The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 18, 2003
'Art and Soul

Images from the Mexican cultural tapestry
B. N. Goswamy

Portrait of a lady by Miguel de Herrera (1782)
Portrait of a lady by 
Miguel de Herrera (1782)

FOR most of us in our part of the world, Mexico is – one says this with much regret – a nearly closed book. Those ancient cultures that one reads about – the Olmec, the Mayan, the Toltec, the Aztec – remain for the most part mere names, tantalising in the visions they evoke, but much too far. There might be some awareness here of what came in the wake of the Spanish discovery and conquest of the land in the early 16th century (roughly the same period when the Mughals rode upon their sleek and triumphant steeds into India), but very little of it truly registers on our minds. The influence that some of the great Mexican muralists of the last century – Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros – exercised upon some of our own artists, Satish Gujral among them, might summon to the mind a few images, but what makes up the tapestry of Mexican culture, that maze of people and their faiths and patterns, is little known to us. To be honest, the land is a large and noisy blur in our awareness, somewhere far in the distance.

For me personally, however, some of this changed when I recently saw the splendidly conceived and finely mounted show, "The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico: Treasures from the Museo Franz Mayer", at the San Diego Museum of Art. For, it is a show not so much about objects as about a whole, glittering period of Mexican history. To be certain there are objects here: paintings and sculpted icons, furniture and ceramics, silver and gold and textiles. And they bring to life, as much through their fine quality as their range, an age in which "Mexico City was a bridge between two worlds", where the wealthy could acquire the finest in household goods: "colourful silks from China, German writing cases, Oriental marble carvings, Spanish carpets, Chinese screens, Flemish lace, Spanish brocade and Italian damask ...." One catches a glimpse of the kinds of goods that, for 300 years, viceregal society revelled in and celebrated, with cargoes disgorged year after year by the treasure fleets that sailed from Spain, and the galleons that made their way to these shores from the Philippines. But, beyond that, what one picks up in this show is the texture of that society, the temper of those times. The names of all those viceroys and their entourage, of the fine ladies and the plumed gentlemen of that age, may not stay in the mind for long, but the images will.


When cultural property is a casualty of war
May 4, 2003

North-eastern lights
April 20, 2003

The horrors of war
April 6, 2003

Masks, make-up & entertainment
March 23, 2003

The axis of Eros
March 9, 2003
Subversive and restless
March 2, 2003
Should cultural property be returned?
February 9, 2003
Art in the times of war
January 12, 2003
The world of art sales
December 29, 2002
Caught in a time warp
December 15, 2002
Crafts and craftspersons
December 1, 2002
Of ‘golden pens’ and others
November 17, 2002
Portraying the Parsis’ past
November 3, 2002


It is difficult to pick and isolate objects from the show, for the riches on view are considerable. But, if it were left to me to select any two objects that would capture the gist of those times, I would be inclined to pick Miguel de Herrera’s 18th century portrait of an unnamed high-born lady, and a 17th century painted wood carving of the ‘Virgin of Sorrows’. They are both splendid works, but they seem to come from two different worlds: one from that of the flesh, and the other from that of the spirit.

The noble lady figures everywhere: on posters and brochures, on the cover of the fine catalogue of the show, in detailed reviews and brief notices. But one does not quite tire of her. For there is something arresting about her, and about the world she sums up and represents. It is difficult to miss the appearance and the delicate finery that she is attired in, or the objects she displays and holds with nuanced ostentation. But even more arresting than all these is the look on her face: at once arrogant and mercurial, filled with as many questions as assertions. The hint of a smile that hovers around her lips, one realises, could turn into disdain or – worse – a sneer at any moment. She is quintessentially New Spain.

There is a moving simplicity, on the other hand, in the wood carving. Seated, the Virgin bends forward ever so slightly, head inclined downwards, hands clasped, deep sadness reflected on the face. It is as if she knows that the greatest of sorrows is hers, and yet she must bear it with fortitude, as much for her own sake as for posterity. One can imagine what looking up towards this image must have meant to devout and troubled souls in that very New Spain which the aristocratic lady of Herrera’s portrait inhabited. Of one thing it is easy to be certain: the craftsman/artist who carved this figure knew inwardly what pain, and redemption, are.

Collecting with passion

The sub-title of the Mexican show I have spoken of focuses deservedly upon the name of the one man from whose collection every single object in it has come. But, interestingly, that man was not a Mexican himself. Franz Mayer was a German who came to Mexico in 1905, at the age of 23. As the years went by, however, his adopted country ‘claimed’ him completely, as it were. For here he was to make a personal fortune first and then to give it back, in a manner of speaking. With all the vast fortune he made in Mexico, as a stockbroker and financier, he started building a remarkable collection of objects and artefacts that held a mirror to the past of his adopted land. It all began rather tentatively: with his fascination for the traditional folk costumes that he saw ladies wearing as they promenaded in public parks. But slowly, he was drawn to every aspect of the material culture that belonged to the colonial past of Mexico. And he began collecting with a passion that would be hard to match. The result? A magnificent collection which, eventually, he gifted to the Mexican people.

In the New World, one might come upon other instances of this kind. But, at home, how many, I wonder, would combine such passion with such generosity?