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   May 2010
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Book Review

Becoming Pablo O'Higgins
New book and UMFA exhibit shed light on one of Utah's lesser known artistic sons

Becoming Pablo O'Higgins is a study of character that questions identity, integrity, authenticity and ultimately loyalty. This newly released biography by Susan Vogel, published to accompany the exhibit of O’Higgins work now at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, gives us a compelling portrayal of Paul Higgins, a young Presbyterian bourgeois from Salt Lake City who would be known to history and legend as Pablo O’Higgins, a communist artist in post-revolutionary Mexico. In this groundbreaking portrayal of one of Utah’s least known artistic sons unanswered questions remain, but the life of a legend often leaves a wake of mystery.

Considering that Pablo O’Higgins did little to help future historians give a substantial story of his early life, Vogel does an admirable job of separating much of the fact from fiction in her archival research of the young Higgins. He is introduced to the reader only after a substantial back story is laid out, including a history of Mormons and miners, Higgins’ ancestry, his stern father Edward, an influential judge, and his sympathetic mother Alice, who gave birth to Paul in 1904. The elaborate history proves important to shed light on the push and pull of much of the artist’s long-term conflicts. The details of his formative years, spent between Salt Lake and San Diego, are stitched together, although much remains uncertain. He is said to have attended two years of high school in Salt Lake City’s East High and to have studied art for a brief time under LeConte Stewart. Any formal art training he might received in San Diego, where the family eventually moved, is unknown. According to Vogel, Higgins’ mother suggested in 1924 that he journey to Mexico City and offer his assistance to the famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Higgins’ reluctant father drove him from San Diego to the border, where, with 100 dollars in his pocket, Higgins began his life in Mexico.

From this point the artist’s history is well documented. Vogel introduces the reader to the golden age of Post-revolutionary Mexico, a complex and dynamic environment of culture and political polemics that would form the backdrop to the remainder of Higgins life. Higgins quickly assimilated to life in Mexico, changing his first name to Pablo and adding the O’ to his surname to become Pablo O’Higgins. The tall, blue-eyed, blond-haired boy was giving himself a working class name, with the intention to align himself with the PMC, the Communist Mexican Party. With the new name he also took on a new identity. Once across the border he embellished some of his past – he claimed to have been born in San Francisco and to have worked as an offshore man -- while completely hiding the rest: the PMC would not look favorably on his bourgeois upbringing in the family of the judge who upheld the ruling in the infamous murder trial of Joe Hill, martyr to the proletariat.

The first thirty-five years of Pablo’s life in Mexico are explored in great detail. He does meet and work with Diego Rivera, and allies himself with the Mexican workers, newly energized by the successful revolution and armed with a new constitution. O’Higgins considered his vocation as a muralist no different than the work of any laborer and spent his time painting the peasant, the capitalist antagonist, and revolutionary Mexican themes as well as Soviet ones. Vogel does a laudable job of spinning out the story of these complicated thirty-five years of Pablo O’Higgins life, weaving analysis of the effects of world events like the Great Depression, World War II, and the frenzy of McCarthyism, with characterizations of many of the artist’s enduring relationships and his development as an artist.

One of O’Higgins' most remembered accomplishments is co-founding the People’s Graphic Workshop, the TGP, a propaganda-motivated print works still in operation. His works from the period, like "Cardenas Informing the People," |0| or "Rights of the Working Class," |1| on display at the UMFA, are great examples of propaganda printmaking, not too different from that of the German prints that emerged after WWI.

In Vogel’s account Pablo O’Higgins lived life on a large scale. Lacking some of the skills that come from substantial training, he did not ascend to the heights of success many of his contemporaries achieved, but his work successfully expressed his commitment, as an artist, activist and humanist, to the working class. O’Higgins, it is said, cared less about the human form and more about the human being.

In 1959 O’Higgins married María de Jesús de la Fuente, a decision that caused a sudden change in his life, and Vogel’s account leaves the reader wondering if they have understood the subject at all. The author glides through these last twenty-four years. In contrast to his committed communist past, from the marriage until his death in 1983, O’Higgins lived in bourgeois opulence, isolated in his studio when not helping his wife entertain the upper-crust of Mexico City. María is portrayed as a controlling and manipulating spouse who was better at playing the part of agent than loving wife. The art produced during this period reflects the changes in the artist’s lifestyle: his aggressive depictions of social realism shift to romanticized visions of the ideals of Mexico in works like "Family Working in the Fields," |2| and "Vendador de Flores." |3|

The vague account of O’Higgins' life in this twenty-four year period is insufficient for the reader to formulate a solid conclusion. Vogel’s own conclusion that O’Higgins died a “painter of the people,” conflicts with the opinions expressed by some of her interviewees. Despite the questions and inconsistencies that shroud O’Higgins' later life, Vogel has done an admirable job of establishing a compelling portrait of an artist who though a national treasure in his adopted home south of the border was, until now, a complete unknown in his native state.

Becoming Pablo O'Higgins: How an Anglo American Artist from Utah Became a Mexican Muralist is available locally at Ken Sanders Rare Books, The King's English Book Shopand Williams Fine Art, and online at amazon.com. Pablo O'Higgins: Works on Paper
is on view at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts through September 19.

Artistic Temperaments (v6)
Out in the Open

Springtime in Utah, from thawing snow and ice in the north to mercury rising in of Red Rock country, painters are dusting off their easels, spray cans, and backpacks in preparation for drives in the countryside, hikes in the mountains, or legal graffiti mural painting en plein air or, in English, “in the open air.” Artists have long painted out-of-doors, but this practice increased in the 1870s with the introduction of paints in tubes (originally invented in 1841).

In response to this time of year, I have asked two Utah-based artists who work en plein air – Linda Curley Christensen and Doug Braithwaite – to respond about the rewards and challenges, the skills they need and hone, and the future they see (or don’t see) for painting outdoors.

Linda Curley Christensen

The joy of springtime painting! Is there anything as wonderful as taking a deep breath of the fresh air? Although if you are not cleaned up by the time the sun goes behind the mountain, you could freeze getting that chore finished! I have a friend that painted everyday this past winter, no matter the weather. I know she gained amazing amounts of skill through the experience. I admire her dedication even though I chose not to pay the same price for myself. Other years have found me out in the weather; I may be showing my years. If you are young, needing experience, or desperate for a jump kick to your skill level you must paint out doors en plein air.

No camera can record with the amount of sensitivity and skill that your five senses allow you to observe. No amount of detailed reading can explain the effects of light, humidity, dust or even sound upon the spirit of the finished rendition of the moment en plein air. It just can’t be done. Not even the most advanced computer could analyze and decipher how a passing cloud can somehow illuminate or not illuminate, and explain the depth and form of rolling hills, the effects of the wind upon the grass, trees and foliage. How can I say more [than] it’s the best experience you can have to boost your painting ability.

Now, with that said, I go back to my opening statement: If you are like me and have patiently waited for spring to pack again the painting gear, the motivation lies at the center of selfishness. There is no other way to feel more connected to Mother Earth, at peace or in balance with the world, than to be out of doors observing and recording a moment of joy or beauty or intrigue, whatever your motivation during those precious hours en plein air. It’s as vital as the air we breathe as artists. One woman’s opinion.

Doug Braithwaite

“What to paint now?” A question I have asked myself, not exaggerating, at least three or four thousand times over the last 20+ years. Calling myself a “landscape painter” means anything, anywhere, at any time that I experience is fair game—and I enjoy painting all of it. I paint the city, coast, mountains and red rocks at different times of day or seasons, and in different light conditions. I find the landscape full of metaphors that express ideas I have about the world, my perceptions of it, and what it is to be human at this time and place. The landscape is always there. I don’t have to make an appointment or let it take a break every 30 minutes.

More specifically, I find plein air painting to be an exhilarating, spontaneous experience. I go out with no preconceptions of what I will do; after exploring, I find a motif that affects me. The feeling is not always easy to explain, but I don’t have the same experience in the studio working from photos. For me, plein air painting is about capturing the emotional quality of the discovery, finding or observing an idea as opposed to creating an idea.

While on-site, all senses are engaged in that experience—sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. Extra stimuli provide information that helps create the subtle visual clues, conscious or subconscious, so observers have the same experience you did. For me, this communication between painter and patron is accomplished with careful observation and representation of color relationships and composition; so I constantly work on drawing, color mixing, paint application, and ideas about surfaces to paint on. I try to find the magic formula that expresses what I feel.

My studio time is working out ideas I found painting “en plein air.” I like working both inside and out because there are certain things you can only do in one forum or the other. In the studio, I have time to work out complicated drawing and compositional ideas on a larger scale. However, I could not work on studio paintings without memories and studies from experiences outside.

What to paint now? As long as the world around us continues to change and evolve, there will be painters like myself who work to express those changes by plein air painting!

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