Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Soumaya, Mexico City

We're just back from a 9-day trip in Mexico City and some historic cities in Mexico - Guanajuato, San Miguel Allende, Queretaro, Tepotzotlan. One of my goals was to visit contemporary art museums and new museums in Mexico City, a city with enormous artistic wealth and more fine museums than you can possible get to in a week. We were a group of 14 interested, and interesting travelers.

The first thing I will say is that we were completely safe at all times. We happened to be in Guanajuato when the 7.4 earthquake hit in the Oaxaca area. It was felt in Mexico City, but all we saw was a slightly swinging chandelier in the Teatro Juarez. We saw families in museums and on outings everywhere, people seemed happy, and in general Mexico City seemed prosperous. The only evidence of the narco wars was an art exhibition that addressed it in the Siqueiros Polyforum.

Soumaya ramps
On our first day we visited Soumaya, Carlos Slim's museum for his personal collection. Our group had differing views. Upon leaving, one person suggested that with all his money, Mr. Slim might have hired a professional advisor to help him get better art, that the museum seemed like someone's attic. Although I can understand that "take," and it reflects what I think I've seen in the general press about the museum, I had a completely different impression. I also disagree quite vehemently with those who call the museum's architecture derivative of the Guggenheim. It is not circular and you do not have to view the art on ramps with uneven floors. Fernando Romero, the architect of this imposing structure, did not waste the huge interior space at all. Ramps lead you from one floor to the other and some of them have timelines or information about artists posted on the walls. I saw many people carefully reading these materials. The exterior is cloaked with octagon-shaped metal units, likened by my chemistry professor colleague to models of carbon atoms. It looks much smaller on the outside than on the inside, although the outside is large enough to be difficult to capture in a photograph. And it's on top of a sort of pedestal, making it visible from farther away.

I started at the top, which has marvelous complicated natural light and only displays sculpture. The 'hook' is Rodin, and there are many. But I also found Camille Claudel and other contemporaries of Rodin, as well as quite a selection of amusing sculptures by Salvador Dali. The gallery was full of families and young people talking about the sculpture, or just enjoying it and visiting with each other. Some of our group thought the space looked like a rummage sale, and the people were certainly enjoying it as much as they would a sale. I'm not sure what the organizing principle is for this gallery, but I also enjoyed just walking around and seeing what wonders there are there. A small bronze of Napoleon by Vincenzo Vela was featured in the museum brochure, and took me back to a grad school friend who did her dissertation on Vela. Famous artists, unknown artists, interesting subjects, strange subjects. People were having a good time here. And I was among them.

Jesus de la Helguera, (Chihuahua 1910-1971) Indian Love, 1954. Coll. Fundacion Miguel Aleman.
The next floor down combined ancient Mexican  artifacts and 20th-century Mexican painters. I was taken by the Totomixtlehuaca Codex, dated 1570 from Guerrero, a detailed large sort of map in charcoal on cotton, as well as by paintings by Rivera., Siqueiros and Tamayo. A group of extremely kitsch subjects also caught my eye, and I took a snapshot of Amor Indio, (Indian Love), 1954.  They remind me of Bouguereau and of Luis Jimenez; they are probably not what a respectable art museum would show, but also indicative of some popular taste and amusing. I can imagine being fascinated by these paintings as a child, as I once loved Rosa Bonheur's Horse Fair at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Joaquin Sorolla, Head of a Boy, 1911

Selections of an unusually dark portrait of a boy by Joaquin Sorolla, a Modigliani portrait of a male printer, early Van Gogh peasant paintings that could have depicted Mexico, and a Rivera seascape among French seascapes in the 19th-century galleries gave the strong impression that Slim is putting Mexican art into its European context and connecting famous European artists with Mexico. I had the sense that general visitors here would find the art easy to relate to and specialists might find paintings in styles and subjects they did not expect. Of course, the "quality" of these works might have been mixed, but the little Sorolla transfixed me, as did many of the other works by both Mexican and European artists.

The collection includes very good and representative works by many of the most famous Mexican artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Three paintings are below:

Joaquin Clausell (Campeche 1866 - Zempuaola 1935), Night Seascape, early 20th century

Gerardo Murillo, Dr. Atl (Guadalajara 1875 - 1964 Mexico City), Landscape with Volcano, 1946

Jose Maria Velasco (Temascalzingo 1840-1912 Mexico City), Ahuehuerte Trees in Chapultepec, 1875
The collection is enormous and there's plenty to delight anyone; as I said, I saw many delighted people. Usually I really want a chronologically arranged display, but here I just found things I liked at regular intervals and was happy with the very general organization by floor. I even began to understand why there are copies of Michelangelo's Vatican Pieta and the ancient sculpture of the Laocoon in the lobby, an opportunity to experience in the round objects that aren't readily available, as plaster casts have been used in other museums. You can't get that close to the real Pieta any more, so even in bronze, it's interesting to experience the work spatially.

On a Saturday the museum was full of people and it seemed clear the Carlos Slim intends it as an entertaining and enlightening gift to Mexico City.

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