Neither rain nor smog nor threat of armed insurrection can keep any really hard-core Mexican folk art aficionado, including me (and, at one time, Nelson Rockefeller), from tracking down the objects of this insane aesthetic obsession.
Recently, as Mexico was in the throes of electing a new president amid highly vocal charges of electoral fraud, rumors of violent government overthrow and preparations for glitzy Mexican Independence Day celebrations, I was blithely boarding buses destined for tiny towns, in search of folk art treasures. What more appropriate place to pull into than Dolores Hidalgo, a dusty, nondescript town that lies between the history-encrusted city of Guanajuato and the charming, albeit gringofied, colonial city of San Miguel de Allende?
Dolores Hidalgo is the real, certified birthplace of Mexican independence. But, despite its historical significance, it's not really a place your average tourist from say, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, would want to end up for any appreciable length of time. It was here, in this less-than-bustling burg, that the war for Mexican independence was ushered in with a bang--actually, with a shout now dubbed "El Grito de Dolores." That shout ended up being the famous cry raised by Father Miguel Hidalgo as he hoisted a banner emblazoned with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe before a throng of disgruntled mestizos on September 16, 1810, in the courtyard of Dolores' main church.
More important, Dolores Hidalgo is now the site of a real renaissance of majolica-type folk ceramics that are popping up in high-end design stores and folk art collections in Phoenix, thanks to none other than Father Hidalgo himself, whose name this small town still bears. Dolores Hidalgo's connection with the Valley of the Sun is long-standing, as attested to by the thousands of kitchens and bathrooms here decorated during the 1960s and '70s (and even now) with those perennially popular Mexican tiles sporting birds, flowers and arabesque patterns--all made in Dolores. In fact, during the 1970s, the town ceased to make traditional ceramic wares entirely and produced only azulejos, as these tiles are called, because of consumer demand from both Mexico City and the American Southwest.
In addition to producing these charming traditional tiles, for the past six or seven years, Dolores has been cranking out a variety of exuberantly embellished, high-fired polychrome ceramics, both functional and purely decorative. These tin-and-lead-glazed ceramics are inspired by majolica first imported into the New World close to five hundred years ago by Mexico's Spanish conquerors.
Known as talavera in Mexico, this form of pottery originally had been raised to a high art in 15th-century Renaissance Italy. Italian craftsmen had ingeniously incorporated Moorish, Islamic and Chinese design elements into these ceramics before shipping them to Spain, which, in turn, began to produce its own majolica in towns such as Talavera de la Reina in Toledo. This exotic blend of design motifs can still be seen in the work that is coming out of Dolores today.
How talavera eventually ended up in Dolores Hidalgo is a long story.
Legend has it that, around 1531, Dominican friars from the Convent of Santo Domingo in Puebla, a town outside Mexico City, in an apparent fit of design madness inspired by Moorish decorating habits, wanted to completely cover their monastery, inside and out, with tile. These padres asked their religious order to send monks from Talavera de la Reina to teach them tin-glazed pottery techniques from home. Thus, the world-famous, jealously guild-guarded talavera industry of Puebla was born, if you choose to believe this completely entrancing, but unsubstantiated, story.
Even if you don't, rest assured that the production of talavera in Guanajuato does, in fact, date back to the 18th century. In the 1700s, craftsmen from Puebla introduced talavera poblana, by this time highly coveted throughout Mexico, into the consumer-goods-hungry population. Status-conscious parvenus had been made extravagantly wealthy by the rich silver lodes discovered in the mountainous recesses of Guanajuato proper.
Assigned as curate in 1803, rabble-rousing Father Hidalgo launched the making of talavera in the eastern-lying town of Dolores, introducing other cottage industries there as well. And when Hidalgo wasn't creating economic opportunities for the town, saying morning Mass, gambling heavily or siring children out of wedlock, the worldly, well-educated Creole cleric was busy fending off investigations by the Inquisition. Or fomenting general discontent with colonial rule among the local Indians.
Talavera production in Dolores lasted much longer than Father Hidalgo did; on July 30, 1811, in repayment for his revolutionary zeal, he was killed and decapitated. His head and those of several other Creole rebel leaders were placed in metal cages that hung from Guanajuato's granary for the next ten years.
Today, traces of old Arabic and Chinese influences are still visible in the stylized floral, animal, bird and geometric designs on the endless types of ceramic pieces you'll find strewn along the roadside going into Dolores Hidalgo from San Miguel. This recent talavera revival represents a continuing legacy from Father Hidalgo's original attempts at Dolores' industrialization.
Moorish chevron patterns have been resurrected and vie for popularity with florid squiggle-and-curlicue motifs of classic blue and white talavera poblana, which, sadly enough, is now on the decline and, even when available, is prohibitively expensive. (There are even rumors surfacing that the Japanese have purchased one of the last great talavera workshops in Puebla.)
But in typical, ever-accommodating Mexican fashion, new patterns, themes and physical forms, created in response to current fashion, are filling the void along with traditional ones.
Now, you're likely to see fruit piled in casual arrangements and fish swimming through foliage in eye-catching combinations of blue, green, rust and yellow on everything from platters to flowerpots. Tropical fruit like papaya, pineapple, watermelon, mango, pomegranate and bananas, and sugar cane spill over every inch of surface. Such fruit subjects were popularized in 19th-century still-life paintings by Jose Augustin Arrieta. Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to make frequent appearances to the faithful via tile murals and plates. And forms truly alien to colonial Mexico, like tissue box covers, picture frames, bathroom sinks, chicken- and frog-shaped planters, and soap dishes that look more like oversize tea infusers, fill the groaning shelves of small shops devoted solely to talavera.
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According to Milou de Reisset, owner of Quatro Vientos, a chic antique and design shop in San Miguel de Allende featured in Casas y Gente, Mexico's answer to Architectural Digest, she's the one responsible for the old Italian patterns now appearing on talavera made in Dolores.
"I took a book with pictures of old Italian majolica to a potter there. That's why you're seeing pieces featuring the Holy Family, ladies with lyres in flowing gowns and figures in 15th-century Italian costumes," says de Reisset. "Of course, I can't control the way they are painted, but that's the real part of their charm."
And, like it or not, you'll see Mexican versions of Van Gogh sunflowers, art deco lilies, moon-and-star patterns typical of the neomedieval designs presently in vogue and strange cubist takeoffs on early Picasso. Some of Dolores' output is downright kitschy, like enormous vases proudly displaying figures of a suffering Christ crowned with thorns, or Pope John Paul II. I even spotted a plate with Frida Kahlo's face on it, complete with her signature black upper-lip fuzz.
But maybe that's why I am so addicted to Mexican folk art, with its unique ability to assimilate even the most foreign or commonplace elements and make those elements an intimate part of its distinctive vision. Not unlike its amazing people, Mexico produces a folk art that embraces and uses--to its ultimate advantage--even its most intrusive invaders.