Published: April 13, 2004
The James A. Michener Art Museum is presenting “Mexican Folk Retablos: Images of Devotion,” an exhibition highlighting examples of this unique art form that flourished in rural areas of Mexico during the Nineteenth Century. It will be on view April 17-July 11 in the Fred Beans Gallery.
The exhibition provides an insight into the faith and devotional practices of the Mexican people and an art form that has influenced such well-known figures as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Jose Guadalupe Posada, among others.
The exhibition was organized by the Arizona Arts Commission and curated by Gloria Fraser Giffords, an expert on retablos and the author of many articles and books including Mexican Folk Retablos, University of New Mexico Press, 1998. Giffords will present a lecture at the museum on Sunday, April 18, from 3 to 4 pm.
Oil paintings of religious imagery on tinplate first appeared in Mexico’s rural central states during the Nineteenth Century. Largely by anonymous artists, these small works known as “retablos” – from the Latin retro-tabula or “behind the altar” – were created by the thousands. Little is known about the individuals who painted them, but what seems apparent from the large numbers produced is that they were extremely popular and that they were collected from the remote countryside, where they were primarily the religious art of rural people.
Almost 50 years ago retablos began to be collected, mostly by individuals in the United States who were fascinated by the charming naiveté in many of the examples, as well as their strong decorative qualities. The skills of the artists range from those who appear to have had some formal training to those who were guided by their instinctive sense of color, line and form.
Painted with an oil-based paint, the choice of tinplated iron sheets as a substitute for canvas was most likely a fortuitous choice in the beginning. Mexico’s Independence from Spain in 1821 opened the nation up to free trade. Tinplate, produced in England during the Nineteenth Century, was imported into Mexico in enormous quantities as raw kitchen implements, lanterns and candleholders, pipes and containers of all types. Coinciding with the availability of an inexpensive and durable support was the Nineteenth Century phenomena of a blossoming of popular art of all different types. In particular, the creation of religious imagery in rural areas began to flourish and artists in Mexico began using small pieces of tinplate as the support for paintings of saints.
Retablos cover a variety of subject matters, but by far the most popular were those representing the Virgin Mary, in particular Nuestra Senora, Refugio de Pecadores. Images of Jesus were also popular, especially those of El Nino de Atocha. These two particular images, along with several others, represent a specific icon and are faithful reproductions of the prototype – the only diversities are the skills or particular style of the artist painting them.
The James A. Michener Art Museum is at 138 South Pine Street. For information, 215-340-9800 or www.michener artmuseum.org.
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