With an exhibition about Anita Brenner at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on view as part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, we turn back to the Summer 1951 issue of ARTnews, which featured a report on the Mexican art scene written by Brenner. Born to Jewish immigrants in Mexico in 1905, Brenner wrote about Mexico several times for ARTnews. In this report, she addressed a cache of stolen paintings, work by Carlos Orozco Romero, and collections of ex-voto paintings. Her article is reprinted in full below.
“The Mexicans rediscover tradition”
By Anita Brenner
Mexico City: Colonial pictures, recovered after a cops-and-robbers chase, go on show with the Mexican School’s younger generation
The summer season in Mexico offers several interesting prospects, among which one fairly sensational item is an exhibition of smuggled Colonial paintings recently recovered by the government.
The story behind these is rich political cream for Fernando Gamboa, head of the plastic arts department of the National Institute of Fine Arts, and a feather in the good-neighbor cap of the head of the San Francisco police. It seems that somebody in San Francisco heard of a cache of antique Mexicana being offered for sale in rather mysterious roundabout ways, looked, and passed the word to the Mexican Consulate.
Gamboa flew to the scene and, with the California police behind him, began to discover there was more than one such cache. The trail, followed in the very best Perry Mason manner, led to the house of an eccentric millionaire in Los Angeles who had recently died leaving a large collection of art, mostly Colonial Mexican, which his heirs were now in the process of selling off fast.
Most of it, when tracked down, turned out to be stuff that could not have crossed the border in orthodox ways, and obviously hadn’t. A lot of the pictures were badly creased, having been folded into small packages. Some had evidently been used for luggage-canvas, and some were so badly smeared and scratched they looked as if they had come in slipped under car-rugs. The Mexican government slapped a claim on all the paintings that could be found, totaling eight hundred, which may or may not be all there were in the original collection. Some of the owners, caught quite innocently with hot art on their hands, very willingly settled with Gamboa for token payments. One or two dealers, who had bought in quantity cheaply, resisted giving up their daydreams of fat returns, but were persuaded to take payment also, through the good offices of the police.
At present the Bellas Artes experts are busily cleaning and trying to restore as many of the pictures can be saved. Some are beyond repair, but most of them, it seems, can be reclaimed. Up to now, about a hundred and fifty are ready for showing. No great names have so far been discovered among them. In fact, the majority of the pictures seem to be unsigned. They are sixteenth- to eighteenth-century convent and church paintings, not quite “formal” art, nor yet exactly popular, but somewhere in between and closer to folk-art than to any academy. Such as are so far clearly visible are unmistakably Mexican in flavor and style, a bit on the naïve and primitive side in many cases, very much like the portraits and genre scenes done by provincial painters in the Flemish tradition, long since Mexicanized with such characteristic touches with garlands, doves, sentimental inscriptions and a certain childlike delicate stiffness of treatment.
Apparently most of the paintings are from the Querétaro area, and generally central-Mexico, which has produced some of the choicest work of this type. It is supposed that they are officially “discards” from churches being renovated and refurbished. It happens fairly often that old paintings or sculptures are discarded in favor of something more gilded and pink and blue, and the castoffs find their way to dealers in Mexico, who in turn have their contacts over the border. Of course, there is also a considerable quantity of old painting still kicking around in back rooms of junk dealers, who bought them off guerrilla raiders in the turmoil of revolutionary days. No antique of any sort, however, is supposed to leave the country without official permit, and therefore practically everything that goes, including things that would probably be given permits (only works of first-rate quality must remain in the country) travels by unholy route.
Another rather unusual exhibition will be put on through the summer months at the Galeria Reger (Lisboa 60), which is a definitely non-business gallery run by the painter Judson Briggs and his wife Muriel Reger. This show will consist of ex-votos from the best Mexican collections—Covarrubias’, Montenegro’s, etc. And in conjunction with it, a series of pictures by the perhaps non-existent “Horacio,” who may be several people, according to some of the theories passed around.
Horacio is the signature on pictures done in the popular nineteenth-century style—mostly naive portraits and indoor family scenes, at times indistinguishable from genuinely old pictures, and frequently partly old and partly repainted, as is evident from the age and type of canvas used. They are sold as a rule from a hole-in-the-wall junk place on a side street, whose owner, for anyone knows, may be Horacio himself. He claims most of the paintings are done by a very old man out in the sticks. He does not pretend that they are antiques, but if anybody takes them as such he doesn’t argue the point, either. If questioned very much, he brings up the old old man in the sticks and get a bit irritable if you look to microscopically at the pictures. In reality, there is no very snide intention to deceive, and the pictures can hardly be called fakes. Mexico is full of unknown artists, some old as the hills no doubt, and some quite young, who are painting and carving in styles long since past, officially, but quite alive in the provinces. Some of the Horacios may be old pictures in reality, which the artist rather innocently “makes new”—he puts new pink slippers on the girl, new roses around the white horse, etc.—presumably on the theory that new things may bring in more pesos than something rather dirty and worn.
Current at Bellas Artes, through June, is a one man show by Carlos Orozco Romero. Though very well known in Mexico and rapidly reaching top-rank reputation, he has not exhibited much in the U.S. where he is generally known for coldly poetic landscapes. He is one of the few Mexican artists, however, who likes to play, and when he does let himself go, his fantasies can be exceptionally light and tender in mood; or runny, in a surrealist mode. Among the most interest of his pictures are semi-abstractions, nearly always composed with figures in threes. Whether deliberately experimental or an insistent personal theme, the trio or triptych is typically Orozco Romero, as is also an immense interest in arabesque and dance.
Orozco Romero is above all a conscientious, extremely honest artist. He never paints for the audience and still less for the tourist eye, and, as he is extremely subtle and rigorous, he has not until recently gotten much of the popular recognition he rates.
Rahon and Martinez
At the Galeria de Arte Mexicano (Inez Amor, Milan 18) there will be two summer exhibitions of interest. One is the work of Alice Rahon, formerly Alice Paalen. Mme. Rahon is a European refugee who has lived for a good many years in Mexico. She is a non-objective painter, at her best in decorative fantasy, who composes with great precision and delicacy. Color is her forte: it is low-voiced, unobtrusive and often exquisite.
The other star at this gallery will be Ricardo Martinez, one of the younger group. Up to recently he has painted monument-size figures and groups, with a strong tendency to blues vaguely reminiscent of Picasso’s Blue Period. His most recent work seems less ambitious and more successful. He has turned to landscape and has found an original idiom there which can best be described as lyric and decidedly not dramatic nor lush. In one or two of these canvases Martinez has caught the triste mood of Mexico’s landscape—the elusive afternoon light, the toned-down color, and the nevertheless sharp definition of outline. Martinez is one of the younger men who received a great deal of recognition early in his career. It has happened in several cases of such painters, that they have gone gaudy and soft, and increasingly pretentious. Fortunately Martinez has taken the opposite road, showing hard work, humility and solid progress.