Han(n)s Otto Butterlin (or Otto Butterlin as he was usually known, at least in Mexico) was born in Cologne, Germany, 26 Dec 1900 and became an abstract and impressionist painter of some renown.
He was the oldest of the three Butterlin brothers. Otto moved with his middle brother Frederick and their parents (Johannes and Amelie) from Germany to Mexico in 1907. (Otto’s youngest brother Ernesto would be born a decade later in Guadalajara.)
According to his entry in the 1946 edition of Who’s Who in Latin America, Part I – Mexico, Otto was decorated by the German government for service performed during the first world war.
Immediately after the war, Otto studied at the Universities of Bonn, Marburg, and Munich (1918-20) and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (1920-22).
Woodcut by Hanns Otto Butterlin, Ixtaccihuatl (1921)
During his time at the latter institution, he wrote and illustrated a booklet Ixtaccihuatl. Der Azteken Legende vom Berge der schlafenden Frau (Ixtaccihuatl: The Aztec Legend of the Mountain of the Sleeping Woman), published in Berlin in 1921 as a limited edition of 250 copies by Verlag A. R. Meyer. The 14-page “lyrical leaflet” included five original woodcuts (see images).
U.S. immigration records show that Otto Butterlin (5’9″ tall with blond hair and blue eyes) was resident there between August 1924 and October 1929, though he probably made trips to visit family in Mexico during that time.
On 7 June 1929, Otto married Margaret Elaine (Anglin) Dodge (1906-1982) in Alameda, California. Otto’s younger brother Frederick was a witness at the ceremony. It was Otto’s first marriage, and Margaret’s second. Margaret (“Peggy”), aged 23 when she married Otto and described as the “operator of a beauty parlor”, had previously been married to Latham L Dodge (1904-1955). From that marriage, she had a daughter Jacqueline Dodge (born 22 March 1925).
Otto made his living as a chemist and supervisor of operations in various industrial plants for at least 15 years. At the time of the 1930 Mexican census (held on 15 May), he and his wife were living in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, where he was working at the sugar refinery.
Woodcut by Hanns Otto Butterlin, Ixtaccihuatl (1921)
The following year, in 1931 Margaret gave birth to their daughter Rita Elaine in Los Mochis. Rita went on to marry four times. Her first marriage (1951-58) was to one of Otto’s friends – textile artist and silkscreen innovator Jim Tillett (1913-1996) – and her second (1959-1963) to Chilean film star Octavio Señoret Guevara (1924-1990). She was subsequently briefly married (1967-69) to Haskel Bratter, before falling in love with and marrying (1971-his passing) Howard Perkins Taylor (1916-1993).
While Rita was still an infant, Otto decided to formalize his permanent right to residence in Mexico and became a naturalized Mexican citizen in October 1935. Immigration records show that he continued to visit the U.S. several times a year.
It appears to be at about this time that Otto decided to spend more time on his art.
Following the economic calamities of the early 1930s, the U.S. had initiated its Works Progress Administration (WPA; renamed in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration). This was an ambitious “New Deal” agency and employed millions of unemployed, and mostly unskilled, people to carry out public works projects. Hundreds of artists found support from WPA to complete paintings, sculptures and murals, many of which were designed for specific public spaces. A number of these artists, including Otto Butterlin, either had or came to have close connections to the Lake Chapala area.
In Otto’s case, he received the support of WPA to paint “New York City Panorama” (1937). The painting is described by art critic Robert Pincus, in a review of a 2006 exhibition called “Art of the WPA Era From Collections of the San Diego Region”, as a “nightmarish swirl of faces and electric signs”:
“The steep downturn of the American economy turned city streets into huddled masses of people who gathered in soup lines. Many people felt that they were at the mercy of forces beyond their control – forces of a modern, bureaucratic state whose emblem was the city.
This sort of alienation assumed different guises. There is the nightmarish swirl of faces and electric signs in Otto Butterlin’s “New York City Panorama” (1937), more expressionist metaphor than visual document. (He was part of the contingency of artists from Mexico who worked in the United States that included Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco in New York and Alfredo Ramos Martinez in San Diego.)”
By the early 1940s, Otto Butterlin was based in Mexico City and working as an executive in the Bayer chemical company, a position which enabled him to supply several well-known artists of the time, such as A. Amador Lugo (who was epileptic) with needed medications, at a time when they were very hard to obtain.
During this period, Butterlin taught art with, or to, numerous well-known Mexican artists, including Diego Rivera, Ricardo Martinez, José Chávez Morado, Ricardo Martínez and Gunther Gerzso.
In 1941, Otto introduced his friend Gunther Gerzso (a famous set designer who later became a fine painter) to gallery owner Inés Amor. A few years later, in May 1950, Amor arranged Gerzso’s first solo exhibition in the Galería de Arte Mexicano in Mexico City. Gerzso became a famous artist. According to Octavio Paz, Gerzso was one of Latin America’s greatest ever painters, on account of the fact that he, Carlos Mérida and Rufino Tamayo had opposed the “ideologist aesthetic movement into which muralism had degenerated.”
Otto Butterlin had been accorded the honor of his own one-man show at the Galería de Arte Mexicano several years earlier. The exhibition, which lasted from November 1942 to February 1943 featured 32 of Otto’s works, probably including “The Funeral” (now in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art). Otto’s paintings were also exhibited at various locations elsewhere in Mexico, as well as in Germany, Holland, and the U.S.
Hanns Otto Butterlin. The Funeral (ca 1942)
In September 1945, Otto and his wife Peggy, together with daughter Rita, relocated to live in Ajijic. In a 1945 article, Neill James, who had arrived in Ajijic a couple of years earlier, described Otto Butterlin as a “well known expressionist and abstract painter who owns a huerta in Ajijic where he lives with his wife, Peggy, and daughter, Rita.”
Otto Butterlin: Modern Figure Study. 1949
His 1946 Who’s Who entry says he was the author of a “book of poems” but this appears to refer to his much earlier booklet Ixtaccihuatl (1921).
The group of artists exhibiting watercolors in May 1954 in “Galería Arturo Pani D.” in Calle Niza in Mexico City includes a Butterlin (probably Otto) alongside such famous contemporary artists as Raúl Anguiano, Fererico Cantú, Leonora Carrington, Carlos Mérida, Roberto Montenegro, Juan Soriano, Rufino Tamayo and Alfredo Zalce.
Both Otto and brother Ernesto Butterlin were among the 28 artists who had a joint exhibition the following month, June 1954, also in Mexico City, at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes’ Salón de la Plástica Mexicana. Other artists whose work was featured on that occasion include Roberto F. Balbuena, Michael Baxte, Leonora Carrinqton, Enrique Climent, José Feher, Elvira Gascón, Gunther Gerzso and Carlos Mérida.
In October 1954, Otto Butterlin requested permission from the Mexican government to be allowed to accept and use, “without losing his Mexican citizenship”, the “Honor and Merit” decoration awarded to him by the Government of the Republic of Haiti.
Otto Butterlin died in Ajijic on 2 April 1956. An article by Kenneth McCaleb in The Corpus Christi Caller-Times (15 February 1968) offers two alternative explanations, saying that “Otto Butterlin either shot himself or – as some said – was killed by his mistress.”
Note (April 2016): We thank the Registro Civil in Chapala which kindly emailed us a copy of the official death certificate of Otto Butterlin.
Partial list of sources:
- Monica Señoret (Otto Butterlin’s granddaughter), personal communications via email. April 2015.
- Kenneth McCaleb, “Conversation Piece: How To Be an Art Collector”, The Corpus Christi Caller-Times 15 February 1968.
- María Cristina Hernández Escobar. “Gunther Gerzso, The Appearance of the Invisible”. Voices of Mexico. UNAM. n.d. [formerly at http://www.revistascisan.unam.mx/Voices/pdfs/5323.pdf]
- Robert L. Pincus, “WPA captures the soul of a nation”, The San Diego Union-Tribune, 5 February 2006, page F-1.
- Robert Hilton (ed). Who’s Who In Latin America A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Men and Women Of Latin America. Part I – Mexico. (1946)
As always, we would love to receive any comments, corrections or additional information.