture, the one-ton Pájaro de dos caras ("Bird with Two Faces", 1993), sits on the esplanade of Mexico City's Palace of Fine Arts, where Soriano's wake was held to the sound of a mariachi band.

Phil Davison

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