Saturday, May 18, 2019

Murals: The first Twitter of Mexico?

La Historia de Mexico by Juan O'Gorman
A precursor to our current days of government by tweet may have occurred in Mexico beginning in the 1920s with the murals of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Until recently, I mainly thought these murals were simply large paintings, commissioned by someone with a lot of money.

A Juan O'Gorman mural in the  Biblioteca Pública Federal Gertrudis Bocanegra in Pátzcuaro made me think about murals in a different way: not only because of the inherent quality of the mural but also because I had learned enough about the history of Mexico to ask a few more questions … and I had a good guide who unlocked the mural and stimulated my curiosity.

The land that has come to be known as Mexico has packed a lot of strife and turmoil into its history: long centuries of the rise and fall of indigenous civilizations, both sophisticated and rustic, followed by conquest by a foreign power, a war of independence from that power, a lengthy internal war of revolution, and an ongoing struggle with the greed of foreign interests and the corruption of internal factions. 
Rivera's History of Mexico (Detail) in Mexico City - Palacio Nacional
Orozco's El Hombre en Llamas (Man in Flames) in the Hospicio Cabañas, Guadalajara
Siqueiros's Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros in Mexico City
The name “Mexico” wasn’t used until 1821 and the country officially became the United Mexican States in 1824. In some ways this is a young country, in other ways ancient. In this 500th year since the landing of Cortez, there is a great debate about how to "celebrate" this anniversary ... or whether the right word is even "celebrate" or a more neutral term such as "commemorate."

Murals have been part of Mexico since the time of the Olmecs, and were continued by the Spaniards as part of their efforts to convert the indigenous people to the Catholic Church. However, they became politically important in the 1920s as a way to influence and educate the mostly illiterate population.

The government commissioned murals in important colonial buildings with some basic principles: murals would be available to the public and artists had complete freedom of expression. While content was not dictated, most murals elevate Mexico's indigenous and rural identity.

While I was contemplating O'Gorman's mural, two things struck me:
1. Being a mural painter required not only great artistic talent but also deep understanding of the history and cultural currents of Mexico.
2. Packed into the attractive package of graphic storytelling were a lot of historic truths that might not have been acceptable in words.
When my historian guide, Jaime Hernández, told me about the artist's tragic suicide and that he had carried a vial of uranium with him for years, for when it was "the right time," it made me want to better understand O'Gorman and this mural. 

O'Gorman, brilliant, charismatic, and mercurial, began his career as an architect who developed a close friendship with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and designed their unconventional two-house studio in Mexico City when he was 26. He leapt into the public eye as the founder of functionalist architecture and triumphed when he built 28 public schools on a budget that would have previously built only one.

Just as quickly, he disavowed the movement and switched to painting murals, gaining a major commission at the Mexico City airport. That work was removed soon after because of its anticlerical and antifascist character. Then came the La Historia de Michoacán mural in Pátzcuaro which resulted from his friendship with a rich merchant, philantropist from the United States. 

Probably no one knows what all the symbols represent except the artist, however, there is a brief brochure available at the library and the following explanations came from it, as well as historian Jaime Hernández, and other articles referenced below. One article by Tracy Novinger was particularly helpful and her contributions are marked with a (TN). 

O'Gorman self-portrait with wife.
The mural brochure provides a statement from the artist, translated as:
Years have passed, the centuries and the indios are not defeated
in spite of the conquest putting an end to the best of their population.


has not knocked them down,
nor misery or diseases.
They have not died of hunger.
They have resisted, working in the mines, roads or railways;
they have plowed the land with their hands in order to feed us.

Their treasures were stolen, they saw their temples fall.
They loaded stones on their backs to build churches.

But their resistance is a hidden strength that some day,
when liberated from the chains of oppression,
an art and a culture will continue to exist
like a giant volcano in eruption.
-- Juan O'Gorman

Top level: In the beginning ...

Developed on four levels, the mural begins with the 
two main deities of the Purépecha people: 
the sun and the moon, Huriata and Cutzi respectively, 
who gave life to the plants and watched over the night.
 (Their images are mostly hidden by the support beam.) 
They are joined by the elements of water (a waterspout) 
and fire (a volcano). Legend has it that a waterspout 
created the lakes of Zirahuén, Pátzcuaro and Cuitzeo. 
The region is volcanic and the dormant
El Estribo sits in the middle of this image.

>>Second level: Center right
Noblemen accompany the Purépecha king, carrying shields 
with the Michoacán and Naranxhán coat-of-arms (TN)
while prisoners await their fate.

Detail: mummy buried under a stump signifies 
the culture which has been buried but will return.

Detail: A gallows to execute prisoners taken by the Purépecha 
in their continuous wars with the Aztecs and other tribes. (TN)

>>Second level: far right
Prisoners of war

Detail: Prisoners had the option of life as a slave
or death as a warrior. Death was honorable and the
man with the white blade is offering to die.

>>>Third level: Far left
The shock of the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1519.
Detail: Eréndira (meaning cheerful), Princess of the Purépecha,
made war against the Spanish and taught her people to ride
horses after discovering that horse and rider were not one entity.
(Or such is the legend.) 
When Lázaro Cárdenas was governor of Michoacan, 
he built a house in Pátzcuaro, which he named "La Quinta Eréndira."

Detail: the hooded man represents the Inquisition 
in the new world. This panel shows the garrotte being
tightened around the neck of Tangaxhuán II,
the last king of the Purépecha.

>>>Third level: Center
Nuño de Guzmán, colonial administrator and founder of
several Mexican cities including Guadalajara arrives in
the land of the Purépecha.

Detail: Guzmán's cruel and sadistic treatment of the Indios, 
caused him to be arrested for treason and returned to Spain 
in 1537, where, until his death, he served the king.

>>>Third level: Right
Conquering and destroying a culture.

Detail: After the long journey from Mexico City,
the Spanish arrived in Michoacán, led by Guzmán and 
his deputy Garcia del Pilar, shown in torn clothing.

Detail: The destruction of thousands of years of records
and writings. According to history, the burning of documents
and codices lasted for 15 days and took place 
in the temple of the Aztecs.

Detail: Symbolic monster of brute force without intelligence.
A powerful hand with eyes but no head, venomous snakes;
invasion, power and destruction. 

Detail: Figure of death above a sign that says:
Paradiso de ratas - paradise for rats.

>>>>Fourth Level: Left
On this level, the artist makes himself known and
spells out his views.

Detail: O'Gorman making his statement (shown earlier). 
The buffoon at his feet, smokes and holds a sign that says:
Así es la vida - such is life. 

Detail: The conquerors took everything: gold and wealth,
temples and stores of knowledge, and people, millions
of people who became slaves, 
considered to be beasts to be worked and punished.

Detail: the Spanish Encomendero receiving taxes.
There are two messages in this panel. The bottom one reads:
"The missionary friars defended and baptized the Indians but
did not take away their yoke (of slavery)."

The higher one reads: "Tangaxoan II, last monarch of the 
Purépecha Indians was tortured and killed 
by the ferocious hordes led by (sadistic-vile) Nuño de Guzmán.

Detail: Appearing with corn stalk is Friar Juan Bautista Moya,
remembered with veneration and respect. He appears to be leading
people and children from a cave where they had fled from Guzman.

>>>>Fourth Level: Center
Enter Don Vasco de Quiroga and his grand plan.

Detail: Friar Juan de San Miguel, founder of San Miguel de Allende
and Urapan, appears to be baptizing children
and the elderly while speaking to them in their native language.
The table is filled with regional foods and 
the dog under the table has a sign that says:
“Such is famous human civilization." (TN)

The two kneeling figures represent hypocrites
who do not practice what they preach. (TN) 

Detail: Bishop Quiroga (in red), a hero 
in Michoacán and to the Purépecha people,
created hospitals and a grand plan to help the indigenous people 
based on principles from Sir Thomas More's book Utopia.
However, at the same time, he was layering the Catholic beliefs
over their existing religion and ridding the area 
of their temples and deities. He brought the spinning wheel
to the Purépecha.

>>>>Fourth Level: Right
Side notes from the artist.

Detail: Time divided by a brick wall. In front of it stand 
Generalísimo Don José María Morelos y Pavón, author of the first Mexican constitution and General Emiliano Zapata with his recognizable moustache 
and his slogan “Land and Liberty.” Morelos holds the words:
“Independence and liberty for all the nations of America.” (TN)

Detail:  Doña Gertrudis Bocanegra de Lazo de la Vega, 
La Heroina de Pátzcuaro kneels "giving her blood 
for independence."

Detail: A woman grasps a sickle symbolizing the Mexican revolution 
while peasants lay down their arms to take up farming implements. (TN)

Detail: The last bit from the mural seems to be an aside from the artist: 
"Si es el león como lo pintan algunas veces." I was stumped by this
saying until my friend Cristina Potters, Mexican food expert at
Mexico Cooks, told me it means basically not to judge a book
by its cover and in this case would probably be translated as:

"The lion isn't always the way he's made out to be," 
referring to the indigenous people.


The End

Thanks to Tracy Novinger we have the following information about how this mural came into being:

E. J. Kaufmann a prominent Jewish German-American businessman and philanthropist who also commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece
Fallingwater commissioned this mural from O'Gorman, paying him nine thousand pesos for his year of work.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A wall like no other in Tetela del Monte Cuernavaca

Click here to watch video.
In Tetela del Monte, a pueblo in Cuernavaca, there is a small chapel which was built in 1817, named  Los Tres Reyes Magos. The chapel houses a famous painting, but for many years and with the destruction of the earthquake, the community lost interest in the chapel and the garden that surrounded it.

That changed when John Spencer, a man from England arrived in Cuernavaca. He was an artist and a Catholic and for more than thirty years he worked on the construction of a wall around the chapel. However, it is a unique wall undulating around the chapel. It is a wall of waves, spirals, circles, and surprises and turns the garden into a magical place, home to the annual Día de Los Reyes every January.

I was enchanted by the wall, the garden and the small chapel from the moment I saw it and wanted to find more information about it and John Spencer. Eventually, I found out that Spencer was an artist who appeared penniless and lived like a monk even though his wife had left him a substantial account that he paid little attention to.

When the building he was living in was offered for sale, he decided to see if he had enough money to buy and refurbish it. He did and it now exists in central Cuernavaca as a cultural center.

A friend of Spencer's wrote a long article about Spencer and the cultural center.

John Spencer and the Casona

by John Prigge

In the late fall of 1990, after two years of traveling through India and Pakistan, John Spencer returned to his rented flat at the Casona in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. John had now lived for twenty-three years in rooms on the second story of a building whose ground floor dates back to the 16th century.

He immediately went back to work on The Walls at the Three Kings church in Tetela, which was constructed in the same century. It was at this time, in 1991, that the Institute of Culture of the State of Morelos, headed by Mercedes Iturbe, an admirer of John's work, presented him with a small grant for one year, to acknowledge his many contributions in Morelos. John used all the amount of the grant, and again much more of his own money, on his project in Tetela that was now, with several interruptions, going into its third decade. In a few years, at the age of 69, John would begin an entirely new project.

In April of 1997 John left his flat with books and his rock carvings in his shoulder bag to walk the half block to his favorite cafe for his daily bananas with honey and cafe con leche. This morning he was stopped in his tracks by something new on the facade of his beloved Casona; a For Sale sign. As the usual friends stopped by to join John at the cafe, he mentioned this troubling new development. Who would buy the Casona? Would it become another centro comercial like so many other properties in the last several years in Cuernavaca? And where would he go?

John Spencer did know where he would go if the Casona changed hands and was no longer a block of flats. For the last five years John had divided his weekends between two inspiring and captivating places. One was along the Amacuzac River outside of the town of the same name where he stayed with his dear friends Ana Marsland and Stanley Millet. There he would enjoy the company of his friends, excellent home cooked spuds, John said nobody made them as good as Ana, and long walks along the river where he collected more stones for the carvings he had been creating for thirty years, collectively called Sermons In Stone. These carvings, which took enormous patience and endurance, drilling slowly with electrical grinding tools, became tigers, lions, Jonah's whale, Noah's Ark, zebras, and jaguars. The stone carvings that John didn't give away will soon be on view as part of John Spencer's collection at the Casona Museum.

The weekends that John wasn't imagining jaguars and whales in river stones along the Amacuzac, he would spend in a small monk's cell at the convent in Yautepec overseen by his great friend Father Angel Sanchez. It was this one-room cell that John thought he would go to live in if he had to leave his home of half a lifetime.

But he also began daydreaming about another possibility. John's late wife Elizabeth had left him a small fortune in a portfolio account in England. The only serious money John had ever spent was on his art projects. He had no idea if he had the kind of money it would take to buy the Casona, which in Spanish means the manor. The Casona stands on 1,500 square meters in downtown Cuernavaca. It faces the Cathedral and lies between the historical landmarks of the Borda Garden and the Cortez Palace.

The subject of money tended to embarrass John and he wasn't sure how to approach the owner, Miguel Alatriste, who over the years had also become a friend. So he turned to another friend who, since he had originally met him in the early 1980s as the only American working in a Mexican Bank in Cuernavaca, he thought might advise him on his, to him, wild and outrageous idea of maybe buying the Casona himself.

When contacted over the phone at his residence in Mexico City regarding John's interest, the owner of the Casona, Miguel Alatriste, could not take the idea seriously. That his long-time tenant and friend, who neither owned nor drove a car, had no television, stereo, or hardly any furniture, who dressed in threadbare suits and worn canvas sandals and ate in economical restaurants downtown, had the money to purchase prime real estate in downtown Cuernavaca was so strange and improbable an idea that he politely referred John and his friend to the real estate agents handling the sale.

It wasn't until John Spencer had won the bidding against three other interested parties and was signing the escrow papers at the notary's office less than two months later that the Alatriste family finally realized John was for real. All the sons and daughters of Miguel Alatriste, who had grown up in the Casona with John and were very fond of him, were delighted that the Casona would now go to John. But, at the actual signing of the sale one of the sons turned to John and complained bitterly that he hadn't dealt directly with the family to save the real estate agents commission. John and his friend assured him that they had tried.

For half his life the Casona had been a shelter and nurturing nest for John Spencer's creative imagination. He had pondered and admired the impressive arched two story entrance that ran up a long hallway bordered by 4 meter thick adobe walls built in the 16th century. He had daydreamed and sketched in the garden amidst lush, tall banana plants and mango trees. He had managed a glimpse of old stone columns and capitals hidden behind the plastering and sheet metal doors of the entrance to his apartment.

John Spencer had imagined almost daily the grandeur that could be the Casona if it was liberated from its modern and unsightly construction when it was converted into a block of flats by the previous owner's father in the first half of the 20th century. The senior Alatriste had apparently been so eager to finish the work that when Pre-Columbian artifacts were found on the site, he had them placed into the walls being constructed like so many bricks.Then they were plastered over. This avoided the possibility of INAH stopping the work for archaeological excavations.

Several Pre-Columbian stone figures and 16th century arches, columns, and capitals were rediscovered during John Spencer's restoration project. They will be on exhibit at the Casona Museum, also John soon realized, to his regret, that to do justice to the Casona architecturally, historically, and aesthetically, the other nine renters would not be able to stay on. He, therefore, offered three months free rent and moving expenses to all. Most of the tenants were understanding and took John's generous offer. There were some difficult holdouts, but John's project encompassed the entire structure from the street level hallways and rooms leading up to the garden, to the two floors around the courtyard, and on up to the penthouses on the roof, and so work was never held up.

The Casona had at that time 2,500 square meters of construction of which over half had to go for John to realize his vision of restoring the building to its historical and architectural integrity. The first couple of years of the project were taken up by a massive demolition project and late at night John would sleep over the sound of the countless tons of rubble being hauled out during the only hours that trucks are permitted downtown. The entire restoration project was funded by John Spencer, but he did have the full support of the Public Works Department, which gave him all the necessary permits free of charge, and the permission and grateful approval of the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

By the end of the demolition phase of the project the roof of the Casona had been relieved of the penthouses, which were actually several squalid but very solidly built apartments, and so opened up a breathtaking view of the Cathedral and its gardens to the south and an expansive view of Cuernavaca and the countryside to the east. The garden of the Casona now covered an area four times larger than before.

The stately 16th century hallways on the street level below were cleared of the many rooms that had divided them up into dark, musty rooms. Though John never counted exactly how many apartments the Casona had, he was fond of quoting Giuseppe Di Lampedusa's The Leopard whose Don Fabrizio said a palace of which one knew every room wasn't worth living in. There were easily more than fifty, ranging from cramped one-room flats to large suites. The impressive and inspiring outcome of John Spencer's vision of restoring the Casona has been to give Cuernavaca some twenty different spaces for concerts, exhibitions, workshops, theater, and all types of cultural activities and presentations.

Just as in his art, John Spencer's life was full of fascinating juxtapositions. John was raised in the Church of England but converted to Catholicism in 1955. On even the hottest of days John could be seen walking about semi-tropical Cuernavaca in his threadbare suits and tie, but with canvas sandals on his feet. He often seemed distracted and self-absorbed in his musings on art, but on a trip to England he brought back a Nantucket weather vane in the shape of a 5 foot long whale to a friend who was also fascinated by this mammal. Typically, John left the crate holding the weather vane behind at a train stop in England, and had to backtrack a couple of hours where he luckily retrieved it. John could complain about the price of his coffee with milk going up 5 cents, but he spent liberally on his sculptures for many churches in the area and on his support of young artists in Cuernavaca, like his friends Cisco Jimenez and Angelina Wilimek.

John was a vegetarian who would not eat salads. His diet had everything to do with solidarity with animals and nothing to do with health. For many years John's diet consisted mainly of white bread with processed cheese, french fried potatoes, and ice cream. But John was so devoted to animals that for many years he went out late every night on the streets of Cuernavaca collecting live cockroaches for his two pet tarantulas. And, he once traveled all the way to Los Angeles, California, just to sit next to an acquaintance's pet tiger.

John was a voracious reader and has left hundreds of volumes of books ranging on many subjects for the library of the Casona. But he could also stare for hours on end at a single picture of a butterfly in one of his many books on the insect world. John would quote from memory lines from Shakespeare, Graham Greene, Admiral Nelson, Chesterton, Nabokov, Gaston Bachelard, and Malcolm Lowry to name a few, but once, when his bank in England called to confirm personal information before sending a wire transfer, they suspected him as an imposter because he didn't answer their questions succinctly.

John Spencer lived a very austere life with few possessions and was perfectly content to picture the rest of his life in a monk's cell at the convent in Yautepec, but instead he became the owner of the Casona, whose facade takes up an entire city block in downtown Cuernavaca. After a short illness John Spencer died on March 17, 2005. John left the Casona as a privately owned and operated cultural center and museum to benefit the artistic and intellectual like of Cuernavaca. In 1999 he set up a non-profit foundation Museo la Casona, A.C. to manage the project after his death.

John identified strongly with the old Arab proverb: Never finish to build thy house, and, fittingly, the restoration was not completed at the time of his death. But John left very clear instructions with his friends in the foundation on how to complete his vision. The restoration of the Casona coalesces much of John's ideas on form and space into the architectural work itself. Soon one will be able to wander through the Casona to experience both the historical and architectural aspects of the building he restored and the art of John Spencer himself.

Though he gave away most of his art to friends and acquaintances from all over the world, the Casona Museum will still have a permanent display of many of his sculptures, paintings, sketches, and stone carvings. There are also photographs of his life and works, including The Walls in Tetela, which are only a fifteen minute drive from the Casona. Written into the document that set up John Spencer's foundation Museo la Casona, A.C. is a quote from The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard which always inspired him and will continue to inspire his dream for the Casona, 'We shall experience a house with cosmic roots.’



Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Gifts of Perdido (Being Lost)

I am on my way to Museo de Textil Oaxaca and it is proving not to be where I thought it was. So, I stop in a shady spot where I can see my phone map to unlost my lostness. I see a flash of bright color and something about imagination and suddenly I’m falling down a rabbit hole.

I wander in and my breath catches as I see joyful, childlike paintings on the walls ...


What is this place?

As I wander through the space, deciphering bits and pieces of the graphic explanations, I gather that it is about reading. But, what is it? There are no children here although it is obviously designed to delight the child within.

"There are two types of readers:  
those who carefully pass through a book, 
and those who with equal care 
let the book pass through them. "
-- Douglas Jerrod 

 The only clue I find is the opening sign that says "Proyectos de lectura FAHHO." 

So, off I go into infolandia and find out that FAHHO is the acroynm for Foundation Alfredo Harp Helú Oaxaca, so it is some sort of philanthropic organization. I need to talk with someone.
"The writer is the painter of the voice."
After signing in with security I wind up talking with Edú, who fortunately speaks great English, and find out that this is one of Oaxaca's biggest foundations and one of their focuses is on supporting reading programs with mobile libraries, children's programs and so on.

Universos Imaginados is a temporary exhibit about their programs. Turns out that it is a very big foundation and the office we're in is part of a converted convent that the foundation turned into a cultural center.  It is one of the more unusual conversions I've seen ... antiquity merged with contemporary.

They also created the Museo de Textil Oaxaca ... where I was originally headed ... and a Mexican folk art store called Andares. When folk art was mentioned, I told Edú I was a volunteer with the Feria Maestros del Arte and he immediately suggested that I go talk to Eric Chávez Santiago, the director of Andares and their artisan support program. An hour later I was in a meeting with three people from that program talking about how we might collaborate.

I wonder about this exhibit that drew me in. From an early age, reading expanded my life. Was it this energy of reading that drew me into this specific spot and gave me an interesting day that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't gotten "lost"? The image below speaks to me of the winding path of life and the power of reading.
Triumph! from Universo Imaginados