IN MEXICO, there is a festival for everything, from birth to death.
The Feast of the Pitchers at Easter is a favorite of Joshua Taylor. He's director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, the author of a book on Mexican art and a man devoted to his other home in Taxco. "The Feast of the Pitchers in many ways shows how the peopel keep to the old ways while changing with the times," he says.
"The potters bring in great mounds of jugs, cups, pots and pitchers to sell.The water pitchers are porous so the water will evaporate and cool itself. My friend Chico thinks the water tastes sweeter from those jugs. The small pitchers have the most common names painted on them, and you pick your friend's to give as a gift. If you have a really outlandish name, they'll paint it on for you on the spot. I like to drink coffee from the small pitchers on my veranda.
"Recently, at the feast, there were piles, too, of enamel and aluminium ware. Many households use both. In my own house, Lola makes some sauces in the electric blender, but others are always made with the mortar and pestle made of lava stone. We always cook in clay pots but boil water in an aluminium pot.
"I collect the wonderful figures from Guerrero. Originally, they were always in clay colors of brown and tan. Now they are often painted garish whites and Day-Glo colors - because the tourists expect them to be. But still they keep their shapes - Picasso would have loved those hatchet-shaped heads - and their humor. They show people in everyday situations: women arguing, men cutting cane, dogs fighting, pigs sucking. It's difficult to bargain for the figures - many still speak Nahua, their pre-conquest language from which we have the terms tomato and avocado.
"Of course, the crafts are changing. The apprentice system is still the major way crafts are carried on. But the son of the best weaver in Taxco isn't interested in weaving. Only in centers where the crafts are important commercially do there seem to be enough young people learning."
A rare look at Mexican crafts is currently offered in three shows, all on 17th Street NW within a few blocks of each other. "The Artistry of Mexican Craftsmanship" is displayed in the windows of the Inter-American Development Bank in the 800 block of 17th Street, and "Mexican Masks and Clay Figures from Guerrero" at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Both of these shows already are open. "Celebration of Life: The Folk Art of Mexico" opens Thursday at the National Georgraphic Society's Explorers Hall, 17th and M Street.
The Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, Wednesday through Oct. 9, will present crafts and entertainment from Mexicans and Mexican Americans, including a lace fillgree needle-worker, a candy sculptor and a woodcarver. Demonstrations at the Renwick Gallery will include Mexican maskmakers.
The current exhibitions are largely of objects made in this century. And it is good to see that the artisans of Mexico still have a careful eye and a sturdy hand.
"In Mexico today we have several schools of design and crafts," said Alfonso Soto-Soria, director of the University of Mexico's Musuem of Arts and Sciences, who lent some objects from his own collection to the IADB show. "Many architects design craft objects, some to be executed by craftsman, some they make themselves. But in the countryside, there are still small studios, actually cottage crafts, where the whole family makes a certain thing, in the way handed down by their grandfathers."
The magic combination of the hand and the eye go back very far in Mexico. When the Spanish arrived in the 16the century there was a civilization with a sophisticated culture in many ways superior to the Spanish. The Spanish stole the gold, tried to obliterate the civilization and stamp out the elaborate religions. But the peoples of Mexico are not easily conquered. Like the Chinese, in some places they absorbed the conquerers, their religions and culture, added them to their own and made them into something uniquely Mexican.
The Mexicans are masters at making do. Take away the Mexican artist's silver, and he uses tin. Take away his gold, and he uses clay. Give him bread dough, and he makes an animal or wreath or church. He spins sugar and water into intricate skulls or bouquets of flowers. He paints a wooden bowl from the spur of a mahogany tree in a method learned from objects from Chinese boats docking at Acapulco. A simple white homespun blouse is an opportunity for hours of delicate embroidery. Old tin cans are recyled to make a brazier. Old cola bottles are melted down and reblown as green pitchers.
Nothing is too lowly to be decorated. Door knobs, water jugs, bird cages, sppons, lanterns - every object of everyday life is another chance for the Mexican artist and artisan to use color and form.
Mexicans much prefer to make objects that work for a living. Robert Winn, an artist whose collection of Mexican art is the basis for the Geographic show, likes to tell about the pottery banks from Jalisco. "The banks are really heads with funny faces. To justify the slit, they call them banks. One shopkeeper decided the slit detracted from the object. So he talked the potters into putting the slit underneath. They did, but pushed the plug inside to make it rattle. They figured everybody needs a rattle."
Obviously, not all Mexican craftwork is folk art - just as it sometimes seems that there are more French restaurants than Mexican in Mexico City. Of the three current craft exhibitions, the most sophisticated work is that at the Inter-American Development Bank. The exhibit was curated by Alfredo Henares, protocol chief. It is astounding that these exquisite objects, many of them sterling silver, are so openly displayed.
The windows, giving pleasure to the casual passer-by, remind me of the cheerful life of the Mexican streets, where people touch and mingle, eat, nurse babies and visit publicly in a way not seen in more rigid cultures. One of the most pleasant experiences is to walk along the sidewalks in Mexico City and count the number of people kissing. There's nothing to offend the worst fuddy-duddy, the lovers just want to kiss and be kissed, and they see no reason to hide in the bushes as though they were doing something unpleasant.
The single most spectacular piece is the tin mural wall, about seven meters long, from the Instituto Mexicano de Comercio Exterior. It's a many-sectioned wall, covered with thin tin - cut, mirrored, hammered and embossed with a fantasy land of great delights. It is the work of Jorge Wilmot.
The most beautiful of the objects in the show are made of silver. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Indians of Mexico mined and worked silver. Not for them was the prim and precise propriety of the European way with silver. They learned 1,000 years ago not be miserly with it but to shape it with a lavish hand.
"La Plastica" by Manuel Rivero is a marvelous 2-foot-high wall of hollow sterling, a rectangular sculpture pulled and pinched into depths and shadows. The same artist's "Cosmic Fruit Tray" is a huge sterling bowl filled with silver grapefruit - or are they planets? Pedro Leites has made a flowere vase carved in the shape of a monkey, a design translated from an obsidian urn now in the famed National Museum of Anthropology. Another silver bowl by Leites is encircled by strange heads.
The Inter-American windows have other crafts. The batiks of Mario Ortiz-Mena and his wife, Laura Garduno, are made with Indonesian techniques and Mexican forms. The pottery and wood sculpture was collected by the Mexican Institute of Foreign Trade, whose designer Jorge Barreto came up to install the show. Handsome jewelry and metal candelabra and mirrors come from the El Bazaar Sabado group of artists, 90 artists who come together on Saturdays in a handsome colonial house to sell their wares. Masks, pottery and lacquer work were collected in the 1930s by painter Roberto Montenegro and lent by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes.
The National Geographic show is of humbler objects, the art that the people make to please themselves. It is all from Winn's collection. From San Antonion, Tex., he's also an exhibition designer. The exhibit is the National Geographic's traditional holiday season show, always one of the bonbons of the season.
"I though of calling it 'Birth, Life and Death in Mexico,'" said Winn, "because my collection begins with the marvellous object of the Day of the Dead, Nov. 2, a big celebration in Mexico."
The Mexicans have an easy attitude toward death. They poke fun at it (a skeleton rises out of a paper coffin when you pull a string). They scare it (a horrible pottery devil is carried by celebrants to scare the real evil one). They eat it (skeletons and death's-heads are made of bread and sugar, and carried to the cemetery. What the spirits don't eat, their survivors do). Who could be afraid of death, if it's only made of marzipan?
Charles and Ray Eames' great movie "The Day of the Dead," showing all these wonders in the Nov. 2 fiesta (for that is what it is) will be shown along with the exhibition. In the Eames film, you can see for yourself what happens if you pull the string to the paper coffin or turn the crank on the ghost parade.
For life, Winn has a splendid selection of useful objects. The funny-face banks have cheerful smiles. Large spoons are made to dip water to pour over the bather in the absence of bathtubs or hand sprays. Huge Ali Baba-sized jugs hold water where there are no city pipes. Large canvas and bamboo umbrellas shield fruit in the market. Lava stone mortars and pestles grind grain and pulverize herbs. Braziers made of tin cans warm chestnuts and fingers. Green pitchers reconstituted from cola bottles have Madonnas embossed on the side to keep the milk from spoiling.
These objects manage to be beautiful and serve their purpose efficiently.
The pieces that don't work as hard for a living - the birth or nativity figures and the altar pieces - are not as pleasing to the conservative eye. Since they only come out once a year, and then for fiesta, they are decorated without restraint with outlandish colors and fabulous fauna. Mermaid jugs or candelabra come from a section of Mexico where rain is scarce. Birds in amazing plumage flock to the tree-shaped altar pieces made of pottery. The nativity scenes themselves are most often made of clay, but one especially sophisticated pieces is carved of wood. Three kings made of pottery recall Japanese figures.
The nativity scenes often spend their Christmases in fanciful churches made of bamboo, clay or wood. The bamboo churches often have held birds during the rest of the year.
While some of the Winn collection is the sort you've seen often before, most of its is at least amusing and some of it is beautiful. The setting, designed by Peter Purpura, actually puts you in the picture with huge blowups of his own photographs ("Just imagine the size of his camera," joked Robert Radcliffe of the Geographic staff).
The Renwick show of masks and Guerrero clay figures is not one of their major efforts. But the masks, used over the eons in ceremonial dances and plays, are remarkably inventive. Some are tigers and dragons, with animal hair and tin tongues. Others are kings with baby heads sprouting from their foreheads and tigers for chins. There are skulls, too - painted wood with grisly-teeth. Masks to make you laugh and masks to frigthen.
Taylor points out that the maskes are still used. "I've seen great masks worn by the dancers for the Easter Festival."
The introductory panel at the Renwick points out, "Everyone has two sides to his nature." This duality is acknowledged by the masks, expressing animate and inanimate nature. "Even after Mexico was conquered by Spain in the 16th century," the Renwick panel says, "many of the indigenous peoples of the country, often mixing old practices with the new religious imagery, continued the tradition . . . represented today by 54 different cultural groups, each of which maintains its own language and customs."
It takes time to become acclinated to the powerful pinks, delicious greens, riotous reds and luscious yellows of Mexico. In Mexico, pastels are totally washed away by the brilliant light. The eye seeks for color strong enough to stand up and be seen under the subtropical sun.
Unfortunately, the shows in Washington today are but a poor sampling of the handwork of Mexico. It is too much to expect that they could bring us the magnificient contemporary architecture, the splendid brick arches, the elaborate architectural metalwork, the voluptuous gardens, the glass and metal lamps, the intricate silver, brass and tin from the museums and the cathedrals.
These exhibitions and others around town are a part of the Mexico Today Symposium, financed by grants from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and organized by Meridian House International, the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program and the Center for Inter-American Relations.
It is the largest presentation on contemporary Mexico ever held in the United States. Exhibits, panel discussions, performing arts, films, lectures and other events began this weekend and will continue in New York, Atlanta, San Antonio, Detroit, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego.