By New Times Staff
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Chris Packham
By Robrt L. Pela
By Claire Lawton
By New Times Staff
By Claire Lawton
For whatever reason, most of the American painters whose work hangs in this show were apparently unaffected by their Mexican experience in any substantial way, preferring to direct their attention to sleep-inducing subjects that even the average American tourist might have found tiresome.
@body:In the 1920s and 1930s, Americans played a critical role in resurrecting, preserving and fostering many of Mexico's traditional folk arts and crafts, long neglected by all but a few Mexicans until well after the Revolution. Surprisingly, "South of the Border" captures none of the passion and almost religious zeal of the small, incestuous group of American and Mexican artists and collectors who brought the folk arts and crafts of our neighbor to the south into the national spotlight during this time. The few pieces of folk art appearing in the show are, for the most part, moribund specimens uncharacteristic of this very spirited area of traditional Mexican art.
In 1910, Frederick Davis, a Chicago medical student, dropped out of school and took a position in Mexico as assistant manager with the Sonora News Company, the news agency for American railroads in Mexico. In the 1920s, he became manager of the company's shop in the Palacio Iturbide on Avenida Madero near Mexico City's Zocalo (at that time, it was a hotel), where he indulged his obsession for Mexican folk art by selling it along with Spanish colonial antiques in the shop. Davis hired as his assistant Ren‚ d'Harnoncourt, a young, penniless Austrian count who arrived in Mexico speaking neither English nor Spanish. D'Harnoncourt, who eventually became the director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, beat the bushes for Davis, collecting folk art and antiques for the shop. He and Mexican artist Roberto Montenegro, underwritten by Fred Davis, revived the old art of lacquerware in Olinala, Guerrero and attempted to do the same for the feather painting that was being done by the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest.
Fred Davis' shop became a hangout for young artists, including Rivera and Rufino Tamayo, who themselves collected folk art and pre-Columbian artifacts. In 1927, d'Harnoncourt even organized a show for these artists at the shop, whose clientele included William Randolph Hearst and oil baron Edward Doheny, both inveterate antique collectors.
U.S. ambassador to Mexico Dwight Morrow and his wife, Elizabeth, were also among the shop's clients. In the late 1920s, the Morrows became fast friends with William Spratling, an American architect who in 1929 had moved to Taxco, an enchanting colonial town nestled on a mountaintop near a silver mine that is still being worked today. He single-handedly created the Mexican silver jewelry industry in Taxco.
In 1931, Spratling opened Taller de las Delicias and staffed it with goldsmiths from the nearby town of Iguala. Many young artisans who worked for Spratling eventually opened their own workshops and became famous for their own silver work. A devoted collector of both pre-Columbian and folk art, Spratling created designs using stylized pre-Columbian motifs; his jewelry and tea services found their way into high-end U.S. department stores, especially during World War II. Spratling's home/workshop and a museum housing his pre-Columbian collection are still open in Taxco to this day.
American artist James Metcalf, who at one point illustrated books for Robert Graves, also landed in Mexico in the late 1920s after leaving Philadelphia. He eventually opened a blacksmithing and coppersmithing school called "Tia Muri" in the small mountain village of Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoac n, where he still lives, works and teaches students from the town the old metal arts with the aid of bellows of pre-Columbian design.
American anthropologist Frances Toor stoked the folk-art fires further with her bilingual magazine, Mexican Folkways, published between 1925 and 1937 in Mexico City. Articles on everything from pottery to traditional dances filled the popular periodical. Contributors to this sophisticated publication included the likes of Rivera, its editor from 1926, photographer Tina Modotti, archaeologist Alfonso Caso and artist Jean Charlot.
Interested Americans also encouraged the revival of Mexican folk art through a series of important exhibitions in this country. A groundbreaking show of more than 5,000 pieces of Mexican folk art--the first of its kind anywhere--had been organized by Dr. Atl (the pseudonym of Gerardo Murillo), Roberto Montenegro and Jorge Enciso and traveled to Los Angeles in 1922. Writer Katherine Anne Porter provided a guide to this major exhibition, which traced the history of Mexican arts and crafts from pre-Columbian times to the present.
It was followed by another in 1928 at New York's Art Center, and by an even bigger exhibition in 1930 at the Metropolitan Museum. Ren‚ d'Harnoncourt collected folk-art objects and contemporary paintings for this huge display, called "Mexican Arts," which was underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation and eventually traveled to 12 U.S. cities. The organizer of the 1928 show was Frances Flynn Paine, who acted as a personal tour guide for Nelson Rockefeller's first Mexican folk-art trip five years later. Nelson Rockefeller's buying trips in Mexico are legendary. The museum-quality objects he collected over the years became part of one of the most prestigious Mexican folk-art collections in the world, now split between the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Mexican Museum in San Francisco.