It's Wednesday in Holy Week, and I'm singing nearly every day, so I'm not going to be around here much except for posting a few photographs. And, after all those Mexican posts, I need to take a litte break!
This wrought iron knocker and grill were on a door in Coyoacan, and now that I look at them I think it must have been the front door for a convent or monastery; the wooden panel behind the cross probably slides out of the way so the person inside can see who is at the door. All the buildings on that street had tall walls along the narrow sidewalk and you couldn't tell what was inside or whether they were residences or offices or public buildings of some sort. Occasionally a door was ajar, and you could peek inside into a beautiful, mysterious courtyard, or an entrance hall.
Best wishes to all who are observing religious holidays this week.
Our first day in Mexico was a national holiday as well as being a Monday - the day when most museums and many shops and restaurants are closed. A good time, we thought, to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Villa, as it's popularly called, since the site contains several churches and other buildings, is the most-visited shrine to the Virgin Mary in the world (over 20 million annual visitors) and the most important Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Latin America -- reason enough to visit. But I wanted to try to understand something deeper about the devotion to "Our Lady" -- this particular apparition of the Virgin Mary -- whose image appears everywhere in Mexico City, and who seems embedded in the hearts of the people, whether overtly religious or not. I wondered what I would feel.
We reached the site after quite a long ride by Metrobus to the northern part of the city, and a walk through a residential neighborhood full of first-floor souvenir shops and small retail stores. Within the walls of the shrine, one finds a huge stone plaza, and around it, the new basilica shown above, and several former basilicas, progressively older from left to right, dating back to the 16th century. Two of these are shown in the picture below; all of these buildings are very large, and suffered considerable damage from the Mexico City earthquake in 1985; one was so slanted that it felt extremely unsafe, but people were still worshipping in it.
On the top of Tepeyac Hill, in the upper right, is yet another church, the final destination of most of the pilgrims who come here.
Here is the official Catholic account of the story.
On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego saw an apparition of a young girl at the Hill of Tepeyac. Speaking to him in Nahuatl (the dialect of the tribe of the Aztecs) the girl asked that a church be built at that site in her honor; from her words, Juan Diego recognized the girl as the Virgin Mary. Diego told his story to the Spanish Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the "lady" for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The first sign was the Virgin healing Juan's uncle. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Although December was very late in the growing season for flowers to bloom, Juan Diego found Castillian roses, not native to Mexico, on the normally barren hilltop. The Virgin arranged these in his peasant cloak or tilma. When Juan Diego opened his cloak before Bishop Zumárraga on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Under the revisionist painting shown above, the caption reads "The Conversion of the Indians." You can see the Franciscan friars administering baptism from water held in an Aztec vessel, now serving as a font; above them, the Virgin of Guadelupe appears wreathed in smoke that billows from Popocatepetl. Through the Spanish Requirement of 1513, which was read aloud to the native people in Spanish, the Spanish monarchy had declared its divinely ordained right to take possession of the territories of the New World and to subjugate, exploit and, when necessary, fight the native inhabitants. Resisters were considered evil, in defiance of God's plan for Spain, and were forced to convert to Christianity or were killed. (Diego Rivera's murals in the Palacio Nationale depict what really happened.)
Below the painting is a reproduction of the famous image as it appeared on Juan Diego's cloak or tilma; the original tilma is displayed in the new basilica, above the altar, in an enclosure containing gases to help keep it in a state of preservation. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin became Latin America's first indigenous saint when he was canonized at this site by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
Why, then, did so many native people become attached to Our Lady? Before the Spanish Conquest in 1591-21, Tepayac Hill had been the site of a temple to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. The Spanish destroyed it and built a chapel there in honor of the Virgin Mary. After they were converted to Christianity, the Indians continued to come there, addressing the Virgin as "Tonantzin." Whatever the truth was about the story of Juan Diego -- an indigenous man -- only a decade later, the Indians formed the core of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe: a devotion that continues to this day. As we visited the shrines and walked around the site, we saw hundreds of native people who had come with their families. There were very old women, walking with difficulty, supported by a daughter or son, and there were many young woman with newborn babies in their arms, bringing them to meet the Virgin for the first time, or to be baptized at a special building that is part of the Villa.
At the far end of the plaza is a raised area which affords a beautiful view of the entire site. I stood there and watched pilgrims crossing the rough stone plaza on their knees, toward the new basilica.
In the previous picture you can see a sign that reads "Mercado," or "market." Behind the main buildings is a large typical Mexican market -- a warren of interconnected tents and buildings -- full of souvenirs, and things to eat and drink. We stopped there for lunch: roast chicken with freshly-made corn tortillas.
You can see the roofs of the mercado behind this earliest church, where Juan Diego is interred.
Just above that church is this astonishing larger-than-lifesize bronze tableau of native people presenting gifts to the Virgin; from it, a path leads up the hill through beautiful gardens to the shrine at the top, the "shrine of the roses."
All along the path and through the gardens, people stopped with their families to be photographed.
There were professional photographers with tricky printers that produced large-format photos on the spot. Each of them had a shrine-themed photo-spot, some more kitschy than others. Here we have not one but two Virgins, a Pope, multicolored roses, and every stereotypical Mexican symbol you can think of. At the shrine, Pope John Paul II, "Juan Pablo," seemed second only to the Virgin in popularity; there is a huge bronze statue of him in the plaza. I didn't see a single image of Pope Benedict, but I'm sure Pope Francis will become popular here too.
A view of one of the older basilicas and plaza, as we climbed up the hill.
And some of the beautiful plantings. I loved seeing women carrying their babies in their arms, wrapped in a blanket.
The Shrine of the Virgin of the Roses, at the top of Tepayac Hill. Photography was not allowed inside; it was a simple, very old structure with a small dome, an altar, and some large paintings of the miraculous events.
Finally, we descended, becoming part of the large crowd enjoying a beautiful day, completely at ease in this shrine that clearly belongs to them. They were families on an outing; devotees coming to pray; people seeking some moments of peace and beauty in a crowded city -- but by their manner, their respect was clear: this was not a park like any other.
What did I feel?
At one point, crossing the plaza, I looked down at a stone beneath my feet and saw that, unlike its neighbors, it was covered with Aztec carvings. That is Mexico City: the past coexists with the present. They weigh upon each another in the stones of the buildings, mingle in the faces of the people. Our own past always seems both real and unreal, and so perhaps in this place with its unfamiliar and miraculous history I was able to suspend judgements and simply be present.
Did the Virgin appear to Juan Diego half a millenium ago? Does it really matter?
She is present today on this streetcorner in Escandon, and thousands of other corners, shop windows, tree notches, and public nooks throughout the city; as people pass by, they notice, pause, cross themselves. Her image appears in all the churches, and she is present in nearly every home in a ceramic statue, an image woven of palm fronds, or embroidered on a blouse, or molded into a folkloric retablo. She moves through the city around people's necks, or on their backs, and travels with strangers back to a far northern city: a dim image seen through a tiny crystal set in the cross of a rose-scented rosary.
In the end, I was touched by the beauty of the shrine, and I was moved by the old women, many of whom were probably not much older than me. There was a lot that I didn't understand, because I am neither Mexican nor Catholic, and a lot that I did, because I am human. I'm content to leave it at that.
The Jumex is a three-month-old contemporary art museum in the Polanco district of Mexico City area, established by Eugenio Lopez, whose family fortune was made through the Jumex fruit juice empire.
Before our recent trip, we had read an excited review of the museum in the New York Times. As longtime readers of this blog will know, modern architecture is an interest of ours, and a big part of why we wanted to see Museo Jumex was to see the building itself and its slightly older neighbor, the art museum of another Mexican billionare, Carlos Slim. Lopez has been collecting since the mid-90s and the Jumex collection now stands at over 2,750 pieces; the museum is the largest contemporary art museum in Latin America and Lopez has said that he intends to eventually donate the building and its contents to Mexico.
Quebec, still mired in nationalistic debates, provincialism, and insecurity about its place in the international cultural scene, might take note of the following:
...[previously] Mexican collectors had mostly stayed within the few socially acceptable categories of pre-Columbian, -Colonial, muralism, and so on, all of which focused on a nationalist past. Lopez instead wanted to position Mexico City to be a part of what he calls “the network,” the intellectual and cultural circuit that connects New York, London, Berlin, Bejing, and other global centers. “I saw an incredible opportunity in doing a collection that was not just Mexican or Latin American,” Lopez says, noting that before him, very few people were doing that. They all had Diego Riveras, Frida Kahlos, but no one bought a Jasper Johns. “I said, ‘I want to do it on an international level.’ ”
A 1997 visit to London’s Saatchi Gallery hatched Lopez’s vision for a Jumex corporate collection that would be open to the public—then, a novel idea in Latin America. The art adviser Patricia Martín, a key mentor, got him to think beyond that trophy mentality to imagine instead a foundation that would not only collect art but also dispense scholarships for arts education, provide grants for young Mexican artists, and fund acquisitions of Mexican art abroad...
When we visited, on a Friday, we were told by a cheerful, laid-back attendant in the sign-less lobby that the museum was free that day. He sat at a table with computer cords snaking away from wall sockets, while the room next door was a sleek, minimalistic black cafe; it seemed either like the lobby was unfinished, or had deliberately avoided the designed-to-impress entrance of so many of its peers.
The entire building is clad in a creamy travertine marble, and the use of that material on the interior floors as well enhances the typical Mexican porosity of indoors vs. outdoors. We rode to the top floor in a sleek elevator and worked our way down; on the top level was a curated show of works from the collection, more memorable to me for the spaces themselves than for the works, although I really liked a Basquiat portrait and a floor-to-ceiling graphite "drawing" by Carlos Amorales on one of the exhibition walls itself.
On the floor below was a very fine show about the work of the late performance artist/sculptor James Lee Byars, co-curated by the Jumex Fundación’s Magalí Arriola and MoMA PS1’s Peter Eleey: a travelling collaboration that may be a good indication of Lopez's intentions for the future.
Much of Byars' art was made of paper, linen, silk and gold-leaf; it had a Zen aesthetic and was provocative, intelligent, and often amusing, while avoiding excessive cerebralism.
The museum's internal staircase is unexpectedly brilliant.
But my favorite physical space was the second-floor wrap-around outdoor "porch" which the architect, David Chipperfield of Britain, uses to frame vistas of nearby architecture and far-away horizons, making statements about the Jumex as both a physical and psychological presence within Mexico City. Beyond that, it was simply beautiful: I stayed out there a long time, while the sun went down, and then we finally exited to take some more photographs of the museum's exterior before leaving Polanco and heading back to our hotel.
If Carlos Slim's astonishing, shining tile-encrusted hourglass is a statement piece set amid Polanco's tall monuments to corporate success and Mexico's future, then the Jumex, with its straight sides and saw-tooth pate, is an understatement. It sits like a slightly smug, self-contained toy block set down amid much snazzier neighbors, but seems quite well-positioned both to stay, and to be heard.
Perhaps it was fitting to come upon these calla lilies only a block from the home where Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived for many years. In spite of all the big murals, with their casts of hundreds, when I think of Rivera I most often think of his monumental images of women and calla lilies:
I love Rivera's work: like its maker, I suspect, the work is warm, big, and generous, and he was a wonderful draftsman too; his charcoal drawings are especially strong:
Rivera and Kahlo were married twice; they divorced after Frida discovered Rivera's affair with her sister, but remarried later; they were, I think, meant to be together: two strong, intense spirits, two dedicated artists who shared political views and a great love of Mexio and her history.
I have always liked Frida's work, but I just didn't respond to the cult that's grown up around her; I even knew someone who dressed like her and affected that whole "Frida mystique." Jonathan remarked, as we entered the Casa Azul, that there were three or four times as many women present as men: she has become an embodiment of female strength amid extreme suffering, as well as artistic greatness. But I was much more moved than I expected to be -- the studio and much of the house are exactly the way they were when she died; Rivera must have ordered this. In her studio, the paints have dried forever on her palette, the last painting remains unfinished on the easel, her wheelchair empty before it. Glass-front bookshelves line one wall, filled with books on art, Mexican history, politics, pre-Hispanic art, and the whole house contains the couple's extensive collection of Mexican folk art and pre-Hispanic ceramics and art objects, as well as the whimsical, disturbing, and haunting objects they made themselves. There is a "day bedroom" right next to the studio, where she could lie and rest or draw (a mirror is on the ceiling of the bedstead) and a night bedroom, containing many effigies, puppets and dolls Frida made of herself, sometimes with skulls for heads; on the ceiling of that bed is a framed collection of butterflies.
I was unprepared to see Frida's death mask lying on a pillow on the daytime bed, surrounded by a shawl, and the container for her ashes on the night bedroom's dressing table: it is a large pre-hispanic urn in the motif of a toad - an epithet Diego often used to refer to himself.
Rivera painted the Mexican people in all their monumentality; he showed them to themselves and in doing so, contributed to their sense of identity and national narrative in the same way as great national poets. Frida painted herself: her artistic world was primarily an inner one, and being at La Casa Azul, I felt this more than ever; I was happy that she had had this sanctuary, which she and Diego had made even more beautiful. I didn't want to take many photos there; just a few outside, that perhaps reflect how I was feeling.
Coyoacan is definitely a tourist destination, and you get that vibe much more than in the centro of Mexico City, which is on such a huge scale that even tourists are absorbed in it. The city center contains a very old church, and a large beautiful park surrounded by artisan markets, trendy shops, and restaurants.
Finally we walked back to the metro in the shade along one of Coyoacan's oldest streets, Francisco Sosa, which is paved with stone and lined with old trees and graceful old mansions with walls and courtyards.
Tomorrow I'll show you the neighborhood where we were staying - neither touristy nor ritzy, but very real.
We had another big storm, almost a blizzard. Everybody's pretty demoralized as they trudge along through the snow, wait at the bus stops, dig out their cars, or - as I did this yesterday morning - push through knee-deep drifts to try to open a door. The day before I fell flat on my tush on some black ice, but fortunately didn't hurt myself; other friends haven't been so lucky and are wearing casts at the moment. And we're all still shrouded in layers of down, fur, and wool, in the Montreal winter palette of black and grey, with no end at all in sight.
But on Sunday afternoon, incredibly, I'll be here:
We're heading for the sunshine of Mexico City, away from this ridiculousness for a while. I feel really lucky to be able to get away, although it's always a huge amount of work to clear the decks so that we can travel.
Yesterday afternoon, as a little reward after days of accounting and tax preparations and meeting various client and volunteer responsibilities, I spent some time cleaning and revamping my watercolor palette for the trip. These picture above shows the pigments I'll be taking; the palette contains just a couple of changes from before.
I understand so well why Gauguin went to the Caribbean and Tahiti, and Van Gogh to southern France: we just start to crave color, and the effect of brighter sunlight on just about everything. Today I did some color mixing tests, thinking about the brilliant colors of Mexico.The cool mixtures made with Cobalt blue look so northern to me, although that lapis color itelf is typical and necessary, whether we're talking about the Mediterranean, South America or North Africa. It's obvious to me that the determining factor in the tonal cast are the choices of which red and which blue to use, much more than the yellows. I took away one of the yellowish earth tones from my previous palette, and after seeing John Singer Sargeant's watercolors up close this past June, I've given myself permission to take a half-pan of white gouache.
Here's the complete kit, which weighs in at only 120 grams, all in a small ziplock bag. The blue thing at right is an eraser that can be used flat but also has a fairly sharp edge. Below the palette, which contains a small sable brush in a travel case, are my Japanese water-reservoir brush pen, a size 0.1 black technical pen, a warm brown Faber-Castell superfine-point permanent marker, a #2/HB Dixon Ticonderoga pencil (thanks, Marjorie!) and an opaque white gel pen, and it's all sitting on two squares of paper toweling, which I use constantly while painting to keep my brush clean and control the amount of water; that gets replaced when necessary. Today I'm going to look for the lightest, smallest pencil shapener I can find. I wanted the kit to be light because my sketchbook isn't, particularly.
I'm sure I'll have some time to sketch, but not sure about making real paintings - that may have to wait until we get back to the studio. It's hard for me to commit two or three hours in the middle of a day to doing a watercolor when there's so much we want to see and do, and frankly, I don't want to push myself - we both need to relax. My focus is going to be on seeing more Mexican art, both ancient and modern. Today, though, it's done me a lot of good just to immerse myself in color, and remember the glorious pinks and azures and golds of the stucco buildings, the deep greens of the palms, the violet of the jacaranda trees, and the faces of the people.
How much posting I do will depend on the quality of our internet connection, but please do check in from time to time. Hasta pronto!
Two nights ago I made another drawing of the candelabra and rosary, this time with a jade plant (I had burned the Christmas greens in the fireplace!) My thought was: Mexico, desert, succulents, blue sky outside and a suggestion of snow drifted against the window. Once the drawing was done -- and I try to do them quite fast -- I already felt in trouble. Instead of the relationships I had intended between the objects, each of them just sat there on the page, separate, and - I felt - looking bored with each other. Or was I unexcited by them? I went ahead and added some color anyway, on the somewhat-receptive sketchbook paper.
Better, but when I flipped back through the sketchbook to see the original drawing I was dismayed - it was so much livelier and freer (as is often the case with first attempts!) There were some passages in the new sketch that I did like, though: the right side of the terracotta pot, some of the rosary beads, the yellow birds at the bottom of the candelabra, thr dripping wax, and the interplay of the browns/oranges and those bright blues.
Once the drawing was photographed and in Photoshop, I was able to play with the cropping. Sometimes moving in on a pictures will force the objects into relationship, and improve the balance of the positive/negative space. (It's nice to be able to do this in the computer rather than with scissors!) The result below seems a lot better to me, but of course it's quite a different thing. What do you think?