Joy Laville, a transplanted English artist born on the Isle of Wight in 1924, died last week in Cuernavaca, Morelos, the state she had made her home for more than three decades.
Restless and bored after World War II, Laville moved to Canada and rushed into a mismatched marriage before quickly realizing her error. While living in an isolated part of British Columbia, she began to develop an interest in Mexico after learning about the murals of Diego Rivera and his movement, and reading works such as Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano.”
In the mid-1950s and divorced from her husband, Laville up and left Canada with her young son to study painting at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende. She took classes for two years and continued to live in the town for the following decade as her style developed and her output and reputation as a painter grew. For a few years in the early 1960s, she hooked up with Swiss artist and teacher Roger von Gunten, who became a major influence on her work, she acknowledged in subsequent years.
Her first solo exhibition in Mexico City was held in 1964. Dozens more would follow over the course of her career, in cities such as New York, New Orleans, Dallas, Washington, Toronto, Paris, London and Barcelona.
After son Trevor was packed off to college in Vancouver, Laville relocated to Mexico City, where she became romantically involved with author Jorge Ibargüengotia. The couple finally married in 1973 and a few years later moved to Paris. She was devastated when her husband was killed in an air accident in Spain in 1983.
Laville returned to Mexico to set up house in Jiutepec, a municipality bordering Cuernavaca. Until her husband’s death, her art had mostly reflected everyday life with a contemplative quality, with self-portraits and landscapes dominating. In the 1960s she generally used darker colors. Starting in the 1970s, she began to use pastels, focusing on blues, pinks and light purples. On her return to Mexico from France, she began to take a keen interest in what happens after death. After then, her work became an evolving diary of her grief and how her loss reshaped how she saw the world. Most of her works during this period of her life show pain rather than pleasure, and often anger and depression.
Her role in the Generación de la Ruptura (Breakaway Generation), which emerged after World War II to end the Mexican Muralist era, has been well documented. Writing in 2006, prominent art critic Teresa de la Conde said Laville’s paintings are “tranquil spaces of solace and solitude,” describing her as “a master of intimate spaces.”
Laville, who has also dabbled in graphics, pastels and sculpture, continued to paint up until her final years, and was recognized by her adopted country with a slew of awards, culminating with the esteemed Bellas Artes medal in 2012 for her life’s work.
Significantly, she always described herself as a Mexican artist, acknowledging that all her influences were from here, as was the development of her talent and evolution of her unique style.