July 4, 2017 / 3:02 AM / 2 years ago

Provocative Mexican artist Jose Luis Cuevas dies aged 83

(Reuters) - Mexican artist Jose Luis Cuevas, who set out to shock a national art scene dominated by mural painters and once even put his own semen into an exhibition, has died at the age of 83.

FILE PHOTO: Mexican drawer, engraver and sculptor Jose Luis Cuevas talks on a cell phone before a news conference at the Pinacoteca of Nuevo Leon in Monterrey, northern Mexico February 24, 2009. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo/File Photo

The government said in a statement Cuevas died on Monday in Mexico City, though the cause was not immediately clear.

Cuevas’ brooding figures graced exhibits from Paris to New York during a career as a painter, sculptor, writer, draftsman and engraver that spanned more than seven decades.

Cultivating the image of a philandering “tomcat”, Cuevas drew on the work of Francisco de Goya and Pablo Picasso, and his depictions of dark, deformed, animal-like figures were a sharp break with the socialist-tinged muralism long popular in Mexico.

Tributes quickly followed news of his death.

“Jose Luis Cuevas will always be remembered as a synonym of liberty, creation and universality,” Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said on Twitter.

Once a leading light of a generation of artists in Mexico known as La Ruptura, or “The Breakaway”, Cuevas had increasingly withdrawn from public life in recent years.

Cuevas was born to a middle-class family in Mexico City on Feb. 26, 1934, on the upper floor of his grandfather’s factory, a setting that he once mused had shaped his path in life.

Turning to art from an early age, Cuevas attended Mexico’s Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado arts school hosting his first exhibit at the age of 14 to a poor reception.

Rheumatic fever kept him confined to bed for two years and he quit school. But he kept at his craft, and as an adolescent drew patients at a mental hospital where his brother worked.

In 1959, he won first prize for drawing at the Sao Paulo Biennale, a regular art exhibition, launching him onto the global stage. Worldwide exhibitions and tours followed.

Cuevas attacked leading 20th century muralists such as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, accusing them of being too close to the government and showing Mexican life from behind a “cactus curtain” as he called it.

Often styling himself as a “gato macho”, or tomcat, his provocative manner earned him lasting enmity from foes and once reportedly led to machine gun fire being directed at his home.

One of his works, the “obscene figure” - a massive, metal statue of a crude humanoid creature on all fours with a leg cocked in the air like a dog marking its territory - caused such a stir in the city of Colima the local government relocated it.

Cuevas’ personal life was no less controversial.

He married his first wife, Bertha Riestra in 1961, but the raffish, handsome Cuevas earned a reputation as a ladies’ man, claiming to have had hundreds of sexual encounters.

He reportedly had four women tattooed with his designs so that his works would grow old with the subjects.

In 1981, Cuevas displayed his semen and an electrocardiogram taken while he was having sex as part of an exhibition called “Signs of Life”.

To accompany the exhibit, Cuevas issued a brochure in which he offered to impregnate any woman who wanted his child, he told Mexican newspaper Reforma in a 2000 interview.

But the Mexican government made him withdraw the brochure on the grounds he was engaging in prostitution, he said.

Editing by Robert Birsel

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