Día de los Muertos

Nicolás de Jésus and students, October 2012, NVCC, Annandale, VA, right side

The day of the Dead ( Día de los Muertos) is a starting point for Mexican artist Nicolás de Jésus, who visited and demonstrated his work in my Art Appreciation Class on October 17th. Since today is Halloween, it’s a good time to explore how Nicolás de Jésus uses this theme. A mural he completed with students has been hung on the second floor of the CM Building.Is it a coincidence or not to discover this past weekend that someone near and dear to me turned out to be in an art exhibition on the El Dia de los Muertos theme?

Nicolás de Jésus, Fiesta de los Muertos, etching and aquatint

Nicolás de Jésus mesmerized the class as he explained his prints, impressive for their beauty, meaning and the textures. The skeletons of his prints are very animated and life-like. His art dips into memories of his childhood in the Amayaltepec region, where he learned to make art at a very young age and his father was among the most notable folk artists.  At first his art seems immersed in imagery of Día de los Muertos, but closer examination reveals that the holiday becomes a means to an end. His meanings go much deeper, because the subjects of the vernacular, folkloric tradition apply as well to other themes.

Dia de la Muerta, etching, aquatint

The celebration of the Day of the Dead recalls our own Halloween, but it is celebrated on November 1 (for deceased infants and children) and November 2 (for elders) in Mexico. Typically families go the cemeteries where deceased members of their families are buried.  In some parts of the country they dance in the graveyards. They build altars to the deceased and present offerings of food, like sugared skulls, and decorations such as trinkets or flowers, preferably orange marigolds.  They bring toys to the children, essentially blurring the boundaries between life and death.  The celebration combines aspects of an ancient Aztec celebration with the Catholic feast days. The lines between the living and the dead become blurred, as I had recently witnessed in an exhibition at the National Mexican Fine Arts Museum in Chicago, where there were installations with food offerings to the dead, Hanan Pixal.  Art is life and the art of this theme is for both the living and the deceased.

But in the art of Nicolás de Jésus, the skeletons can be powerful metaphors for the living.  The skeletons dance and celebrate, taking on the qualities of living people. They act out the human comedy, or, at times they partake in the human tragedy and satirize human behavior. His meanings can be critical and provocative. He is concerned with the lives of Mexicans on both sides of the border.

Left side detail with skeleton in NVCC/Annandale’s new mural

Maicidio refers to the death of corn, a gift
from Mexico, through modification

Nicolás de Jésus prints his works from amate bark, native to his Guerrero region of Mexico, which is west of the Yucatan peninsula. Though he did not demonstrate in our class how to do his  technique, it is a combination of etching and aquatints.  In etching, the artist sketches the lines of an image into a waxy substance over the metal plate.  For broad areas of shading, aquatint is used. Aquatint is a printmaking process that uses rosin, a natural lubricant produced by from tree sap, melted on a zinc plate to give a grainy quality to the tones. A acid bath ‘bites’ the images into the metal plate in both etching and aquatint, before the scene can be inked and printed in reverse of the drawn image. De Jesús uses the aquatint process frequently to create the grainy, textural backgrounds of many works. 

One print that really strikes me is Maicidio, suggesting death to corn, one of Mexico’s great gifts to the world. The United States has now changed the nature of corn, overproducing it and turning it into cattle feed or high fructose corn syrup, things it was never meant to be. Its by-products become additives in almost all processed food. With American corn now is 85% genetically modified, it’s no wonder the skeletons attack and pull it apart.  Let us remember this fact next Tuesday, when Californians go to the polls and vote on Proposition 37 which will require labeling for genetically-modified food (GMOs).   As our industrialized US agricultural system is dominating and killing corn, people in the US become increasingly disconnected to land.

En El Tran recalls when the artist lived in Chicago. 

Nicolás de Jésus lived in Chicago from 1989-1994, and he has at least 60 works of art in the Mexican Fine Arts Museum in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. En el Tran brings his familiar skeletons into the elevated train of Chicago’s mass transit system, while skyscrapers are seen out the window behind. He implies a deeper truth behind the scene, the fate that awaits all of us in the end. Although not mentioned, Mexico has a tradition of Surrealism and de Jésus also seems to be connected to Surrealists.

In many ways his prints follow in the tradition of socially and politically active artists from Mexico in first half of the twentieth century: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.  A full-blooded Nahua Indian from a small village in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, he is an advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples. Themes of struggle meet the themes of celebration in his work.  Though he is critical of much in society, he is above all a humanist who recognizes our foibles but understands our humanity.


Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

The Magic or Remedios Varo

Since going to the Miró exhibition recently, I’ve been reminded of Remedios Varo.  In 2000, I discovered this marvelous Surrealist in an exhibition devoted to her at Chicago’s Mexican Fine Arts Museum. Called The Magic or Remedios Varo, the exhibition had been organized by Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts and shown there. At the moment of this writing there is an exhibition at Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderne de Mexico, entitled Remedios Varo: 50 Keys.  It includes 50 works of art and a single sculpture.

Certainly Frida Kahlo is much better known, but I find Varo, who knew both Kahlo and Diego Rivera, more evocative and interesting as an artist. Varo also uses a female subject as her chief descriptive vehicle, but she is less self-absorbed than Kahlo and more concerned with the larger world.

Varo was a Surrealist born in Spain in 1908, but exiled to Mexico after 1941. Like Gaudi, Miró and Dalí, she was Catalan, originally from Angles, near Girona and close to the French border.  Some of the literature I read of her suggested she was a scientist with a dedication to nature close to that of Leonardo da Vinci. She learned much through her father, an engineer, and lived part of her childhood in Morocco. Varo is certainly a detail artist and paints more in the style of a tempera painter than an oil painter. Yet I hardly see a deep devotion to science; her art taps into more of a spiritual quest for understanding the world.  Perhaps, to other observers, she bridges the gap between science and the mystical.

Varo’s people are tall and thin, elongated like Sienese or Catalan figures from around 1400.   Her perspective is also similar, somewhat long and exaggerated, also. She has a delicate touch and is able to find connections unexpectedly.  As a woman spins in The Alchemist, above, the checkerboard of her cloak turns into tile patten of the floor  beneath her.  Or is it opposite?  She could be weaving the tile floor into her clothing.  Some kind of contraption behind her is the machinery that connecting what’s inside with the outdoors.  The perspective is like Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo.

Throughout her work I’m reminded of creativity, where it comes from and where it goes.  Her artwork evokes these connections again and again.  There something mystical in how it comes about.  While The Flutist, above, plays next to a mountain, the stones magically rise and form a tower, while a schematic mathematical drawing holds the tower in place.  Stairs of the tower are rising, going up to heaven like a Tower of Babel.  However, some sources cite the the periodic table of chemistry, though I don’t quite see that connection.   There are fossils on these stones, so a connection to the ancient past, present and future come together in one place.

Creation of the Birds, left, dates to 1957.  As a wise woman in owl’s clothing paints birds, the birds fly out the window, She also holds a magnifying glass lit by a star out the window which, in turn, illuminates her creation.   The brush comes out in her center, the heart source of creativity, which is really a guitar strung around her neck.  There are egg-shaped contraptions on the floor and out another window.  In fact, this machine mixes her paint, while a bird eats on the floor.  Art, music, inspiration, heart, mind, and inspiration flow together, while birds fly in and out.  The artist’s work is to connect inner and outer worlds.

Varo’s connection to Surrealists in Paris and Barcelona was strong.  She attended the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, the same art school as Salvador Dalí had attended. We know little of her work in Europe before she went to Mexico, but we know she admired the paintings of Heironymous Bosch at the Prado and philosophical writings of the hermetic tradition.  Most of the work that can be seen is comes from the 1950s up to her death in 1963.  Her association with the Surrealism made her unacceptable to either the Spanish government after the Civil War or a France during Nazi occupation.  She and her French husband fled to Mexico where they met other artists such as English-born Leonora Carrington, perhaps the artist closest to her in style.

We can’t always know what was on her mind, as in the case of much Surrealism, but there seems to be a desire to tap into the origin of creativity and to connect the self (herself) to the larger universe.  Her last painting, before she unexpectedly died of a heart attack at age 53, was Revolving Still Life.   Pieces of fruit spin off plates as the planets orbit the sun. How interesting the many ways she can connect the small and ordinary with the big, cosmic implications!  She has many online followers and fans of her work.  There was an exhibition in Los Angeles last Spring which featured 10 of her paintings.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016