Roberto Montenegro

La primera dama, 1942

Oleo / cartón
27.3 x 36 cm

Painted two years after Roberto Montenegro exhibited in the Exposición Internacional del Surrealismo at the Galería de Arte Mexicano, The First Lady illustrates the artist’s affinity for the fantastic and ironic aspects of surrealism. Montenegro depicts a haughty woman who stares out at the viewer as she sits on a wooden box containing the sculpted bust of a smiling girl. The subject’s evening gown, shoes, and gloves, her angular, European features, and her heavy makeup and carefully coiffed hair all mark her as a member of the upper class. Her decadent elegance recalls the art nouveau-influenced female figures that Montenegro depicted in the 1910s. The woman occupies an enigmatic space – a gray stone or plaster room, with an enormous window looking out onto a mountainous landscape and open sky. Montenegro had experience as a set designer, and it seems we are viewing a stage set featuring a first lady of the theater, rather than a political first lady; if a portrait, however, her identity has been lost. In the landscape beyond, a young campesino flies a kite. Another reaches up and grasps a cloud, which appears to be cut out of cardboard, particularly suggestive of a theatrical setting. A young woman carrying a baby in a rebozo peers in, smiling at the older woman as if amused by the scene before her. Scattered in the foreground are objects symbolic of the subject’s vanity– a rose, an evening bag, an open book, a hand mirror, and a letter. Montenegro contrasts interior and exterior space and the indigenous poor with European culture rich in this cryptic and amusing image. He comments ironically on the vanity of an aging woman as well as on issues class and race in Mexico and, perhaps, on theatrical life. He addressed these themes in other paintings: in Woman in the Window [Mujer en la ventana] (1940), The First Lady, and other works of the 1940s, Montenegro placed figures in enigmatic settings, creating provocative images that incorporated elements of surrealism: surprise, juxtaposition, and incongruity.

Vide Courtney Gilbert, Arte moderno de México. Colección Andrés Blaisten. Mexico, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2005.

More of this artist

Roberto Montenegro. Fondo Jonh y Marie Plakos Fund

Francisco Díaz de León Fund