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The Charmed World of

Primitive Art by A Mexican Master
By Bea Bender

Innocence, sensitivity and honesty permeate each of Manuel

Lepe's creations. These same qualities are also a part of his
everyday life. His canvases are beautifully decorated surfaces
capturing the minute details of complex urban and country scenes,
swarming with little people at work and play. Each is filled with
stylized palm trees, tropical flowers, birds, butterflies, tile roofed
houses, thatched huts, plazas, churches, burros, dogs, boats, air-
planes but never a hotel or a soft drink sign. "The progress of
civilization takes away so much of the natural beauty and quality of
things," says Lepe. His paintings communicate his deep feelings
for the simple unfettered life of his native village of Puerto Vallarta.
His style demonstrates a strong decorative flair, a vivid sense of
primitive reality. A touch of fantasy gives each of his works a
popular nationalistic appearance. There is a kinship with the
primitive Mexican paintings of his ancestors. One can speculate
that his art form was influenced by the amate paper paintings of the
Huepance Indians: the wellknown folk art on bark paper scrolls with
flowers, animals and scenes of village life mixed with abstract
designs done in bright pigments from tropical flowers, berries and
insects. His unique enchanting style glorifies the exuberant
innocence of childhood. His compositions capture the antics of
boys and girls with innocent smiling faces in a dream world, playing
circle games, riding boats and parachutes, swimming and fishing.
He even gives children the gift of flight; with wings they fly through
the air in and out of his landscapes. Lepe says that he paints
children in his works because it provides a way for him to live the
childhood he never had.

He is particularly noted for this honest treatment of the

children of Mexico and is inclined to be very nationalistic in his
interpretation. "The children are not the same everywhere in
Mexico," says Lepe. "The children of Guadalajara are different from
the Chamula children and the children from Tijuana are different
from the Otomi children." His children are depicted in dress
indigenous to the region of their origin in a background of
corresponding landscapes. Thus, in his scenes of the mountain
town of San Cristobal de las Casas, the children wear huaraches
and flat brimmed hats with colorful streamers, as the beach
children of Vallarta are barefooted.

At times, Lepe handles his pigments with restraint and

delicacy, using pastel blues, pinks, oranges and yellows mixed in
surprising and ingenious combinations. At other times, his colors
seem to explode in vibrant yellows, sharp jungle greens, magentas,
hot pinks, fiery reds and sapphire blues. Free of shadows and
halftones, there is a sense of proportion and a harmony between
the most daring clash of colors. Using a variety of media (oils,
watercolors, acrylics, pastels, limestone) he constructs pictoral
poems and treats the minute details and colors in the form of
superimposed planes without losing the rhythm and balance of the

Lepe was born in 1936 in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, a small

village of fishermen and corn farmers. He began drawing and
painting when he was a young boy. "I was always scribbling and
scratching in my school notebooks. No one ever showed me how. I
was always drawing little figures of people, scenes of daily life and
customs: puebla-like men on burros, women washing clothes in the
river, children enjoying a festive piñata. Wherever I went I would
stop and scribble on candy wrappers or little scraps of found
paper," he reminisces. His schooling was limited to the fourth
grade. Although he won awards and recognition in school for his
outstanding artistic talent, he never received a diploma. The oldest
of twelve brothers and sisters, his education was cut short so that
he could help in the family grocery. His father tried to discourage
his pursuit of an art career, fortunately to no avail.

He sold his first drawings—made on wrapping paper from his

father's store—for as little as twenty to thirty pesos in his early
works, simple biblical characters like Adam and Eve, Noah in the
Ark, Jonah and the whale were interwoven with the little people of
his fantasized paradise in Puerto Vallarta. He says that he has lost
track of how many paintings he has done and that his fame grew
faster than his accumulation of pesos. Commissions from hotels,
restaurants, government agencies and private collectors for his
paintings soon, however, kept him occupied beyond his capacity to
fulfill the demand. Today, with his world-wide reputation, his
originals are worth thousands of dollars and his signed seriographs
sell for hundreds.

While still in his early twenties, Manuel Lepe spent several

years in the Chiapas and Oaxacan mountains, among the Indian
population where he gathered other artist friends around him. When
he returned to Puerto Vallarta, he married and had three children.
His love for his own children can be seen in his painting called
"Laura's children" and others of that period. Later, during a divorce,
he turned to religion for comfort and did an outstanding "Madonna
and Child" series. The mother and child are adorned in rich blue
brocade and white lace with sparkling mirrors and metal flowers
appliqued in the background. Fragments of the design appear
randomly on the border and frame as his enthusiasm spills out over
the picture.

In 1975, Manuel Lepe was designated as Mexico's National

Painter by President Luis Echeverria. The National Council and
Secretaria de Turismo of Mexico have taken great interest in Lepe's
talent. His lithographs, seriographs, posters and pamphlets have
been widely used for national public education in Mexico and for
special promotions in Europe, Africa and Latin America.

Since 1965, Manuel Lepe has had numerous public exhibitions

and private shows in several large cities of the United States,
Canada and Latin America. An important exhibition of 185
canvases was held in 1979 at the California Museum of Science
and Industry in Los Angeles. Recently he has had several
successful one-man shows: Nuevo Laredo Museum, Yolanda
Gallery in Chicago, Galeria Uno in Puerto Vallarta. His last show
was held in 1982 in Seattle to celebrate "Children's Day" for the
benefit of that city's Children's Orthopedic Hospital.

The artistic quality and popular appeal of Lepe's happy art has
enchanted discerning collectors everywhere. His works are in art
collections of world leaders such as former German Chancellor
Willy Brandt, President Fidel Castro of Cuba and the Queen of En-
gland. His canvases hang in many embassies around the world. "In
spite of being profoundly nationalistic, Lepe's work can cross with
ease any frontier and conquer any human being that, like Lepe
himself, is capable of making beauty and truth a part of himself,"
says Jose Luis Meza Inda, Mexican art critic and friend.
Plans and projects for the immediate future are now in abeyance
because of his poor health. Since December 1982, Lepe has
undergone surgery to relieve the effects of a stroke, but with little
improvement. In response to popular demand, Martin Kroll, a New
York art dealer, and Rodrigo Lepe, the artist's brother and
manager, in cooperation with Jan Lavender of Galeria Uno, have
scheduled a retrospective show for the Los Angeles-Southwest
area of the US in the fall of 1983. A folio of seriographs signed in
print depicting the hallmarks of Lepe's artistic endeavors may be
available for the 1984 holiday season. One of the UNICEF Christ-
mas cards this year will be Lepe's "Arbor de Navidad."

CARIBEAN REVIEW vol. XIII. No. 1 winter 1984

Bea Bender is an art critic in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

"Adam y Eva en el Paraiso," oil on canvas with collage of embroidered flowers,

120 x 80 cm
“Rio Cuale,” oil canvas, 100 x 80 cm

"La Gata Feliz," oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. La Iglesia," oil on canvas, 80 x 80cm.
Los Ninos de Manuel by Mexican artist Manuel Lepe (oil on canvas, 80 cm x 80 cm).