Aurora Gil was born in La Coruña, Spain, in 1919. Her teenage years and early adulthood were shaped by the horrors of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). After the war she studied painting in Barcelona and later emigrated to Mexico, where she painted for a living, eventually becoming an icon of Mexican calendar art and one of the most influential painters of her time. She challenged gender clichés with persistence and talent. Later in life she established an influential painting academy which spawned a whole generation of artists. Best known for her marvelous calendar art, Gil also created captivating pastels and oil paintings which until recently had been widely unseen by the public. Her calendar lithographs and oil paintings reside at the Soumaya museum located in Mexico City.
Early Life and Education
Born November 5th, 1919, Aurora Gil Bao spent the first five years of her life in Spain. Then, her family emigrated to Mexico where she lived and attended school for twelve years. At the age of 17, however, the family returned to Spain in search of better opportunities. The timing turned out to be unfortunate, as the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) broke out only a few months after the family’s arrival in Barcelona. Conflict between Republicans and Nationalists tore the country apart and eventually resulted in General Franco’s dictatorship. The horrors of this war were famously portayed by Picasso in his iconic Guernica, painted in 1937. The young Aurora Gil was directly affected by the terror and deprivations of war. She worked as a nurse, first in a psychiatric hospital and later on for the Red Cross.
After the war, Gil attended the renowned Escuela Superior de Bellas Artes de San Jorge (School of Fine Arts of San Jorge) in Barcelona, where she graduated as Professor of Art in 1947. A number of famous artists, including Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Damià Campeny, Marià Fortuny, Pau Gargallo, Josep Llimona, Isidre Nonell, and Modest Urgell attended the same institution. Upon completing her studies, Aurora found herself living in a dilapidated Spain. With scarce food and no work available she, like so many other Spaniards, was forced to emigrate. In 1948, at the age of twenty nine, Gil made the long journey to Mexico. At the time her sister Carmen, who had emigrated to Mexico earlier, was established in Toluca where she and her husband ran a jewelry store. Aurora worked with them for some time and later on met Pedro Figueras Rocabruna, a fellow Spaniard, whom she married in May of 1953.
One day Gil came across a job posting for graphic artists in the local newspaper. The job was advertised by various printing companies and included was the large department store Galas de México. Gil applied for the position, but was not granted an interview because this type of work was considered suitable for men only. The head of the art department at Galas de México explained this but added that, instead of hiring her, they could buy her work as long as her signature was not on the paintings. For months, Gil produced calendar pieces for the company as an anoynmous freelance artist. She was not easily deterred and seeked an interview with Don Santiago Galas, owner of the company. For the interview, Gil brought along a work to demonstrate her ability; a stunning oil painting of a pin-up girl holding a transparent hat flirtatiously over her semi-nude body. Santiago Galas hired Gil on the spot, and thus she became the first female artist employed by the company. The piece has since become one of Gil’s most iconic works, and to this day hangs at the Soumaya Museum in Plaza Loreto. She went on to produce a plethora of works for Galas’ calendars dealing with a vast array of subjects from the mundane to the fantastical. These included household scenes, seductive women, everyday family settings, children playing, and romanticized pre-Hispanic scenes. Her employment at Galas de México lasted three years and was followed by another eight years working for Miguel Galas, son to Don Santiago. Aurora Gil was the first female artist to be formally hired by Galas de México and her characteristic signature “AGil” did not give up her first name, thus allowing her artwork to speak for itself regardless of gender.
The calendar art produced in Mexico during the 50s was of immense importance in addition to being a feast for the eye. Calendars were everywhere. They hung in households, offices, workshops, stores, post offices, shoe-shiner stands, and restaurants. As precursors to modern day publicity these calendars incorporated publicity for cigarettes, soda, candy, and medicines, alongside intricate drawings with fantastical scenes depicting family life, romance, and comedy.
Outside of the realm of calendar art, Gil also produced a large collection of exquisite still-life, landscape, and portraiture works. These uncover her sensibilities of wonder as an artist and nurturer as well as reflecting the cross-cultural experience of her lifetime.
A curious and innovative artist, she did not limit her work to one medium or technique. Instead, she delighted in experimenting with different techniques, such as oil on canvas, pastel on fabriano paper, pastel on amate, and charcoal on paper. Gil also ventured into less common techniques such as engravings on metal. A versatile artist, she could easily pass from very refined and detailed oil paintings to pastels with impressionistic brush strokes.
In the late 50’s Gil’s husband, Pedro Figueras, became interested in photography. During family trips around Mexico he photographed the everyday scenes of the indigenous people he encountered. After her husband’s death in December of 1978 Gil translated many of these photographs into pastels, resulting in a stunning series of colorful Mexican scenes. This collection includes scenes from the market, mothers with their children, artisans, and vendors of hats, pottery, and flowers. The subjects come alive with the brilliant colors of Mexico’s folklore.
Gil believed that, although having a knack for color was important, a true artist must also have complete mastery of drawing, formal instruction, and a certain “gift” in order to create art. She held the work of Francisco Zúñiga, a Costa Rican born artist, in high esteem. Some of Gil’s pastels started emulating Zúñiga’s distinctive style of soft colors and rounded women. She then went on to develop her own style and produced some of her most stunning pieces.
In an interview granted to the Soumaya Museum, Gil commended the works of Jesús de la Helguera, Eduardo Cataño, José Bribiesca, and Jamie Sadurní. Gil deemed them as some of the most prominent calendar artists of the time.
In her later years, already an accomplished and recognized artist, Gil went on to establish a studio where she taught painting to groups and individuals. Her academy inspired a whole generation of artists that followed her school of painting. Although many works from Gil’s calendar period have been lost over the years, a great number of pieces were recovered by the Soumaya Museum. They have been conserved and can be viewed as part of the permanent exhibition Mexican Calendar Art, at the museum’s Plaza Loreto located in Mexico City. A portrait of the king and queen of Spain hangs at La Casa de España in Merida, Yucatán. Another portrait by Gil hangs at the Casino Español in Mexico City, but can only be viewed with special permission. Most of Gil’s other work is preserved in private collections, including that of her son, Eduardo Figueras Gil who resides in Corpus Christi, Texas. Aurora Gil passed away on September 19th, 2008. A woman of great character and a superb artist, her memory lives on through the precious works of art she created.