Published: February 25, 2003
By Leah Shanks Gordon
SAN DIEGO, CALIF. – Chronicling a particularly vibrant and fertile period in Mexican history, a time when the arts flourished with the first breath of freedom after the revolution of 1910, the exhibition “William Spratling and the Mexican Silver Renaissance” is currently on view at the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art. Ironically, this renaissance, as it was expressed in the art of silversmithing, was initiated and nourished by the American expatriate, Spratling.
The exhibition is a culmination of what has been a growing interest and respect for Mexican silver spurred by a few avid collectors, dealers and scholars. Mexican silver of the Twentieth Century has finally been recognized for the unique aesthetic that it embodies. Unlike the silver produced in Mexico in earlier periods, which was largely dependent on colonial and western European motifs, post-revolutionary Mexican silver is a blend of the modern and pre-Columbian. It is a decidedly Mexican spirit that infuses the objects — a spirit that is bold, powerful and beautiful.
The exhibition is divided into five parts, the first of which deals with the scene in Mexico after the revolution. Period paintings, prints and photographs of the artists, writers and silver designers who thrived in the 1920s and 1930s are hung amidst the silver jewelry and objects. Spratling himself is depicted in a lithograph by David Alfaro Siqueiros. A large silver brooch by Frederick Davis, another expatriate, is accompanied by a photograph of Rosa Covarrubias, the wife of well-known artist Miguel Covarrubias, wearing the pin. In a photograph by Florence Arquin, a pensive Frida Kahlo is shown wearing another Davis work, a silver necklace incorporating a Tlatilco ceramic figure. Also included is a necklace encrusted with amethyst, turquoise and coral by Matilde Poulat, accompanied by a photograph taken by Diego Rivera of Frida Kahlo wearing a similar necklace.
A butterfly necklace, one of the earliest known examples of Spratling’s work, is among several butterfly pieces that greet the viewer. The butterfly, a popular motif in Mexican art, has special meaning from the time of the Aztecs. They believed the butterfly represented the souls of women who died in childbirth or warriors who died on the battlefield.
The period of the 1920s nurtured some of Mexico’s greatest artists — the muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, artists Miguel Covarrubias, Dr Atl (Gerardo Murillo), Roberto Montenegro and, of course, the legendary Frida Kahlo, wife of Rivera and an artist in her own right. It was also a time when Americans suddenly noticed a long-ignored neighbor to the south. Americans became fascinated with Mexico. They saw it not only as a place for a vacation, but as a land of beauty and a unique culture blending Spanish colonialism with pre-Columbian mystery. Books and articles about Mexico were being published, archeological sites were being uncovered and an American expatriate community was being established.
Into this scene came William Spratling. Born in 1900 in western New York State, Spratling lost his parents at an early age, and was sent to Alabama to live with relatives. He showed artistic talent, but the press of finances took him into the more practical field of architecture. In 1921, after four years at Auburn University, he went to work as an instructor at Tulane University’s School of Architecture in New Orleans. Spratling fell into the bohemian life of the French Quarter, sharing an apartment with novelist William Faulkner and counting among his friends the writers Sherwood Anderson and Oliver La Farge. He began traveling to Mexico in 1926 and made repeated trips there in the late 1920s, supporting himself by writing books and articles about Mexico. On one of those trips, he visited Taxco, a charming mountain town that once had thriving silver mines. He fell in love with it and subsequently moved there in 1929.
One day in 1931 Spratling was having lunch with Dwight Morrow, the American ambassador to Mexico, when Morrow commented, “What a pity, Bill, that of all the thousands of tons of silver sent back from Taxco to the old world over the centuries, that none of this ever stayed here nor was utilized to create an industry or economy for Taxco.” In his autobiography, File on Spratling, Spratling recounted that Morrow’s observation “created a germ of a thought which caused me to bring some goldsmiths up from Iguala, and to set up what I then thought of as a single experiment, the making of silver articles in Taxco.”
One of those goldsmiths, Artemio Navarrete, recounted in an interview in 1988 how it all started. “In those days I worked in Iguala for 25 cents a day, but Don Guillermo offered me one peso and 25 cents. Of course I accepted his offer immediately. A week later I moved to Taxco.”
Navarrete continued, “Some of the children who lived in the neighborhood used to come and bathe in the fountain in Don Guillermo’s house. I asked one of them … to come and work with me so he could learn the trade. I convinced him and many others … I would ask them to wash, polish or beat the silver into sheets. Don Guillermo paid these apprentices 25 cents a day. Tono Castillo, Antonio Pineda and others, all of them famous artisans nowadays, were a part of that group of young men.”
The second segment of the show, which dates from 1931 to 1939, deals with the growth and success of Spratling’s little experiment. In the beginning most of the work was inspired by Aztec sculpture, Mixtcco-Puebla and early colonial codices and various clay seals that Spratling himself collected. From this period came the famous jaguar-serpent necklace reminiscent of the stone carvings of the plumed serpent on the pyramid of Teotihuacan. Another magnificent necklace was designed for Helena Rubinstein, the pectoral, which covered Rubinstein’s entire chest; it was based on a colonial silver halo once worn by a sculpted figure of the Virgin. Later, the artist Roberto Montenegro painted Rubinstein wearing the necklace.
Out of Spratling’s studio came a prototype for a workshop. All artisans had to be highly skilled in their craft. A director oversaw all design, quality control and production. The manager also had the responsibility for seeing that all designs were part of a harmonious, recognizable style.
Spratling loved to combine native materials with his silver. He was particularly fond of wood, copper, amethyst, obsidian, tortoise and, on occasion, even gold. So rose a Spratling style that was often adopted by other Mexican designers. Spratling himself complained that if he initiated a new design on Monday, the other silversmiths in Taxco had copied it by week’s end.
As his business grew through the 1930s, Spratling attracted many young Mexican designers to his workshop and taught them the trade. Among them: Hector Aguilar, Antonio Pineda, the Castillo brothers and Valentin Vidaurreta. Eventually, these designers broke away and opened their own studios, in turn training another group of artists, including Salvador Teran, Sigi Pineda, Enrique Ledesma and Margot van Voorhies Carr. They each established their own styles and their own reputations. Yet their indebtedness to the maestro was evident. In reality, a Spratling school had been established.
When Hector Aguilar joined Spratling in 1937, Spratling’s workshop had grown from one silversmith and a handful of teenage apprentices to nearly 100 craftsmen. Aguilar, who had been a portrait and landscape photographer, was hired to manage Spratling’s shop. After two years he left to establish his own business, the Taller Borda. Aguilar’s jewelry and hollowware emphasized the manipulation of line. Penny Morrill writes, “Hector found delight in heavily formed, contorted twisting overlapping lines. The thick gauge and purity of the silver heightened the strong almost organic quality of his jewelry and decorative objects.”
The Castillo brothers, who were known as Los Castillo, trained with Spratling and in 1939 established their own workshop. Their style, particularly in the 1940s, was largely derived from pre-Columbian motifs and executed with a strong and vigorous imagination. The group also included the wife of Antonio Castillo, Margot van Voorhies Carr. When Antonio and Margo separated, she took the name Margot de Taxco, originating her own specialty, enameled jewelry.
Perhaps the most dynamic jewelry and hollowware came from another of Spratling’s original teenage apprentices, Antonio Pineda. Her pieces are dramatic with a distinct modern look. Pineda, who was trained as a painter, uses the repetition of form and line. The result is jewelry and hollowware that look like pieces of sculpture worthy of a display cabinet or pedestal.
The third period of the show chronicles the growth of the Mexican silver industry during World War II and its aftermath. As a result of the war, Mexico saw an influx of designers from Europe. Among them was the French silver artist Jean Puiforcat, probably one of the finest designers of the Twentieth Century. In Mexico, where he spent the war years, Puiforcat found inspiration in the bold forms of Aztec art and from that inspiration created some of his most gorgeous hollowware.
In her catalog, Penny Chittim Morrill, PhD, writes that Puiforcat believed that silversmiths have always been creators of an epoch’s style. Consequently, he insisted that pieces be simple, functional, perfectly crafted and express the artist’s original intention. A religious man who detested city life and spent most of his time at his country home outside Biarritz, Puiforcat reduced his forms to basics, believing that simple geometry was a key to beautiful design. “The Number,” he once wrote, “presides over the architecture of the heavens and the spiral of the conch shell, the crystals of the snowflake and the position of the leaves along a branch.” From this mystical and essential element Puiforcat derived his creative process.
From 1950 to 1970, the fourth period of the exhibition, the Mexican silver industry matured. The designs took on a contemporary look with clean lines, simple, nonrepresentational forms, influenced by Scandinavian design and, in particular, the work of Georg Jensen. Spratling continued to turn out hollowware and jewelry, including his famous jaguar brooch in silver and tortoise. Then early one August morning in 1967, after a heavy night’s rain, he got into his Mustang and asked his chauffeur to drive to Mexico City. He was taking some of his latest work to a shop there and also intended to see an exhibit of Siqueiros’. As the car rounded a corner of the highway, it swerved to avoid a fallen tree, crashing into an embankment. Spratling, 66, died a few hours later.
The silver industry of Mexico has continued to thrive long after Spratling’s death. The fifth and final period of the show covers the years 1978 to 2001. By this time, union/management disputes brought an end to most of the workshops. Silversmiths worked out of small family operations and used wholesalers to represent them. This system brought about a regrettable decline in design innovation. Yet several talented artisans have emerged from this period and are included in the show. They are unquestionably contemporary designers creating silver for Twenty-First Century sensibilities. Their names — Angelica Tapia, Agnes Seebass, Wolmar Castillo, Tane, Teresa Camino among them — may not be as well-known as those of their predecessors, but they are worthy in their own right of being counted. They carry on a tradition the best of which is a testament to the renaissance of Mexican silversmithing.
On view through May 11 at the Mingei, the exhibition was originally presented at the San Antonio Museum of Art, the sponsor of the exhibition. Guest curator Penny Chittim Morrill is a scholar of Latin American art, and a leading authority on Mexican silver. The exhibition moves to the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum (June 14 to September 7), the National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico in Albuquerque (October 18 to January 18, 2004) and, finally, the Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, New Orleans, (March 6 to May 30, 2004), William Spratling’s hometown.
The San Diego Mingei International Museum of Folk Art in Balboa Park, San Diego, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm; the museum is closed Monday. Telephone: 619-239-0003
Leah Gordon is a dealer in antique jewelry and objects of Twentieth Century design. She has published articles on William Spratling, Georg Jensen and lover’s-eye jewelry and has been a longtime devotee of Mexican silver.
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