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A Master at Work : Mexican Artist Is Proud to Acknowledge That He Is Out of Step With His Time

December 17, 1987|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

Mexican artist Manuel Munoz Olivares, who is showing 48 works at the Carnegie Cultural Arts Center in Oxnard through Jan. 16, sees himself as painting's equivalent of a great operatic tenor in an age of music videos.

"There are Michael Jacksons by the thousands," Olivares explained, "but there are few Pavarottis."

The 62-year-old painter is one of a handful of official artists to the Mexican presidency. He considers himself a master in the old school--long before impressionism, expressionism or any other ism .

To him, there is no such thing as a modern master. Contemporary artists "lack study." Their work is a misguided attempt at simplification.

"Everybody wants to work quickly to earn money," he groused on a recent visit to publicize the exhibition that is the first event sponsored by the Consulate General of Mexico since it opened an office last fall in Oxnard.

Schooled in Florence and Paris, Olivares still practices by reproducing miniatures of the great works that for centuries have served as models for classical artists throughout the world.

In his paintings, sharp contrasts between light and shadow carve out the minute details that were the joy of the Dutch masters--weathered skin, knobby hands, homespun fabrics. Latin beauties with wild hair and big brown eyes exude an idealized glow. And an allegory or simple moral lurks in most canvases.

A painting called "Uncertainty," for instance, depicts a leathery old man who stares ahead with a perplexed expression while children play in the grass behind him. The man, Olivares explained, is the children's grandfather.

"The uncertainty is what will become of these children because he's too poor to afford the proper education for them," Olivares said.

The state portrait, flattering and dignified, is Olivares' staple. But the comfortingly quotidian--the chocolate vendor with cherubic features, the farmer wiping sweat from his deeply furrowed brow, the lovely campesina toting a basket of vegetables, that romantically twisting cobblestone street--is his first love.

These everyday values, he believes, place him firmly among "the last of the academicians," those artists who spent their life honing their craft with a steady eye on realistic representation, building on techniques forged by predecessors instead of casting them aside for more contemporary visions.

It also has opened him up to criticism. "Many say, 'This is out of its time,' " he said, "or 'I prefer Picasso or Dali, not something that looks like a photograph.' "

But Olivares, a stout man who battles unruly curls at an age when most men wish they could, wears this criticism as a badge of honor.

"Out of step with my time?" he asked. "Of course! The voice of Caruso, of Pavarotti, of Placido Domingo is out of step with our time because there is no one to write opera and only four or five in the world who can sing it. To sing opera you need years of study. Those who simplify and leave behind academia and the teachings of the ages are common."

Olivares began his years of schooling under a minor muralist commissioned by the state to cover the walls of his junior high school with allegories about education. The son of a merchant with no evident artistic talents, Olivares blossomed, tapping, he now suspects, into an age-old well.

"Possibly," he said, "in another life I was Italian like Tiepolo or Veronese."

He briefly attended the prestigious Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City on a state scholarship arranged by a local politician, but when the politician left office, so went the scholarship. Olivares returned in 1953 to resume his studies under the muralist, Manuel Guillermo Lourdes.

But it was not until he painted a portrait of Adolfo Lopez Mateos, then a presidential candidate, in the late 1950s that he hit his stride. A local politician presented it to the candidate when he visited Olivares' hometown of Torreon during a campaign swing. Lopez Mateos invited the young artist to look him up when he got to the presidential palace.

Olivares said he did not find the courage to take up Lopez Mateos on his offer, however, until 1964. He won a contest to paint the best portrait of First Lady Elba Samano de Lopez Mateo for a school that Mexico was building for Chile after a devastating earthquake.

Soon Olivares was a painter to the office of the presidency of Mexico, a job that does not come with a fixed salary but rather commissions for work actually sold to the president of the day, he said.

By that time, however, Thomas Mann, then U.S. ambassador to Mexico, had noticed a magazine cover that Olivares had painted of Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy and commissioned him to do their portrait. Lopez Mateos ended up giving the portrait to the United States on behalf of Mexico and today it hangs in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

After Kennedy's assassination, Lopez Mateos commissioned Olivares to paint Lyndon B. Johnson. Lopez Mateos' successor, Gustavo Daiz Ordaz, commissioned another portrait of Johnson and one of Lady Bird Johnson.

In the intervening years, Olivares has painted five Mexican presidents, some as many as eight times, and several heads of state from other countries. The portraits, rendered from colored photographs often with the benefit of only a quick look at the subject in person, serve as gifts of the state, often to foreign dignitaries charmed by Olivares' scenes of daily life in Mexico.

Reproductions of Olivares' most recent state portrait show King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia as softly and sympathetically painted as an advertisement for Breck Shampoo.

But it is the simple people who capture the artist's imagination.

"I respect presidents but they only last six years and then they're gone," he explained. "The people of the pueblo, they are forever."

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