Luchita Hurtado’s Adventures in Mexico

When painter Luchita Hurtado, who passed away on August 13 at age 99, was a young woman, she traveled around rural Mexico with her husband, Wolfgang Paalen, and lived in Mexico City with a group of Surrealist artists and writers. 

I met Wolfgang Paalen in New York, at the opening of a gallery show of his paintings. He invited me to travel with him to Mexico, to see the big heads that had been discovered in Chiapas. He set it up so that I’d take photographs for an article he would write, which was eventually published in Cahiers d’Art. It was called “The Oldest Faces of the New World.” I remember that particular issue had a Wifredo Lam on the cover. So we went on the trip, and we married a week later. I was young, and the whole experience was very romantic. I was impressed with Paalen’s knowledge; he was half pirate and half professor.

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Luchita Hurtado.

I can’t tell you exactly where we were in this photograph; we visited a lot of places. They were building roads all over the country, and you’d find pre-Columbian artifacts in the dirt. People knew where to take them—usually to a jeweler or a doctor, someone responsible who collected such objects. One time we heard about a piece of Mayan cloth. Another time we went to see a mosaic. There was a dog, and a woman pointed to it and said he had chewed it up! Back then, Chiapas was not very well known. You’d travel there by plane through the mountains, one person at a time. Paalen would go first, and I’d follow. When I arrived he’d be waiting for me with horses.

Paalen and I lived in San Ángel. At that time, it was practically the country. There was a main road, Avenida de los Insurgentes, that led to the center of town. You were on it quite a long time to get to the business part of Mexico City. We lived with the photographer Eva Sulzer, who was in charge of daily things, and also with Paalen’s ex-wife, the poet and painter Alice Rahon, and her partner, Edward Fitzgerald. Paalen was always followed by a group of people. When we married, it was like getting married to the whole group. He had a huge studio, and I had a small room nearby. I was making works on paper with wax crayons and ink, as well as oil paintings. I was always drawing whatever I saw.

Lots of artists and collectors lived in the neighborhood. I remember a big dinner hosted by Miguel Covarrubias, a painter, and his wife, Rosa, a dancer. A dozen people were eating, and she banged on the table, saying: “It took me a week to cook all this, stop eating so fast!” At another gathering, there was a piñata filled with candy for the children. Someone kept pulling the rope so they couldn’t bang it. Diego [Rivera] went and got his gun and shot it down. Can you imagine?

—As told to Leigh Anne Miller

This article appears in May 2019 

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