Mexican Folk Art: La Casa de los Venados

What It Feels Like to Stay at Home All the Time

I am about to take a break from my “Plague Diary” posts to remind myself that, somewhere, something like a normal life still exists. Toward the end of my vacation in Yucatán, I spent several days in Valladolid, home of one of the country’s best private collections of folk art at the Casa de los Venados. I loved the exhibits I saw throughout my trip of folk art. The combination of humor and brilliant color had me won over. Now that I am sitting out the plague in my apartment, sans restaurants, sans libraries, sans movie theaters, sans any humor or brilliant color. (Especially as it has rained all week.)

Dog Cart

Sometimes I feel as if North American culture is deficient, especially in the visual arts. It wasn’t always thus, but somehow I feel that abstract expressionism took all the fun out of painting. Seeing the collection at the Casa de los Venados, on the other hand, made me laugh out loud.

Mermaid


The amazing thing about Mexican folk art is that there is so much of it about and at such reasonable prices. Over several decades, you can have a great collection that might even rival the Casa de los Venados—and have loads of fun doing it.

Mexican Folk Art: Museo de Arte Popular

A Delightful Museum of Mexican Popular Art

I began my vacation staying at the Hotel La Piazetta at Parque de La Mejorada. At first, it didn’t seem there was very much to see in the immediate area—at first glance. Then I noticed a museum at the corner of Calle 50A and Calle 57 dedicated to Mexican folk art. So one morning, I started by visiting the Church of La Mejorada, which was right across the square. Then I waited for the museum to open at 10 am.

Masked Skeleton

On the ground floor was an exhibit of colorful textiles. They were nice, but I was was after something less abstract. My wish was fulfilled by the galleries on the second floor. There they were: all the Posadaesque skeletons, religious themes, and indigenous designs.

You cannot go far in Mexico without running into artesanias created, in many cases, by common people and readily available to yanqui tourists. Sometimes the work is so fine that it takes your breath away.  You can find something like this in parts of the United States, but most of the energy seems to go into antiques.

The Birth of Christ with Shepherds, Angels, and the Magi

It seems that wherever I have traveled in Mexico, I have run into what I regard as clearly identifiable Mexican folk art. Much of the folk art in Yucatán isn’t even particularly Maya: It seems to be more of a pan-Mexican thing.

 

Mexican Folk Art: Alebrijes

Magical Realism—Zapotec Style

At the Casa de Montejo in Mérida, I stumbled onto a special exhibit of Mexican folk art by Jacobo and María Ángeles and their collaborators from the Zapotec town of San Martín Tilcajete in the State of Oaxaca. In general, I think that Mexican folk art is magical, but Jacobo and María are something else. They are known for their sculpted figured known as alebrijes in a series called “Tonas and Nahuales.” According to Wikipedia, “Alebrijes are brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures.”

These particular sculptures are carved from the wood of the copal tree, which is sacred to many Meso-American peoples because it is the source of incense for worship. They are meticulously painted, and various other objects are frequently attached.

Magical Monkey

This was the first of several visits I made to see Mexican folk art in both Mérida and Valladolid. In every case, I was enthralled.

The Ángeles art group has an excellent website which can be accessed here. Of particular interest is a four-minute video in Spanish with English subtitles explaining their method of creating these alebrijes as well as a quick survey of their other activities:

Future posts will describe other works of Mexican folk art that caught my eye.

The Art of Francisco Toledo

Mexican Painter Francisco Toledo (1940-2019)

Reading Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, I was intrigued by the writer’s interview in Oaxaca with artist Francisco Benjamín López Toledo. Looking up his work, I was chagrined to see that he had died just three months ago. It is a pity, because I have not followed Mexican art and artists since the classical trio of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros.

Toledo paintings have a uniquely Mexican feel to them, as if they sprang up from the soil like the prickly agave from which tequila and mezcal are distilled.

Self-Portrait of the Artist

Toledo’s textures are nothing short of amazing. Yet he remains faithful to the forms his work represents. There is no escape in the unadorned, unrepresenting abstract.

Goat (Chivo)

Born in Juchitán, which was recently leveled by several major earthquakes, Toledo was a social activist who threatened to protest naked against the construction of a McDonald’s at the zócalo in Oaxaca. Apparently, the hamburger chain wanted no part of that.

 

Fêtes Galantes

“The Italian Comedians”

Today, Martine and I took the bus to the Getty Center (to avoid paying the $20.00 parking fee). Each time I visit, I make surprising discoveries. Today’s surprise was two paintings by the French Painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). In the 36 years of his life, Watteau combined two themes again and again in his fêtes galantes, both of which figured in paintings on display at the Getty Center.

On one hand, there are theatrical characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte. To serve as contrast, they are usually outdoors in natural settings. According to he museum’s description:

Five comedians have just finished their performance in a verdant park on the outskirts of Paris and look expectantly at their audience. Pierrot, the clown in a baggy white suit, is already holding his hat in his hand, hoping that a few coins might be thrown into it.

Flanking Pierrot are four other performers dressed as characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte, which enjoyed great popularity in 18th-century Paris. Brighella wears a splendid greenish-gold suit and shoulder cape trimmed with black stripes. Mezzetin strums a few chords on his guitar, while Harlequin in a black mask with its horsehair eyebrows and moustache peers over his shoulder. A mock Spanish costume of black velvet with a white ruff identifies the figure on the far right as Scaramouche.

The actors penetrate our world with an intense humanity and vivid reality, far removed from the theatrical artifice and caprice of the stage they have just left.

“The Surprise”

A smaller painting is the same artist’s “The Surprise”:

In a verdant park at sunset, a young woman abandons herself to her tousle-haired companion’s ardent embrace. Coiled up in a pose of centrifugal energy, the impulsive lovers are oblivious to the third figure: Mezzetin, sitting on the same rocky outcrop. Drawn from the theatrical tradition of the commedia dell’arte, this character represents a poignant foil to the couple’s unbridled passion. Introverted and with a melancholy air, he tunes his guitar, knowing that his serenading will mean nothing to the lovers and serve only to heighten his own sense of lonely longing as he gazes upon them. His costume, a rose-coloured jacket and knee-britches slashed with yellow and adorned with blue ribbons as well as a lace ruff and cuffs, is reminiscent of the paintings of Anthony van Dyck. The small dog at lower right, a quotation from Rubens, watches the couple with considerably more appreciation than Mezzetin can muster.

Curiously, both paintings share a sense of sadness. Common to both paintings is the character of Mezzetin, both times strumming on a guitar. In the commedia productions, he plays the part of a schemer and trouble-maker, one who tries to flirt, but frequently comes across as a little creepy in his efforts. He is a frequent subject in Watteau’s paintings, perhaps personifying a kind of talented loneliness.

Spilimbergo

Landscape by Lino Enea Spilimbergo (1896-1964)

I have always thought that the world has never sufficiently appreciated the artists and writers of Argentina. Having paid three visits to that distant country, I have begun to appreciate the artistic vision of its people. This post honors the work of Lino Enea Spilimbergo, the son of Italian immigrants, who was born in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, but for health reasons relocated to the drier province of San Juan in the center of the country.

“Pasaje de San Juan” by the Painter

What draws me to Spilimbergo’s work is that his eye seems to capture much of the wonder that is the Argentine landscape. Though the artists work was by no means limited to landscapes:

“Mujer Sobre Paisaje”

The above picture has both surrealistic and straight landscape elements, incorporating the jungles of northern Argentina with a female nude. Unfortunately, relatively little is written about Spilimbergo’s art on the Internet in English, though I think his work deserves serious study.

 

Three Graces

Roman Fresco from Pompeii of the Three Graces

In many ways, our culture has descended from the Greeks and the Romans. And yet, I think that we are so far removed from them that we no longer react the way that ancient audiences did.

According to the Greeks, the Graces were the daughters of Zeus and Eurynome. They were Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Good Cheer”), and Thalia (“Festivity”), though there were many name variations.

What surprises me most of the above depiction from first century Pompeii is its matter-of-factness. Three young unclothed women, realistically painted, who do not inspire lust but merely exist on their own terms. If you look at Renaissance or later images of the Graces, you will notice they are more beautiful and appealing. I do not think the Roman artist failed in his depiction, but that he rendered them on a different plane altogether.

It is as if they are saying, “It does not matter to us whether or not you find us appealing. We are immortal goddesses, and you are mortal men.”

 

Influence Numero Uno, 1960s Style

R. Crumb Was My Guru in Dem Days

The 1960s were a difficult time for me. I was all set to start graduate school in film history and criticism in September of 1966, when, quite suddenly, I was in a coma at Fairview General Hospital, with my body surrounded by ice to bring my temperature down. It was then that my pituitary tumor decided to make a major incursion on my optic nerve and brain that almost carried me into the next world. Somehow, I struggled back to consciousness, received the last sacraments of the Catholic Church (the aptly named Extreme Unction), and was ready to remove a “cyst” (that’s what the doctor called it) from my pituitary.

Did I even know what the pituitary gland was? Not really. Within a few days, my brain was hinged back to allow a surgical suction device to remove the enlarged and inflamed gland. When later I saw my neurosurgeon and asked how big the tumor was, he answered, “About the size of a grapefruit.”

When I finally made it to Los Angeles after Christmas in 1966, I noticed some changes to my ways of thinking:

  1. I felt that because of my weird ten years of illness that I was, for all intents and purposes, from Mars.
  2. Quite suddenly, I lost my faith in religion.
  3. I found myself with a really weird sense of humor.

Self Portrait of Cartoonist R. Crumb

Since I was now in Los Angeles, I drifted toward certain local influences, such as The Los Angeles Free Press, an underground newspaper that mirrored my own sense of disillusionment. Then I made the discovery of R. Crumb, whose Zap Comics, Fritz the Cat, and other series were required reading. There was Mister Natural, Flakey Foont, and a whole galaxy of characters. Admittedly, there was a lot of misogynistic sexuality, which was a Crumb trademark, but that was the way I was feeling  about myself. It rubbed me the wrong way that women seemed to lie so casually and hurtfully. It was years before I understand that was a defense mechanism from weirdos like me.

Some of Crumb’s Early Misogyny

Oddly, I never outgrew my admiration of Crumb’s work. I no longer accept all of Crumb’s own neuroses and psychoses, but I believe he was a great cartoonist, and that his work will be remembered long after I am gone.

 

Monsters: American vs. Japanese

Mark Nagata’s Kaiju Eyezon

As I promised, I stopped in again at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in downtown L.A. to take a second look at the “Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey Through the World of Japanese Toys” exhibit. (To refresh your memory, the term kaiju refers to Japanese monsters, like Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan.) Looking at the kaiju in the exhibition, I noticed that the Japanese monsters were picturesque, bordering on the cute. Even Eyezon in the above illustration, dangerous as he appears, would probably arouse as much amazement as terror.

Another of Nagata’s Kaiju, an Iridescent Giant Lizard

I keep thinking back to the Ishiro Honda’s Toho horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. There was an element of wonder, which was emphasized by the presence of child actors. Look, for instance, at the cute figurines in the above photo below the giant lizard.

What came to mind as I saw these kaiju was the role of the wrathful deities in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. By being frightened of the wrathful deities in the bardo state following death, the decedent is reborn. Only by not being afraid can the soul attain Nirvana.

Contrast the kaiju with American monsters, whose goal is to frighten the bejeezus out of you, like Boris Karloff in The Mummy below:

Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932)

The aim of American and Western European horror films is to scare you to the maximum extent possible. If you don’t grasp the arms of your theater seatmate, the film is reckoned a failure.

Now maybe if Boris Karloff were iridescent, and children were brought into the picture, we would have something resembling the kaiju figurines I saw at the JANM.

 

Opus Tesellatum

Well-To-Do Young Couple from Pompeii

Many years ago there was an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) of various objects found at Pompeii that had been covered by the ash from Mount Vesuvius. I remember seeing the original of the above mosaic in the exhibit, which looked much better than the illustration above.

According to an article by Mark Cartwright published in 2013:

Mosaics, otherwise known as opus tesellatum, were made with small black, white and coloured squares typically measuring between 0.5 and 1.5 cm but fine details were often rendered using even smaller pieces as little as 1mm in size. These squares (tesserae or tessellae) were cut from materials such as marble, tile, glass, smalto (glass paste), pottery, stone and even shells. A base was first prepared with fresh mortar and the tesserae positioned as close together as possible with any gaps then filled with liquid mortar in a process known as grouting. The whole was then cleaned and polished.

In addition, there were wall paintings from Pompeii, but these dis not impress me greatly. It was as if painting was a kind of poor man’s version of mosaics. What surprised me was that, in so many instances, there were paintings of statues.

Mosaic of Fish and Ducks

There were even some historical mosaics, such as this badly damaged view of Alexander the Great and his army:

Mosaic of Alexander the Great with His Army


In almost every case I have seen, the Roman mosaics were superior to the paintings of the period that I have seen. When one sees the original of one of these mosaics, one is impressed by the vividness of the image and the superiority of the medium. When I see a Pompeii exhibit or attend the Getty Villa, I always end up feeling that, with the end of the Roman Empire, we have lost a great art form.