Published: October 29, 2002
The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico:
By Karla Klein Albertson
WINTERTHUR, DEL. — “The Grandeur Of Viceregal Mexico: ,” a major traveling exhibition on display at Winterthur through January 12, is an eye-opener for East Coast visitors whose knowledge of Hispanic culture in the New World may be defined by Zorro reruns. Far wealthier than the modest English colonies, New Spain once extended from California down to Panama.
Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City, the exhibition features more than 150 objects produced between 1521 and 1821 from fine paintings and sculpture to magnificent silverwork, elegant furniture and an array of ceramics. The accompanying bilingual catalog includes essays outlining the historical background and biographical information on the little-known collector of the material, Franz Mayer.
In a very topical introduction to his catalog chapter on “The Kingdom of New Spain at a Crossroads,” Philosophy Professor Antonio Rubial Garcia notes, “Contemporary Mexico — with all its cultural wealth and regional diversity — owes much to its pre-Hispanic societies. However, it is the Spanish Heritage that unifies and constitutes it as a nation under one law and one government, possessing a common language and religious tradition. The result of armed conquest and the imposition of beliefs and ways of life that broke with the ancient cultural structures of Mesoamerica, this heritage brought Mexico into what is known today as Western civilization, whose roots go back to the cultures emerging around the Mediterranean Sea (Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Rome), which defined themselves in terms of either Christianity or Islam.”
This confluence of cultures in New Spain is part of the heritage not only of our immediate neighbor Mexico but also of much of the southern United States. Over the past 20 years, the heightened interest among collectors in material from the Spanish colonial period reflects a greater awareness of its importance. The scholarship on the subject afforded by “Viceregal Mexico” makes it the perfect show at the perfect time.
The first question settled by the exhibition is, who was Franz Mayer? Born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1882, Mayer arrived in Mexico in 1905 during a period when many other Germans were immigrating to Texas and the Midwestern United States. His ability to collect stemmed from his financial talents: he was a founding member of the Mexican Stock Exchange and worked closely with the economic branches of the government. Enthusiastic beyond measure about the cultural heritage of his adopted country, Mayer mixed the collector’s thrill of the hunt with a financier’s love for a great deal.
In a crucial essay on “The Parallel Legacies of Three Collectors,” David Warren, director of the Bayou Bend Collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, compares Mayer to Texan Ima Hogg and Henry Francis du Pont in Delaware, where Warren incidentally grew up. Almost exact contemporaries in time, the three collectors all concentrated on colonial objects and formed definitive private collections that are now open to the public.
Mayer died in 1975, but his collection did not find a permanent home until a decade later when the trustees in charge purchased and restored the Hospital of Saint John of God, thus also saving an important colonial building dating to 1582 that stands in the heart of Mexico City by the Alameda Garden. Warren recalls, “The initial germ of the idea for the show was the visit of Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to the Museo Franz Mayer not long after it opened. He was stunned by the museum and its collections, and we went back about five years ago and began to work on a concept for the exhibition.”
Officials at the Mexican museum were tempted by the opportunity to make the new museum better known throughout the United States and within their own country. “That’s one of the things that made the concept of sending their best stuff away attractive to the staff at Franz Mayer, who have been wonderful to work with,” notes Warren. “It’s a private museum and less visited than, for example, the archaeological museum. And frankly the arts of the Colonial Period is still an area that is not as well known in Mexico and does not get the kind of respect it should have.” While Mexican nationalism has tended to celebrate the country’s indigenous roots, North Americans have focused on Mayan and Aztec ruins or Twentieth Century artists like Diego Rivera with little understanding of what came in between.
Warren hopes the exhibition will change all that.
“The make-up of the show probably explains what Mexico is today — it’s not just Spanish ‘watered down,’ which is what other North Americans often think,” he said. “Mexico is this wonderful combination of influences that came together to form a rich culture. The European and Moorish heritage of Spain was mixed with wonderful motifs borrowed from the East along with concepts and materials belonging to the indigenous peoples.”
At a time when Old Spain had pretty well bankrupted itself through a series of internal and external wars, New Spain was enormously wealthy, and Mexico in particular was the world’s major source of silver. As early as the Sixteenth Century, silversmiths came from the mother country to the New World and made finished objects there at the source that were sent back to Spain. Their skill is reflected in the abundance of silver objects in the exhibition, which range from ornate church furnishings to domestic rdf_Descriptions such as an exquisite “Federal”-style writing set made in Puebla, circa 1800-1810.
While the culture that inspired these rdf_Descriptions came with the Spanish, silver also touched the custom of chocolate drinking, which the Spanish borrowed from the highly-civilized culture they discovered on their arrival on these shores. Warren explains: “Cortez was served chocolate by Montezuma. It was a very status-conferring practice among the Aztec elite at Tenochtitlan and it was adopted by the Europeans. We have a whole section in the exhibition dealing with chocolate. The coconut shell cups mounted in silver were an adaptation of the Mesoamerican chocolate drinking vessel. Later silver holders are made for porcelain cups rather than coconut shells.”
While the transmission of Moorish and other Near Eastern themes through Spain is clear, Warren feels exhibition viewers may be surprised by the strong Oriental influence apparent in ceramics and furniture.
“The China Trade route for Spain was the Manila Galleon; all the things were gathered together in a fleet which each year sailed to Acapulco,” Warren notes. “Then everything was off-loaded and taken overland to Vera Cruz and then on to Spain. So in the process, a lot of stuff stayed in Mexico and provided a direct input from the Far East, whereas in the British North American colonies Asian material came to the colonies through England. By the Eighteenth Century, Mexico was far richer than Spain, so there was a great market for the Oriental luxury goods. Also, the Chinese went to a silver-based currency at the end of the Sixteenth Century from a paper currency and the silver came from Mexico, so they got goods back in return.”
The “cover girl” of the catalog, a portrait of the daughter of a wealthy colonial family painted by Miguel de Herrera in 1782, goes a long way toward illustrating the wealth enjoyed by the region. Her elaborate dress, jewelry and coiffure equal the most elegant European fashions of her day and makes English colonial ladies look pale by comparison. She wears the jeweled ornaments on her coiffure and a complex gown edged with lace. More surprising is the equally fine costume worn in a second portrait of an young Indian lady, the daughter of a Cacique. The indigenous governor’s child sports an array of pearls and Chinese silk galloons on her dress.
Just as the arrival of settlers in New England transformed the country they found and their own culture as well, the Spanish presence in America combined with the civilization already present to create new bodycopy and forms. Immigrant Franz Mayer’s appreciation of his adopted heritage coupled with a unique collecting fervor has preserved many of the best artifacts from the past as a record for the future.
For more information about the current run of “The Grandeur Of Viceregal Mexico: ” or the 384-page catalog, contact Winterthur at 800-448-3883 or www.winterthur.org.
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