The Culture of Viceregal Mexico Comes to SDMA

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The Culture of Viceregal Mexico Comes to SDMA

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA.- The first major exhibition in this country to focus exclusively on the rich artistic heritage of colonial Mexico during the Spanish Viceregal period (1521–1821) opens on March 8, 2003, at the San Diego Museum of Art, the exhibition’s only West Coast venue. The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico: Treasures from the Museo Franz Mayer presents approximately 130 works of decorative and fine art, all drawn from the renowned holdings of the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City, which houses the most comprehensive collection of Mexican colonial art in the world. This exhibition marks the first time a significant portion of Mayer’s collection has left Mexico.
Franz Mayer was a German immigrant who came to Mexico City in 1905 where he became a very successful banker and financier. He began seriously collecting art about 1920, and when he died, he left his collections as a legacy to the people of Mexico. The museum named for him, housed in a beautifully restored 16th-century hospital, opened to the public in 1986. The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico comprises a representative cross-section of Mayer’s collection and includes painting and sculpture, inlaid and richly carved furniture, silver, gold, and iron pieces, and Talavera earthenware, all produced between 1521 and 1821.
“The exquisite quality and beauty of the art of Mexico’s Viceregal period has been too often overlooked and under appreciated, especially on this side of the border. We are honored to present the unparalleled Franz Mayer collection of Mexican colonial art to our region, where the impact of this vital period is still evident today,” says SDMA’s executive director, Don Bacigalupi, Ph.D.
Mayer’s collection reveals a fascinating confluence of cultures from Europe, Asia, and Mesoamerica that gives the art of Mexico during this period its unique qualities. Spanish taste, itself heavily influenced by Moorish culture, was introduced to Mexico at an early date. Similarly, the arts of China made their mark in Mexico as export luxuries came in the Manila Galleon to Acapulco and then were transported over land to Veracruz for the final sea voyage to Spain. The native Mesoamerican cultures also pervaded the developing cultures of Mexico and were adapted in interesting ways. The tin-glazed wares known as Talavera embody these diverse influences on Mexican art.
Religious objects are among the highlights of the exhibition. The show includes a missal stand, c. 1760, that is exceptional because it is entirely worked in cast silver without the typical wooden framework used by many artisans to economize on materials. No other colonial Mexican missal stand surpasses the Mayer example in craftsmanship. A silver alms tray, c. 1700-1725, features a star-shaped plate and naturalist engravings. Alms trays were frequently modified or remade because they were in high demand from collectors. This tray is one of the few in existence in which both the plate and the ornamentation are original, not a fusion of elements.  Women were rarely depicted in colonial Mexican portrait painting in the 16th and 17th centuries. That changed in the 18th century when female portrait subjects became increasingly popular. The exhibition offers a fine example of such work in Portrait of a Lady, 1782, by Miguel de Herrera. The skilled rendering in oil on canvas shows a young lady with an elaborate coiffure bearing large colorful feathers.
Many outstanding examples of Talavera earthenware from various eras are included in the show. A platter from the late-17th century made in Puebla, Mexico, shows a lavish use of cobalt blue, which was extraordinary considering its value at the time. In its decoration, the piece shows Hispano-Moorish conventions combined with motifs and decorations of European, Chinese, and native Mexican origin. By the first quarter of the 19th century, Puebla ceramists began to tire of the blue-and-white decoration that had predominated for more than 150 years. They began to use polychrome decoration as ground coloration and to render motifs. An inkwell and tureen, both early 19th century, were made with a pale-blue background. Vibrant flowers in yellow, orange, green, and blue decorate the pieces.
Beautifully designed furniture and objects made for everyday use are also part of the collection. A wardrobe of carved wood, 1750-1800, features an exquisite ornamental headpiece, which is more closely related to altarpiece construction than furniture design. The door panels bear round mirrors surrounded by well-crafted rocaille. Fine detail is also evident in a snuffbox, c. 1810, created by renowned silversmith José María Rodallega. The box, made from cast, chiseled two-tone gold, shows a French influence in its structural design and in the chromatic interplay of the two colors of gold. The lid of the rectangular box has hidden hinges and is decorated with borders of engraved leaves, vines, and hanging flowers.
Franz Mayer (1882-1975) obtained an independent stockbroker’s license one year after arriving in Mexico and was a founding member of the Mexican Stock Exchange. His charisma helped him gain entry into the elite social circles of the day. Soon he established himself as one of the country’s top investors and eventually accumulated a vast fortune. When he began collecting, his eye for valuable objects was enhanced by his tremendous purchasing power and his love of bargain hunting. He became known as “the crazy old German who would buy an owner a new flower pot in exchange for an old one.” His collection was thinned and refined in later years when he became a partner with one of the most important antique galleries in Mexico City. As his interests and collection expanded, he hired agents to locate fine and decorative art objects—that were either Mexican or that bore some relationship to Mexico—from all over the world. In addition to his passion for collecting, Mayer was an avid traveler, photographer, and gardener. 

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