ANOTHER CURBSIDE ATTRACTION
By Steve VandeGriek ©2013
Photos by Jan Behmer ©2013
Rewarding travel is often the result of being seduced by a tangent you hadn’t anticipated. My wife and I had planned to visit several central Mexican cities – some familiar, some not – with no particular agenda in mind. We were not unexposed to the playful shades of Mexican art – some traditional, some not – but that was the tangent that caught us up and led us on.
Mexico City is home to the most focused museum exhibit you’re ever likely to see. The Museo Mural de Diego Rivera houses one single work of art – the mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central.” The renowned muralist painted it in 1947 on a wall in the Hotel Prado, which an earthquake destroyed in 1985. The wall in question survived and, in 1986, in an engineering coup, the 49 by 13 foot mural was moved to its current location in the tiny museum at the west end of the plaza named in its title.
Standing in the center of the painting is Rivera portrayed as a child dressed for a Sunday afternoon outing in the park. Next to him is an adult Frida Kahlo, the famed artist who was his wife at the time, and a Catrina – a female skeleton dressed in pre-revolutionary costume. The three figures are surrounded by more than one hundred historical Mexican personalities from a four hundred year span, all posing for a group portrait in the park. Other than the mural itself, the only structures in the room are two charts, one in Spanish, one in English, helpfully identifying all these personalities. The mural virtually vibrates with color and movement and emotion, all in a delightful fit of whimsy.
We were there on a Sunday morning in mid-summer and only two other people showed up during the hour we spent walking back and forth along the length of the huge painting. Don’t even try to get the whole thing into a photo. You can buy an excellent 36 by 12 inch print at the ticket counter for about fifteen bucks.
One more fun note about the mural. The original did not include Frida Kahlo, as they were having a marital dispute at the time. This according to the very eager and informative docent in attendance that morning. He told us that Kahlo apparently complained about the omission and Rivera relented and squeezed her in.
There are dozens of museums in Mexico City, from tiny to massive, and from curious to thunderous. The Museum of Anthropology is as exhaustive and well curated as any museum of its kind in the world. But we’re on a whimsical tour which takes us instead from the Rivera mural to the nearby Museo de Arte Popular. This is a collection of indigenous folk art from the eighteenth century to the present and from all over the country. The collection is wonderfully presented, with instructive videos and bilingual annotations.
There are traditional ceramics and weavings, old effigies and icons, baskets and tree of life clay sculptures. But what gives this museum its quirky kick is its contemporary take on the traditional art of folk. There are an estimated eight million artisans currently at work in Mexico, and some of the most mischievously creative of them are on display here. There are droll and kinky Chiapan carnival masks. There is an astonishing complement of the ubiquitous smiling wooden Day of the Dead skeleton figures, from miniatures on carousels and ferris wheels to life-sized versions in all kinds of professional garb. And the place teems with alebrijes – fancifully crafted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, tucked into nooks and hanging from the ceiling. They are a fusion of actual and mythical critters in all shapes and sizes and in a dazzling array of vivid colors. The museum hosts temporary exhibits and special events throughout the year. Every autumn there is a pinata contest. The competition is open to the public and the three winning entries become part of the museum’s permanent collection.
An hour south of Mexico City is Cuernavaca, a pleasant escape from the busy capital. Among its many charms you will find the Museo Casa Robert Brady. It is not a museum in the strictly structural sense, but a rambling jewel of an estate. The lush grounds surround what was built as a convent in the sixteenth century. It was purchased by one Robert Brady in the 1960’s. This Iowa born socialite and adventurer traveled the globe for decades, assembling a maniacally diverse collection of kitsch. He crammed more than thirteen hundred pieces into every nook and cranny of this serpentine succession of small rooms. African masks hang in profusion. There is a Rivera self-portrait painted for Brady. There are pre-hispanic artifacts galore, and humorous and erotic pieces of sculpture from every continent. Frida Kahlos hang on the walls among samples of Brady’s own work. The kitchen and dining room are filled with pieces devoted to the patron saint of cooks. Even the bathrooms are crammed with oddball art. The effect is tumultuous and a lot of fun.
When you’re done wandering through this rambling riot, walk a few blocks to the Restaurant Indio Bonita, where we sat in a garden and ate the most exquisite chili relleno I’ve ever tasted.
A couple hours northeast of Cuernavaca lies Puebla, as charming a city as there is in Mexico. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is full of churches, at least a dozen of which can be seen from the rooftop garden restaurant of the Museo Amparo, the most impressive museum in Puebla. I think I actually counted thirteen. The Amparo holds an enormous array of colonial and pre-hispanic art and artifacts.
But while we’re in Puebla, we’re persisting in our whimsy walk and heading for the Museo Poblano de Arte. Open since 1999, it is housed in a sixteenth century building that was once the Hospital de San Pedro. The building was restored in 1998 prior to the museum’s opening. There are three galleries surrounding a large courtyard. One gallery is used for temporary exhibits of Mexican art from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Another holds a permanent exhibit referencing the hospital’s history and that of the remarkable building. Standing in the courtyard amid the galleries is a treat in itself. The third gallery hosts temporary exhibits of contemporary Mexican art. That’s where the whimsy was during our visit. In this gallery were dozens upon dozens of glass cases filled with groups of large marionettes in all manner of occupational dress. Students and soldiers, doctors and bullfighters, singers and sinners, all with an obvious devil-may-care air about them.
Puebla is the original source of sauce – Mole Poblano sauce – that distinctive chili/chocolate accompaniment to all manner of meats. You can try its many complex variations in restaurants all over the city. And a fun sort of roadside attraction is a small museum in the Convento Santa Rosa, filled with the original utensils, plates, tiles, vats, and recipes used by the nuns who invented the magical stuff.
The beautiful smaller city of Zacatecas is a bit further afield – a quick flight or several hours drive north of Mexico City – but worth every mile of the trip. It is an old silver mining center, a UNESCO World Heritage site set at the foot of a craggy hill. Parks, gardens and plazas maintain a sense of peace. The eighteenth century pink stone cathedral is a marvel. Colonial architecture abounds. There is a cable car to the top of the high hill, affording panoramic views of the city and its arid surroundings.
We visited in early August during Zacatecas’ annual two-week International Folk Festival of Music and Dance. Sort of a museum on the go. Indigenous Mexican tribes and dozens of troupes from all over the globe perform in native costumes day and night at outdoor venues around the city.
There are several exquisite museums here. For our off beat purposes, we went first to the Museo Rafael Coronel, housed on the grounds of a sixteenth century convent purchased by Señor Coronel and now maintained by his estate. A jumble of paths through wild vegetation and crumbling stone ruins surround the sprawling museum.
The collection contains several large paintings by Coronel himself, and the vast array of folk art he amassed. Pottery, puppets, ancient musical instruments, pre-hispanic artifacts are everywhere. One room contains a series of sketches by Coronel’s wife, Ruth, a daughter of the great Rivera.
But the real mind bender here is a collection of ceremonial and ritualistic masks – more than three thousand strong – from all over Mexico. The walls of room after room are literally papered with the things, and there are supposedly eight thousand more in storage waiting their turn. The masks exhibit an emotional range from giddy to ghostly. A riot of pigs, goats, devils and phantoms grin and growl at you everywhere you turn. This is a real immersion in diversion.
We finish this quest for quirk at the Museo Zacatecano, which set up shop in the recently renovated Casa de Moneda, formerly Mexico’s second largest mint. One exhibit displays coins and coin making machinery from this previous incarnation. The rest of the place holds a strange – and, yes, whimsical – mix of all things Zacatecan. There is a room dedicated to the pianist Manuel Ponce, one of Mexico’s finest composers. The tiny room contains his piano and his fedora. There are large halls filled with furniture and costumes and artifacts from all periods of the city’s history, arranged among text boards and video guides dispensing all you’ll ever need to know about them. Another space is devoted to Revolutionary memorabilia. One wing is a Rivera-sized mural, depicting the city’s chronologically arranged landmark events.
But perhaps the most arresting exhibit here is the Mexican Mystical Tour that is the gallery of Huichol art. A knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide took us through this collection of peyote inspired works by this indigenous tribe. Peyote is a small cactus native to Mexico. Its stem produces small button shaped nodules containing mescaline which are used as a hallucinogen. The Huichol Indians have been ingesting peyote for thousands of years, and in modern times have a governmental dispensation allowing them use of the otherwise illegal substance. Peyote is deeply woven into their culture – its religion, medicine, and art. The mystical state of mind induced by the drug inspires the very distinctive Huichol artisanship. The craft involved is passed from generation to generation. The visionary result is stunning. Jewelry, masks, beadwork, sculpture, tapestries are all peyote inspired and painstakingly crafted. Yarn painting, a comparatively recent genre, is a visually spectacular application of wool or acrylic onto a board covered with softened wax. The images realized in the work portray legends and events from the mythology that informs every aspect of Huichol life. Shamans and gods and all manner of animals interact to confirm the Huichol sense of the link among all things in the universe. The art is intricate and detailed, and incredibly vivid. And while you can’t see it from a peyote perspective, the exhibit contains a large concave glass panel through which you can get a suitably distorted view – Huichol style.
This brief look at the whimsical side of Mexican art only skims the surface, but any of these museums is a good place to start. Most allow some degree of photo taking, all are inexpensive and some free to visitors of a certain age. If you begin in Mexico City, the rest of this itinerary is easily achieved by car or bus. Mexico’s national first class bus system is comprehensive, efficient and inexpensive. The buses are comfortable – they all have facilities and show movies on overhead monitors – and they run on time. If you go by car, major highways connect all these cities and are very driveable. We ended our trip in Zacatecas, where the airport has regular flights to Dallas and connections home. If you make the stop in Cuernavaca, don’t forget that chili relleno. No whimsy intended.