MEXICO: PAINTED SIGNS

Bangkok, 13 January 2015

It was at Tlaxcala that I began to notice it.

We’d taken a bus from Mexico City to visit this small town, since it was described as a nice example of colonial Mexican architecture and town planning. It certainly was pleasant enough, as were Chiapas de Corzo and San Cristóbal de las Casas, two other colonial-era towns which we visited later. The latter two have been declared “pueblos magicos”, magic towns, a slogan dreamed up by the Mexican tourism authorities (clever branding, although I do feel duty-bound to whisper that the pueblos in Tuscany, for instance, or any number of pueblos which my wife and I have visited in Spain, are more magico than Tlaxcala and the two official pueblos magicos that we visited).

In any event, my point in mentioning the visit to Tlaxcala is another. What I began to notice as we walked around the town was the lack of modern signage on the shops. To understand what I mean, let me insert here a picture of the shopping street in Vienna, the Graben, where we often went for a stroll and coffee when we lived there.
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Notice the abundant use of neon shop signs, tacked onto the shop fronts. For better or for worse (and in my opinion for worse; it drives me crazy in this age of climate change to see all those illuminated shop signs blazing out into the night), this is now the accepted and expected type of design for shop signs.

So it was with great interest that I saw in Tlaxcala that shop signs tended to be of the old-fashioned type, painted by hand
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Alerted to this phenomenon, I made sure to get some close-ups of such signs in San Cristóbal
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I began to notice that advertisements were often painted too. The following style of painted advertisement was definitely my favorite, with this particular example coming from San Lorenzo Zinacantán.
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These types of advertisements, to be found on otherwise bare walls, seem always to be announcing some upcoming event. Notice the large, rounded, friendly, inviting font, but placed at a slight angle denoting future excitement, and with a very pleasing colour scheme which starts with a dark colour and shades off into a lighter one. I throw in here some other signs of this genre that I spotted from buses or trains flashing by.
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It would seem that the honorable profession of sign painter is alive and well in Mexico! (this reminds me of a wonderful novel from India, another country with a great sign painting tradition, “The Painter of Signs”, by R.K. Narayan; great novelist, by the way, I highly recommend him to my readers).

Of course, painting on walls has a long and noble tradition in Mexico. This art form must have reached its apogee with the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Orozco, and David Siqueiros. Already 35 years ago, when we first visited Mexico, we had reverently visited a number of the murals by these artists. This time around, we visited Rivera’s murals in the Secretaría de Educación Pública, just behind the cathedral on the Zocalo in Mexico City. As was his style, they are very political, very “leftie”; they made me and my wife smile as they brought back memories of the excited discussions of our youth. These two murals, “The Capitalist’s Dinner” and “Death of the Capitalist”, epitomize them all.
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In San Cristobal, up some back streets, I saw what I fear are today’s inheritors of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros
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It’s sad really. All that grand, elevated talk of our youth has degenerated into the childish babble of these cartoons. But the rot doesn’t finish there, for Mexico suffers from the same mindless graffiti which defaces so many of our cities

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“Fuck you. I exist”

What are our civilizations reduced to?

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Mariahilfestrasse 1: http://austriacazare.ro/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/mariahilfer-strasse.jpg (in http://austriacazare.ro/shopping/mariahilferstrasse/#photoGallery%5Bgallery-503%5D/3/)
Calle 20 de noviembre , Tlaxcala: http://www.mexicoenfotos.com/estados/tlaxcala/tlaxcala/MX13379190432534&album=01&province=tlaxcala&city=tlaxcala&pagina=6
Avenida Vicente Guerro, Tlaxcala: http://www.mexicoenfotos.com/estados/tlaxcala/tlaxcala/MX13362760603306&album=01&province=tlaxcala&city=tlaxcala&pagina=6
Shop signs, San Cristobal: my photos
Painted advertisement signs: my photos
Cartoon wall paintings, San Cristobal: my photos
Graffiti, Mexico City: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-hsTD7FnkGKs/UIEueVASNkI/AAAAAAAAAQs/PJ0N-K0omig/s1600/150559_545018925524744_786800387_n.jpg (in http://thevilgang.blogspot.com/2012/10/el-graffiti-de-la-ciudad-de-mexico.html)

MEXICO: MUSEO DE ARTE POPULAR

Bangkok, 10 January, 2015

While in Mexico City over the Christmas break, my wife and I visited two museums, the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Museo de Arte Popular. The Bellas Artes is the more Worthy of the two, having vast panels by Great Mexican Painters such as Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, José Orozco, and others. When we visited, it also had some Worthy exhibitions, one of these being on modern art from cubism onwards, which mixed global titans like Picasso and Pollock with Mexicans. I have mentioned in a previous post how so much of the world looks the same everywhere nowadays, especially where clothes are concerned: everyone, everywhere, dresses the same, particularly the young. I was struck by the same sensation in this exhibition of modern art. Everyone’s modern art was the same everywhere: Diego Rivera’s cubism looked just like Braque’s, Frida Kahlo’s surrealism was indistinguishable from Magritte’s, Gunther Gerzso’s abstract expressionism is no different from Willem de Kooning’s or Mark Rothko’s. In a word, there was nothing particularly Mexican about any of the art on show from Mexican artists. Another, depressing, effect of globalization.

So you can imagine my relief when we visited the Museo de Arte Popular (which I think we can translate as the Museum of Folk Art) and saw pieces which were quite typically Mexican, pieces I would not find in a museum of folk or other art in Europe or the US or Japan or even Thailand where we currently live. (In truth, I’m sure I would find similar pieces in the other Latin American countries, but that’s OK; these countries do after all share a fair amount of cultural history, Hispanic and pre-Hispanic).

So it is with pleasure that I can share with readers photos of some of the pieces I most liked. I hope I will be excused their generally poor quality. They are all taken with my iPhone, and in many instances through the glass of the exhibition cases which often created irritating problems of reflections.

I start with that typical form of folk art, ceramics. Here are some pots and a plate I particularly fancied:
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with this one being my favorite of the genre
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There was also a lot of woven rattan and similar objects. I’m not a big fan of this art form, but I do add here a picture of a container made with a mix of bark and fibres, which had a certain attraction
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Not particularly Mexican all this, you might argue, so let me continue with a subject very close to the average Mexican’s heart, religion. In the museum collection, it was captured for the most part with that typically Mexican (or perhaps Latin American) fondness for little set scenes. So we have a crucifixion
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a last supper – but why are they eating watermelon??
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and a last judgement
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while the Tree of Life was a very popular motif, made into a lovely candelabra in this example
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Then there were several examples of ex-votos, that exceedingly popular genre of folk religious painting (and not just in Mexico; Italian churches are littered with them, as are churches in Austria and probably every other Catholic country). Normally, they record a person being saved from some catastrophe or illness, but in this particular case a certain Mr. Jesus Gomez Reyez was thanking the Good Lord for getting his American passport regularized back in 1962, a touching commentary on so many Mexicans’ yearnings to escape to America
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Religion has much to do with death, and the Mexicans have turned death into a high art, especially that most striking vision of the death which awaits us all, the skeleton. The museum has a particularly rich collection of this art form, of which I show a small selection, starting with this wonderful variation on that insipid form of religious art, the statues of saints in churches
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I must say, despite the grimness of the topic these skeletons are always remarkably cheerful. Here we have a bunch of skeletons thoroughly enjoying a huge meal – echoes of the last supper?
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another happily kicking a football around
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yet another, a child’s skeleton, blowing us a raspberry
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while here we have an earnest swain declaring his undying love to a simpering and blushing maiden
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and finally, a very popular character in the skeleton cast of characters, a “Catrina”, a female skeleton dressed to the nines in a 19th Century style
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We loved these Catrinas so much that we bought a ceramic version and carried it back to Bangkok, where it now stands on our dressing room table.

Keeping to the broad religious theme, devils are also a popular topic. I include three, one blowing a raspberry, something which I have never particularly associated with devils (but a common theme it would seem; does blowing raspberries have some deeper meaning in Mexico?)
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another showing a bunch of devils taking part in a last-supper type of meal – eating watermelon again! (what’s with this business of watermelon?)
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and a grimmer scene, a devil rapist (I suppose rape is as bad a problem in Mexico as anywhere else).
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The little scenes which seem such a popular subject spill over into normal, day-to-day life. We have here a seller in the market (watermelon-eating again …)

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Fairgrounds seem a popular topic, especially Ferris wheels

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while here we have a grimmer scene from life, a fire. Many escape from the doors of these towers but one person has had to throw himself off the top.
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This large needlework piece wonderfully captures the myriad activities of daily life
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I add one close-up of the many scenes on this piece
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The final theme is animals, which are a popular subject for folk artists. I feel I should start with a turkey, which was first domesticated in pre-Hispanic Mexico.
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I continue with a cat, because my wife reminded me that when we were last in Mexico 35 years ago we bought a ceramic cat, which currently faithfully sits in storage in Vienna waiting for our return to Europe.
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But I also add a dog, in this case in the form of a teponatzle (a type of musical instrument),
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continue with what appears to be a brightly coloured hedgehog
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and finish with a couple of birds: what looks like a macaw, fashioned as a handle of a jug
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and this truly magnificent peacock
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On the topic of animals, I feel I have to include a picture of this monster
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The Mexicans seem to have a great fondness of such monsters, which we saw in a number of places, on a much larger scale, being used as floats of some sort.

Well, I don’t want to give everything away about this museum. I hope I’ve persuaded some readers to visit it if they happen to be in Mexico City: Calle Revillagigedo 11, Cuauhtémoc, very central; open every day except Monday.

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pictures: all mine