Oscar Fernando Bernal (July 27, 1945) was a painter born in the border city of Nogales, in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. Bernal's mother, Angela Ley was a schoolteacher who encouraged Bernal and his two sisters to develop an array of cultural interests and a love for reading at an early age. Bernal’s mother was the daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman from the state's capital of Hermosillo and one of the casualties of the brutal persecution against the Chinese community, which swept Sonora and other northern Mexican states during the first two decades of the 20th Century. Bernal’s father worked as a customs officer and often had to relocate his family to various cities across the Sonora-Arizona border.
Bernal’s childhood was spent in different towns and at times away from his parents and sister. His father’s tender but quiet nature and his mother's cautious character heavily influenced his developmental years. Bernal's mother was pragmatic and while she placed a great deal of emphasis on education, she also understood the economic realities of pursuing a life in the arts, particularly in Mexico, a country in which the pursuit of the arts was often a privilege reserved for the upper classes of Mexico City rather than the children of public functionaries from one of the most remote territories in the nation. She convinced Bernal to pursue a degree in medicine. Bernal moved to Mexico City and enrolled in the Mexican National Autonomous University (UNAM). Staying with close relatives who took him in, Bernal landed a job as a messenger in the Internal Revenue Office. Bernal’s arrival coincided at a time of rapid cultural change and political turmoil.
He left his studies in medicine after a few semesters and enrolled in art school at La Esmeralda, which at the time proposed the idea of ‘an artists kitchen” where students were encouraged to “cook” so to speak, everything from their own pigments and colors, to their canvases and other materials. La Esmeralda was also an institution where many of the Spanish civil war refugees had found work, bringing with them leftists and anarchist sensibilities and alternative ideas about the arts and education. Under the tutelage of sculptor and painter Francisco Zúñiga, Bernal began to develop his craft and understand the demands and joys of art as a very specialized and fulfilling profession.
It was during his time spent living in Mexico City that Bernal developed a close friendship with the writer Jose Revueltas. In this friendship Bernal found a profound sense of camaraderie, guidance, and political commitment. Revueltas was a complex thinker whose rebellious nature and deep understanding of Marxism put him at odds with the leadership of the Communist Party, the cultural elites, and the Mexican State. As younger generations began questioning the rhetoric of Revolutionary Nationalism utilized by the ruling party (PRI) to legitimize its agenda of economic development, the Mexican State became more repressive and violent.
Bernal became actively involved in the student revolt of 1968, which led to the massacre at Tlateloclo Square on October 2nd of that year. Bernal witnessed the massacre and survived by hiding among the fallen students shot by paramilitary groups and the army. He was picked up by the authorities and jailed along with thousands of other participants. Revueltas was imprisoned and took the blame for the actions of the student leaders who viewed him as a natural leader, a true revolutionary figure and uncompromising creator. Bernal was freed, but his convictions in revolutionary action solidified with the experience.
The year 1968 changed the country and had profound impact on the youth of the nation. It was in the aftermath of the revolt that Bernal married for the first time. Bernal and his cousin Yolanda began to see each other, initially to help each other understand the new place and moment in time they now lived in. They came together with a different set of values and expectations. Eventually they fell in love, married and settled in a tiny studio apartment in the heart of Mexico City’s Chinatown. At the time, Chinatown was a sordid place where brothels, Chinese restaurants, opium dens, prostitutes, police informants and the working classes all coexisted. The couple however challenged in this environment, managed to live a very joyous life, with the ensuing love affair resulting in the birth of Bernal’s son.
Through his friendship with Revueltas, Bernal was able to support himself in a variety of editorial jobs, which included translating American comics. Bernal's wife, Yolanda also became close with the Revueltas family, who helped her land a job at an art gallery. Later during her pregnancy, she supported their income with transcription work. The poet Carlos Eduardo Turon, met the young couple through Revueltas and immediately felt compelled to help them survive. Turon asked Yolanda to transcribe his thesis from home and insisted on paying for the job several times over, asking for small revisions to keep her employed.
These gestures made an otherwise difficult and economically unstable life feel like the romantic life of an artistic couple. Bernal’s wife had been pushed away by her petty bourgeois family and Bernal’s parents were far away and not always able to help. The couple paid for prenatal care and the birth itself with drawings and sketches, which their medical doctor, Arturo Bondenstedt (the son of the actress Rosaura Revueltas) kindly accepted as payment.
The group of young artists from Sonora who had relocated to Mexico City during the late 1960s and early 1970s naturally gravitated towards Bernal. He was charismatic and used humor and sarcasm to mediate social relations. Bernal and this group of Sonora artists whom cultural commentator Carlos Monsivais referred to as the Sonora Five, developed a friendly relationship with the group known as the Infrarealists, whose most well known member is Roberto Bolano. Eventually Bernal bequeathed his small apartment in Chinatown to artists associated with this group.
After the birth of their son, the young couple moved into Bernal's parent's home in Nogales in order to stabilize economically. Driven by the fear of betraying his calling as a painter and the political turmoil still present in the country, Bernal became active in the social and cultural movement taking shape in Hermosillo. Bernal established an exchange of ideas with a group of artists known as Los Azules, which were influenced by the New Left and the global youth culture of the time, shaped by literature, rock music, and psychedelic drugs. The group led a revolt at the state university and took over the campus, establishing independent workshops, reading groups and clashing with right wing student organizations. Bernal was an avid reader of neo-Marxist and Situationist thinkers, feeling a particular affinity for the work of Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord as well as older works by Leon Trotsky.
As a result of his political activities, Bernal was blacklisted and unable to find employment to provide for his family. Knowing that returning to his wife and child at his parents home would surely frustrate his artistic career, Bernal made the decision to leave his family and cross the border to the state of California. This decision resulted in a painful rupture in his life. His marriage to Yolanda was more than a conventional relationship. Breaking up the marriage and leaving his son behind was a difficult decision, but one he felt necessary in order to live what he considered to be an authentic life. He was determined to remain a part of his son’s life. The relationship with his ex-wife would remain tense for many years to come. While he viewed his move to California as an adventure, it also accentuated his sense of perpetual displacement.
Bernal was a cosmopolitan artist who did not feel an affinity for the official narrative and values of Revolutionary Nationalism (the implied legitimacy of the authoritarian nature of the Mexican State along with a hegemonic discourse of what constituted the Mexican experience). Yet, Bernal felt close to his northern Mexican roots and childhood experiences. The constant moving around various border cities of Sonora, his time spent with different relatives in Agua Prieta, Nogales, Benjamin Hill, and Puerto Pensado, shaped him and gave him a sense of being part of the northern experience which was isolated from the center of the nation. At the same time, Bernal had fallen in love with Mexico City and was also critical of some of the provincial and isolationist ideas and practices he found upon returning to Sonora. Bernal had a genuine admiration for the dissident artists and intellectuals that inhabited the Mexican capital where he spent years studying and painting.
Bernal and his close group of friends crossed the border of Tijuana-San Diego with the help of their friend, the curator Victor Samudio, who had introduced him to the Infrarealist poet, Jose Vicente Anaya. Samudio was a student of Herbert Marcuse and soon Bernal and his group of friends began making connections with artistic and political groups with similar political influences. Bernal settled in the San Francisco Bay Area where he began to have modest success with a series of gallery exhibitions and a growing number of collectors. He remarried shortly thereafter to a woman named Deborah Von Gonten, with whom he remained friends until the end of his life. However, it was not until he met Denise Forte, the woman who would become his third wife, that Bernal decided to make California his permanent home and slowly settle into a more stable family life. He combined construction work with intense creative periods in which painting, drawing and exploring sculpture and writing became his only activities. His work began to reflect his interest in thinkers like Nietzsche and Blanchot, and his life long admiration for Goya, Velazquez and Rembrandt. The period starting in the early 1980s is perhaps when his work began to mature into his unmistakable style.
It was also during this time that Bernal developed several friendships that would remain with him until the end of his life. His marriage with Denise provided him with the sense of order and peace that he needed to create freely. Eventually, Bernal and his ex-wife Yolanda agreed to let their son Leon relocate to California with Bernal. He was a father not just to his son, but also to his step daughter, Tierra, whom Denise had at a very young age. However, despite his satisfactory life in California, Bernal wrote, “Let’s imagine someone who has never left his country, nor his home city, someone who still lives in his same home, relating to the same people, becoming a witness to local events, deaths, births, departures and the arrival of new people. Would nostalgia hold any meaning for this person?”
Bernal understood that his sense of nostalgia for Mexico, for his childhood, his younger years, could only exist because of his experience as a migrant. Attempting to return to his country would really mask his desire to return to another time, an era and geography now unavailable to him. Bernal had a series of troubled work relations with representatives who took advantage of his indifference towards money and recognition, but exploited his ceaseless work ethic and energy. During an exceedingly difficult period in which one of his agents tried to steal several works from Bernal through illegal maneuvering, Bernal met Emanuel Volakis. Volakis ran a gallery in the Napa Valley and the two developed a friendly working relationship. Bernal very much appreciated the fact Volakis stood by him and even spent his own money to help Bernal recover his paintings. Volakis remained Bernal’s agent until the end of his life and is now the representative of his estate.
Studio in Berkeley CA. 2016
Bernal died tragically in a motorcycle accident, exactly on the fifth anniversary of the passing of his wife Denise. He was in the midst of a particularly productive creative time in his career. Bernal had left behind many of the doubts, memories and experiences that had stifled his creative output for a few years after the death of Denise. In his work, a purely aesthetic interest coexists with dark humor, subtle political commentary and ghosts from his inner world. His work has been described as "a marriage between Velasquez and Francis Bacon", often utilizing humor to explore dark subjects which point to a rich inner world in which existential questions enter into a dialogue with the specificities of uprootedness, nostalgia, philosophy and mythology.
As his friend and mentor Jose Revueltas once told him,
“Ones work is the dialogue one maintains with our dead friends whom we might, or might not have met”. In one of his journals Bernal wrote, “Unable to find meaning in life we demand it from art. And with good reason, we create art to give life meaning. And thus, “authentic” art must faithfully express that life has no meaning.”
Oscar Leon Bernal, Brooklyn 2019
To the beautiful memory of my dear father in law July 27th, 1945 - 2016.