San Pedro la Laguna
The Paintings of
Los Hermanos González Chavajay
Mariano & Matías
By Joseph Johnston
Most of the highland Maya of Guatemala live in poverty supporting themselves primarily by subsistence farming. A mediocre Tz’utuhil Maya artist who works diligently can easily earn three times as much as his father does working in the fields. For most Maya youths who want to be artists, the compelling reason is not to become a famous artist expressing their inner souls, but to lift themselves out of poverty.
The three artists who became famous in Guatemala as Los Hermanos Gonzalez Chavajay (the Brothers Gonzalez Chavajay) offer a good example of three different paths artists take with their careers in third world countries. Mariano is the older brother of Matias and cousin once removed from Pedro Rafael, but when the three artists began to work together, their promoter Benjamin Gonzalez (Mariano and Matias’s older brother) decided to present them as brothers rather than explain the complicated relationship. The first Tz’utuhil painter Rafael Gonzalez y Gonzalez is the grandfather of Pedro Rafael and uncle of Mariano and Matias. Both Mariano and Pedro Rafael are the same age but from different generations.
Mariano and Pedro Rafael both stood out in grade school because of their artistic abilities. Pedro Rafael got his start in oil painting while working for his uncle Jose Antonio Gonzalez in Guatemala City. After they found a regular market for their paintings at Sombol, Pedro Rafael invited Mariano to join them. Mariano replaced Pedro Rafael sketching pictures on canvas for Jose Antonio to paint. Pedro Rafael decided he could return to San Pedro while continuing to paint, coming to Guatemala City just to deliver finished paintings to the gallery. For a while longer, Mariano stayed on, gaining proficiency by working with Jose Antonio. When certain of his vocation as an artist, Mariano also returned to San Pedro and persuaded his father to pay for lessons with two of Santiago Atitlán’s best painters, Manuel Reanda and Miguel Chavez. The latter recalls that Mariano exhibited an insatiable interest in learning how the instructor painted. “How do you paint the market at night?” “How do you paint the light from the candles?” Mariano had been concentrating on small detailed paintings, but Manuel Reanda persuaded him to work on large canvases. This change pushed Mariano into his particular area of strength. He is master of the large detailed painting which he executes with confidence and speed, often in a week or two. Many of his best works measure three feet by four.
While Mariano was studying in Santiago Atitlan, his older brother Benjamin was working as a teacher there. Benjamin began taking note of his brother’s ability and decided to promote Mariano’s work. Benjamin was immediately successful with selling Mariano’s paintings. When, with Mariano teaching him, Matias began to paint, Benjamin began buying Matias’s paintings, too. Around 1985 Benjamin decided to quit his teaching job in Santiago Atitlán in order to devote himself to promoting his brothers’ paintings full time. This was a natural job for Benjamin who was a born entrepreneur, and it was his work, coupled with his brothers’ ability, that brought Mariano, Matias, and Pedro Rafael national and international fame. One of his great strokes of genius was to print postcards of his brothers’ paintings. These postcards are now found all over Guatemala.
From around 1985 until about 1990, the Brothers Gonzalez Chavajay enjoyed remarkable success. Benjamin kept their paintings in the public eye, and arranged exhibitions at prestigious venues in Guatemala and Mexico, in other countries in Central America and South America, and even in Japan and the United States. Each year the paintings of the three artists improved, but the seeds of the disintegration of this partnership were already beginning to sprout.
Although Benjamin had an eye for fine paintings, he was equally interested in being able to sell these paintings for a good price. Once a client approached Benjamin saying that he wanted a duplicate of one of Mariano’s paintings that had already been sold. Benjamin tried to get the client to buy another of Mariano’s paintings, but the buyer insisted it was that painting or nothing. Rather than lose a major sale, Benjamin asked Mariano to paint a duplicate from a photograph. Benjamin soon realized that clients would be happier if he had Mariano do the painting without acknowledging that the painting was a copy. Mariano accepted this arrangement because he was very good at duplicating his own work, and it was easier for him to repeat a painting than to compose a new one. In the eyes of the two brothers, the paintings were still originals because they were painted by hand, not mass reproduced. Mariano is a charming man, and it wasn’t long before some clients of Benjamin were approaching Mariano to buy directly from him. Mariano found out he could earn significantly more by selling his paintings directly to those clients, even while asking less than Benjamin did. It was not long before he was painting two identical paintings at the same time, one for Benjamin and one he kept to secretly sell himself. When Benjamin found out that Mariano was undercutting him and selling behind his back, a split developed between the two brothers.
Meanwhile Pedro Rafael and Benjamin, after having worked together successfully for nearly ten years, began having differences. At the request of a client, Benjamin talked a reluctant Pedro Rafael into repeating one of his paintings. While painting the copy, Pedro Rafael did not feel his usual inspiration and was not happy with the result. The client, too, was disappointed, and refused to buy the painting. After that fiasco, Pedro Rafael vowed to never repeat a painting.
At the reception for an exhibition of Los Hermanos Gonzalez Chavajay at an upscale restaurant in Antigua, a woman immediately bought Pedro Rafael’s most spectacular painting, the most expensive in the show. Towards the end of the reception another woman approached Benjamin wanting the same painting. Benjamin, knowing that Pedro Rafael would refuse to make a copy, secretly gave a photograph of the painting to Mariano who finished a close copy before the show came down. Probably nothing would have happened except that the two women were friends, and the original buyer happened to see her painting at her friend’s house. She immediately accused Pedro Rafael of making a copy of the painting she had bought. When Pedro Rafael figured out what happened, he was furious with Benjamin. As a result, Pedro Rafael began to mistrust Benjamin. He also tried to prevent Mariano from seeing his paintings, so they could not be copied. He rightly felt he had put as much work into thinking out the theme and the composition as it would take to paint it. Benjamin began pushing Pedro Rafael to paint more quickly. He was not happy when Pedro Rafael painted themes of poverty or violence. Pedro Rafael, for his part, did not like to paint unless he felt inspired, and being told what to paint did not inspire him.
By this time Benjamin had opened a gallery in Guatemala City. Mariano had done several versions of picking cotton, and they proved very popular. Benjamin had the idea of doing a whole exhibition of paintings of picking cotton. So he approached the three brothers with the idea. Pedro Rafael hated the idea and refused to contribute. Mariano contributed about ten paintings of picking cotton, and Matias about fifteen. When seen all together at the gallery, the paintings looked like knockoffs of each other. Only size and price differentiated one painting from another. At this show the two brothers exposed to the art connoisseurs of Guatemala City their ability to create duplicate versions of the same painting, and their reputations faltered. Benjamin had financially overextended himself on the gallery, and coupled with the failure of this exhibition and his problems with Mariano and Pedro Rafael, he closed his gallery in Guatemala City.
This marked the end of Los Hermanos Gonzalez Chavajay as a cohesive group. Benjamin moved to Tecpán, the hometown of his wife and ancient capital of the Maya in Guatemala, where he opened a gallery in his home, just outside the ancient Maya ruins. Tourists visiting the ruins come to his gallery. Fifteen years later, it is still operating.
With the closing of the gallery in Guatemala City, Matias decided to take his art in a different direction. Unlike his brother Mariano, Matias enjoyed painting small paintings. He was very good at larger paintings, but liked the steadier income he could get from the smaller ones. They were easy to sell and did not take long to paint. While a large painting could take a month to finish, during which time he would not get paid, he could paint ten small paintings in a couple of weeks. While some clients had lost interest in Matias’s paintings because of duplication, the tourist market had no such problem. Tourists, not usually repeat buyers, mainly want paintings as souvenirs of Guatemala rather than fine art. The galleries in Santiago Atitlán, frequented daily by tourists arriving by boat, were happy to buy small paintings. Matias decided that if he taught his wife to paint, together they could form a production team to provide small paintings to the tourist galleries. They would first paint all the backgrounds; then the people, plants and structures; and finally put in the faces and the details of the traje. Each week since the early 1990s, Matias and his wife have painted hundreds of small paintings, nine by eleven inches or smaller, which they sell to the galleries in Santiago Atitlan. The paintings, comprising ten or so themes, are constantly repeated. Paintings of the same theme vary little from each other. To distinguish from the fine original paintings that he still occasionally paints, Matias signs the tourist paintings only Chavajay rather than with his full name Matias Gonzalez Chavajay. To further distinguish, he calls the fine paintings obras originales and the tourist paintings obras comerciales. In spite of his labels, the line has become more blurred because he no longer paints the obras originales as carefully as he did before he started doing production work. This tactic has proved financially successful for Matias and his family. They now have a three-story house and three sons who are well provided for. Benjamin, Mariano and I have all tried to talk Matias into returning to his career as a fine artist, but except for the infrequent painting, he does not appear to want to.
Most of the young Tz’utuhil Maya artists have unfortunately followed in the footsteps of Matias, sacrificing their ability and originality to become little more than artisans producing paintings for the tourist market. Each year the galleries pay a little less, saying that they can get a better price from some new painter who has come along. So each year the artists paint a little more quickly in order to earn the same money. Somewhere along the way the idea of producing a work of art, a thing of beauty, has gotten lost. All that is left is a poorly done product, and like a souvenir given out at a football game, it will soon be discarded. Matias’s small paintings used to take him two or three days each to paint. Now several are produced each day.
While Matias earns his living from small tourist paintings, Mariano has specialized in large paintings. Mariano shamelessly borrows themes and figures from other artists, photographs, and his own paintings, which he often puts together in new ways, creating paintings which number among the most beautiful of the Tz’utuhil Maya painters. Like a collage artist, Mariano creates his paintings out of parts he draws from sources old and new, except that he paints his collage pieces rather than cutting them out of magazines. In the end he creates a seamless whole. For the most part, Mariano’s clients request the themes which he paints, and he always has requests lined up for months in advance. Like Matias, Mariano built a large house from his earnings from painting, and has even sent his daughter to the United States to study, at a time when many Maya families still cannot afford to let their children finish high school. Concerned about his legacy, every couple of years he tackles an important theme, but for the most part he continues repeating new versions of his three favorite themes—picking coffee, picking cotton, and the night market.
While he was teaching his wife to paint, Mariano realized he could put her to work doing the background and repetitive work necessary to do the details of his own paintings. Over the years he has expanded on this idea, and his students regularly help on the paintings he does. Mariano’s first student from San Juan la Laguna, Antonio Coche Mendoza and Antonio’s younger brother Julian, work regularly for him. Mariano developed his studio workshop producing paintings where he chooses the theme, decides on the composition, oversees all the work and puts on final touches, including his signature. In this manner with more than one artist working on each painting, Mariano can paint two or more large paintings a month rather than one every month or two. This only works because Mariano has personally trained all the artists in his studio workshop, and they are trained to paint exactly like he does. Vicenta Puzul de Gonzalez, for example, paints so much like her husband that I cannot tell who did the painting.
These three artists represent three ways a third world artist can use his artistic ability to earn a good living. Matias Gonzalez Chavajay has chosen to leave the world of the creative artist and use his ability to produce endlessly repeated, quickly painted works for the tourist market. Mariano has concentrated on making large, spectacularly beautiful paintings for wealthy clients. Although each one is original in the sense that it is hand painted, his most common themes are repeated or composites of his previous works. Both Matias and Mariano use their wives and other hired artists to help them paint enough works to have a good income. Pedro Rafael, by contrast, earns his living teaching and supplements it as a painter. His work is much more finely painted than that of any other Tz’utuhil artist, and every composition is completely original. He produces at most ten paintings a year, but since he does not need to live off the income from painting, he is able to maintain high personal standards when it comes to art.