Book Review: Art and Architecture in Mexico
Art and Architecture in Mexico
By James Oles Thames & Hudson/432 pages/$26.95
Reviewed by Ed Voves
If the art of Mexico may be defined with a single word, the best choice would be grandeur. Given the central role of the visual arts in defining the Mexican national character, no other individual term really suffices. Mexican art is very grand, indeed.
James Oles' brilliant work of scholarship, Art and Architecture in Mexico, emphasizes the visionary nature and the self-conscious importance of Mexican art. The sense of its own greatness certainly came early in the development of Mexican art. Oles quotes a poem from 1604, La grandeza mexicana, extolling Mexico as "center of perfection" and "hinge of the world."
This is a trick reference, however. Mexican "grandeur" as praised by the poet, Bernardo de Balbuena, was the grandeur of Mexico City. The country of Mexico did not yet exist, being at that point the jewel of the Spanish colonial realm known as New Spain - which also included the West Indies, most of Central America, Florida, California and the faraway Philippines. Even after Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, the identity crisis was protracted between the Mexican core of the new nation and its diverse, disparate provinces.
Art was often the deciding factor, as Oles shows, in determining the outcome of that struggle. The result of such cultural conflict usually resulted in favor of "official" Mexico. This was a trend dating to the Spanish conquest in 1521 of the powerful state known today at the Aztec Empire. The "Aztecs" called themselves Mexica. In a strange turn of events, the Spanish conquistadors renamed the charred ruins of the great city of the Mexica, Tenochtitlan, after their vanquished adversaries: Mexico City.
From Mexico City, the Spaniards launched what Oles rightly calls "one of the most terrible iconoclastic campaigns in history." After destroying virtually all the art works, religious buildings and manuscripts of the native peoples, the Spanish initiated a vast campaign of church building, the creation of religious paintings and sculptures and, curiously enough, the compilation of manuscripts such as the Codex Mendoza, which preserved the few traces of the native cultures that had survived the bonfires of the conquistadors. It was a huge enterprise and a tremendous success.
This marked the birth of "Mexican Grandeur."
To build their great churches, the Spaniards utilized craftsman from the native peoples, many of whom had fought alongside them against the Aztecs/Mexica. Elements of the suppressed pre-Conquest culture emerged during the process of creating the new social order of the Spanish empire. This can clearly be seen in the facade of the massive, fortress-like church of San Augstín built between 1555 to 1560 in Acolman, an important town a few miles north of Mexico City.
Church of San Augstín, Acolman
St. Augstín was built with stones from a demolished Aztec temple. Around the entry to the church, an intricate facade was carefully constructed with statues of Christian saints positioned among symbols of food carved in the tradition of the native peoples. Oles calls the facade of St. Augstín "an assertion of up-to-date Renaissance sophistication in a truly reborn world."
Oles also raises the question of how the newly baptized native peoples interpreted these details of the church facade. They may have viewed the garlands of sculpted flowers and food - a roasted pig is on display - as symbols of the bounty of Christianity or as recollections of "ritual offerings from the pre-Conquest period."
The Christian clergy who masterminded the "spiritual conquest of Mexico" were astute manipulators of human psychology. The interior decoration of the new churches contained carefully integrated assemblages of statues, paintings and tapestries. Called retablos, these multimedia art works related the themes of Christian theology in a way that the native peoples could appreciate - and ultimately come to understand.
Retablo, Church of Santo Domingo
Retablos, positioned around church altars, often attained staggering dimensions. A particularly imposing example of these retablos was created in 1688-90 by the Mexican artist, Pedro Maldonado, for the church of Santo Domingo in the city of Puebla.
The church architecture and religious art that arose in the valley of Mexico spread throughout the provinces of New Spain as far as California and New Mexico. Local adaptations to suit the culture and climate of these regions were skillfully created.
Church of San José de la Laguna, Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico
The mission church of San José in Laguna, New Mexico, demonstrates the skill and determination to bring the rule of the Spanish crown - boastfully known as the "Planet Kings" - and the Christian religion to remote locations around the world. The stark, austere presence of the church of San José also drives home the survival ability of human spirituality in contrast to the swiftly disintegrating earthly power of "planet kings," whatever their nationality or power base.
The religious paintings that formed part of the retablos of the 1500s to the 1700s gave rise to an influential school of Latin American art. Long dismissed merely as "folk art," paintings with devotional or grandiose historical themes were created on a large scale throughout New Spain. In Mexico, such works were often painted on screens called biombos, an art form that had been imported from Japan on board the celebrated Manila Galleon, which sailed each year across the Pacific Ocean to Acapulco. These colonial era paintings, which Oles analyzes with great insight, fused European art techniques with elements of Native American and local Spanish (or Criollo) cultures to create an emotionally powerful art.
After Mexican independence, the reality of Mexico's vulnerable position in relation to the rest of the western world soon intruded on the proud tradition of la grandeza mexicana. The newly independent nation was rich in land, natural resources and population. But Mexico lacked internal unity and was short of ready cash. It was woefully ill-equipped to begin modern industrialization and - worst of all - was nearly bankrupt in the supply of capable, clear-sighted leaders.
Mexican art during the 1800's is an almost unknown subject in the English-speaking world. Oles' chapters covering this period of Mexican cultural history are therefore of particular interest.
The career of the great landscape painter, José Maria Velasco (1840-1912) is very instructive. Velasco was a gifted student of medicine and science, particularly geology. He was a noteworthy example of the nineteenth century Mexican progressives known as "cientificos."
As an artist, Velasco could match the contemporary American "Sublime" painters like Frederic Edwin Church. Velasco captured the inspiring beauty, diversity and vast scale of the Mexican natural environment, winning wide-spread acclaim and gold medals at international exhibitions such as the one held in Philadelphia in 1876.
Curved Bridge of the Mexican Railway on the Metlac Ravine, 1881. José Maria Velasco
Several of Velasco's landscapes, like Curved Bridge of the Mexican Railway in the Metlac Ravine, painted in 1881, were assertions of Mexico's ongoing campaign of modernization. Once again, there is a problematical element to the use of "Mexico" or "Mexican." The steam engine that Velasco depicts here belonged to the British firm that built and owned this railroad line. Velasco's landscape proclaimed that Mexico had indeed found a place in the modern, industrial world - but also conceded that it did so as an economic colony of Europe and the United States.
Mexico has long prided itself on the racial blending of its main demographic groups. Mestizaje certainly is a hallmark of Mexican society, in contrast to the extreme racism of the United States during much of its history. However, the modernization symbolized by the puffing locomotive in Velasco's painting exacted a crushing human toll of the lowest social classes of Mexico and in 1910, the steam engine exploded.
Printmaker José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) and photographer Agustin Victor Casasola (1874-1938) were the primary artists who documented the Mexican Revolution. Their highly influential work also set the tone for the great cultural renaissance that followed.
More immediately, the prints and photos of Posada and Casasola represent early examples of the misuse of art as propaganda.
Calaveras of the Masses, Number 2, 1910. José Posada
Posada was a political conservative, though he sympathized with the suffering of the Mexican poor. The skeletal "Day of the Dead" figure shown above is in fact a satirical representation of Francisco Madero, who first raised the banner of revolt. Posada died in 1913 before the worst of the fighting. The Vanegas Arroya print shop, where Posada had worked, then reissued this image in support of the Revolution. In time, Posada's image would find a more appropriate theme - as a symbol for the estimated one million Mexicans who were killed or died from starvation or disease during the ten years of bloodshed.
According to Oles, Agustin Casasola took over 2,000 photos and the other photographers who worked for the news agency he founded produced 400,000 negatives. This made the Mexican Revolution the most visually documented conflict of the early twentieth century except for World War I. These images could be easily manipulated, however, making them "as subject to speculation as the most fictive paintings."
Women in the Buenavista Train Station shows a group of bare foot women in 1912, arriving with food parcels. By most accounts they are bringing food to the fighting troops, though which of the contending forces they are supplying is hard to establish.
Women in the Buenavista Train Station, 1912. Archivo Casasola (Gerónimo Hernández)
Eventually, the issue was decided by cropping the women on the right out of the photo, leaving only the dramatically-posed figure on the left who is gripping the handrails. With her intense gaze, this woman became the woman of the Mexican Revolution.
The use and misuse of the works of Posada and Casasola reveal the deep political roots of the next - and most familiar - stage of Mexican art. This was the age of the Mexican muralists, los tres grandes - José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, the photography of Tina Modotti and, of course, the autobiographical paintings of Frida Kahlo. It is the special merit of Oles' treatment of these famous figures that he manages to assert their importance within the actual history of the era, rather than the subsequent mythologizing of it.
Nor does Oles neglect other major artists from these crowded decades of Mexican cultural achievement. Architect Juan O'Gorman, artists like Rufino Tamiyo and Manuel Álvarez Bravo and the enlightened political leader, José Vasconcelos, who guided and supported the great mural projects, all get their due in this exceptionally well balanced narrative.
It was during Mexico's great period of the 1920's and 1930's that the national, "official" Mexico and the Mexico of diverse regional cultures achieved the greatest degree of balance in the nearly five hundred years since the arrival of Cortes and his conquistadors in 1519. Mexico's cultural success during these decades, however, attracted a new European invasion. Political exiles, most notably Leon Trotsky, cultural theorists like André Breton and refugee artists such as Mathias Goeritz chose Mexico as a safe haven and a place for new beginnings.
Bamboo Palace, after 1962. Edward James
The results of this Surrealist "discovery" of Mexico were decidedly mixed. The strange sculpture garden created by the eccentric English artist, Edward James, looks like - and is - an alien structure set down in the lush landscape of Mexico.
The infusion of fresh blood, new ideas and unforeseen challenges to the established identity of Mexico is ultimately for the good of this great nation. Mexico is no longer an intellectual colony of Europe or an appendage of the United States. It is a dynamic, independent cultural force on the global stage and James Oles' book is a masterful summation of how this transformation took place.
Orange Lush I, 1995. Melanie Smith
One of the images in the last chapter of Oles' book is Orange Lush I by Melanie Smith, a British-born artist who represented Mexico at the 2011 Venice Biennale. This, as Oles notes, was "something that would have been unimaginable in the 1950's."
Melanie Smith and other foreign born artists of today, like Francis Alys and Thomas Glassford, have chosen to live and work in Mexico because it is a country no longer entrapped by its past. Their embrace of Mexico is a huge step toward the realization that the Mexican people will become a "cosmic race," as envisioned long-ago by José Vasconcelos.
Mexico the nation - not merely Mexico City - has finally achieved at least part of what was envisioned in the 1604 poem, La grandeza mexicana. If not a "center of perfection," twenty first century Mexico certainly is a "hinge of the world."
Images Courtesy of Thames & Hudson
Introductory Image: Art and Architecture in Mexico, 2013 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson
Church of San Augstín, Acolman (Mexico), façade completed 1560. (page 33) Photo Dr. Charlotte Ekland/www.mexicanarchitecture.org.
Pedro Maldonado and others, main retablo, church of Santo Domingo, Puebla, 1688-90. (page 74) Photo Angelo Hornak/ Alamy
Church of San José de la Laguna, Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, c. 1699. (page 105) Photo LatitudeStock/Alamy
José Maria Velasco, Curved Bridge of the Mexican Railway on the Metlac Ravine, 1881. (page 188) Oil on canvas, 47 5/8 in x 5 ft ¼ in. (121 x 153 cm). Private collection. Photo Arturo Piera.
José Guadalupe Posada, Calaveras of the Masses, Number 2, 1910. (page 225) Etching and letterpress on paper, 16 x 11 5/8 in. (40.5 x 29.5 cm). Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C
Archivo Casasola (Gerónimo Hernández), Women in the Buenavista Train Station, 1912. (page 228) Photograph, from gelatin dry-plate negative, 4 x 5 in. (10 x 12.7 cm). SINAFO-Fototeca Nacional-INAH, Pachuca.
Edward James, Bamboo Palace, after 1962. (p. 311) Xilitla (San Luis Potosí). Reinforced concrete with paint. Photo Amanda Holmes.
Melanie Smith, Orange Lush I, 1995. (p. 389) Plastic objects on wood support, 96 x 48 x 10 in. (244 x 124 x 25.5 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich.