The home of Jorge Martínez – the founder of the University of Guadalajara Art School – is right in the heart of downtown, but the moment we stepped inside, we left the noise of the city behind and found ourselves in an amazing wonderland where every wall and corner was filled with marvels, with no end of artistic treasures, all collected or created by the artist himself.
Our guide was no one less than the artist’s great niece, Josefina “Pina” Camarena, who told us that Martínez not only lived in the house, but had also been born here, in 1916. At the age of 19, soon after he had joined a group called the Young Painters of Jalisco, who should come along but José Clemente Orozco. The iconic Mexican artist reviewed the work the group was doing and liked Martínez’s paintings so much that he invited him to help paint the murals he was undertaking at the University of Guadalajara and Hospicio Cabañas. At the same time, Martínez – despite his age – was much in demand as a teacher and was delighted when the rector of the university gave him carte blanche to start an art school, which prospered and continues to prosper today.
Although Martínez assisted Orozco in many murals, he really loved working in front of an easel and from the 1970s until his death in 2011, he dedicated himself to painting with pyroxylin, an industrial paint. He soon acquired a reputation, and when King Juan Carlos of Spain came to Mexico, the government presented him with a work which Jorge Martínez had painted especially for the king. After that, Martínez was much sought after to paint portraits of politicians.
More than landscapes, Camarena told me, her great uncle enjoyed painting people and especially children.
“Here is where I come into the picture,” she continued. “He needed a model for photographing and painting children. I knew him and I wasn’t camera-shy and I didn’t mind holding a pose for a long time. He even cut my hair in several ways so I would look either like a boy or like a girl. How strange: he was known as the painter of children, yet he never had children of his own. I was the closest he had and I was his great niece. Well, he held his classes here (in this house) and I was simply fascinated by what they were doing with charcoal and chalk, so they would give me some paper and I started drawing and painting and I would offer them for sale. And they would ask me ‘How much for this one?’ and I would say, ‘two pesos’ and I was so happy that people were buying my paintings!”
Pina Camarena went on to elaborate on the character of her great uncle.
“He had received the rather rigid education of his day. He used the formal ‘usted’ with everyone, adult or child, peer or peon. So in one sense he was rather distant and I only got a hug for Christmas and my birthday. Still, he was my favorite person, and I owe my formation, everything, to him. I am so happy he became the ‘grandpa’ of my children, whom he treated with great love.”
Martínez, Camarena said, hated painting competitions because he noticed the judges would often favor friends of their friends and ignore the talents of humble people with no connections.
“An interesting case,” she went on, “is that of Rafael Zamarripa, an excellent painter, sculptor, dancer and choreographer, founder of the University of Guadalajara’s Ballet Folklórico, which gained worldwide fame in the 1960 Olympic Games and focused the world’s attention on Mexico. Rafael was very young when he came to Jorge’s art school and when Jorge saw his love for ballet, he sent him off to Mexico City with Amalia Hernández, founder of the Ballet Folklórico de México. Now, a child from a poor family doesn’t go off to live in the capital just like that, but Jorge spoke to his parents and convinced them their son had great potential and asked them to give permission, so their son could ‘open his wings and fly.’ To this day, Rafael talks about the debt he owes Jorge Martínez, who opened doors for me and made it possible to reach where I am today.”
Wandering through Martínez’s house, discovering the bizarre, the beautiful and the fantastic, not only created by him but by artists from all around the world, was truly a wonderful experience. “This is what an art museum ought to be like, not long corridors filled with paintings all in a row,” I thought. “This is a home filled with love.”
From what I gathered, there is hope that Martínez’s house may indeed open its doors to the public as a formal art museum. I hope that day may not be far away.