Sunday, October 23, 2016

Highlights from Southern Mexico

This will be the last of my 3 missives on southern Mexico.  I learned a lesson on this trip, if at all possible interview your guide before you put yourself in his or her hands.  In my case the guide was not a guide but rather an academic who only knew her own fields of archeology and sociology.  Thank goodness the Spanish Colonial Museum’s curator was with us since she could speak about the churches that we saw.

Having said that, I would have liked to learn more about the current archeology in that part of the world.  I spent about 5 years on the President’s Cultural Property Committee in Washington D.C.  and during the years I was there, the second half of the 1990’s, most of the claims of looting came from Central America.  I don’t remember how much if any discussion about Mexico.   A good part of our trip, however, was on the border of Guatemala, another artificial border so they must be related archeologically.  One of the archeologists on the Cultural Property Committee had spoken about the subsistence diggers, those who dig for archeological materials and sell them on the black market just to survive.  I have never seen such poverty as we passed along the road between the Yucatán and Chiapas. There were heavy border guards on the Guatemala border.  I am sure they were there for drugs but probably also for smuggled artifacts.  What a fascinating subject.

We did see some unbelievable archeological sights.  My wife took me to Pompeii years ago and you could walk around a town but most of it appeared more like rubble to a neophyte like me.  In Mexico many Mayan cities were well established by the 3rd century AD.  When the people left because they could no longer farm, the cities were reclaimed by the jungle until they were re-discovered by archeologists. 

There are obviously many spectacular ruins in Mexico and some even more elaborate than what we saw but Edzna in Campeche and Palenque in Chiapas were on the road we traveled.  We also stuck with the most easily accessible parts of the monuments They had the great advantage of not being overrun by tourists so we got to see them up close and personal.  At Edzna we saw just a handful of people, our group doubling the size of this village for the moment!  We could well imagine the leaders bringing their people together to address them from atop the stone pyramids.  Here are a few images.

In Palenque there are, according to the web over 1,400 temples, many still locked within the jungle.  Of course, many have reliefs and hieroglyphics on them as this was certainly a center for trade at its peak between 600 - 800 AD as it is a center for tourists today.  Here you have a couple of images of the monuments on the site plus an interior of the tomb of the Red Queen where my wife dared to climb!

An image I could not resist sharing was as we drove through Chiapas this beautiful view of the mountains through the abundant vegetation.

The site that I found the most incredible of all; was the church of San Juan Chamula.   It is actually the interior that is so exciting and not because of the art.  The church is full of individual worshippers praying in various Mayan languages in front of small altars with various numbers of candles on the floor in front of them, usually without stands just melted to the floor.  It seems that the number of candles depends on the seriousness of “the ask” from god.  One couple in the middle of the church was kneeling, there are no seats, and in front of them were maybe 25 or 30 candles. Their little daughter was lighting the last ones.  The man was holding his wife’s hand up in the air to the large altar in front.  I can only imagine that there was something seriously wrong with it.

One is not allowed to take photographs and one would feel guilty doing so because it is the people praying not the church you would be photographing.  I looked on line and could not find a single photo but in the market opposite the church I did find a postcard.  What a sight to remember!

Here too is an image in front of a church in the nearby village of Zinacantan where a priest is saying an open-air mass to a congregation mostly wearing traditional embroidered costumes.

Mexico is so well known for its music and what might be called their national instrument is the Marimba derived from both African an Central American traditions.  In Chiapas de Corzo we received a complete lesson on the various components of the instrument and how they affect the sound.  We had a one hour private concert at the home of a master Marimba maker, but here is less than a minute of the wonderful music.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Visit to a Hacienda and a Mayan Story

Outside of Merida we visited the Hacienda Sotuta de Peón in Tecoh, Yucatán.  It is a privately owned historic henequén plantation. We had a trilingual guide who was amazing as a storyteller and an actor getting totally into his tour.  He did not only have our group of a dozen but also a group of Mexican tourists and continued in two languages and though his English was fluent his rapid Spanish took half the time!

He first explained to us that henequén is a plant that is called sisal in English and is also known as agave.  It can make very strong rope, and hammocks and Tequila comes from the same plant.   One of the many Land Reform laws required that each hacienda owner only keep 10% of his original land and this property, which was originally 3000 hectares was now only 300 hectares making it impossible to make a profit from the henequén which sold for so little.  As a result they now rely on tourism.

We got to see how the henequén leaf was originally carded by hand by pulling it by hand through sharp spikes into strands and then how it was later done with machines.  These could also string it together and mae into bales of 250 pounds which sell now for something like $50.  We also received a tour of the owners lavish home brought back to its original nineteenth century splendor through original art and reproductions.

We were then all put on two sides of a large flat cart pulled by a mule at a relatively high speed.  The cart was on rail tracks and sure enough at one point we all thought we were done for when the cart went off the tracks.  We then understood why the crew carried walkie talkies... to call for help.  Another crew member showed up with a large piece of wood to pry up the cart as they pulled and pushed the cart back on the tracks. 

We were taken to the home of an 83 year-old Mayan gentleman who had worked on the Hacienda for his entire life.  Our tour guide did a running translation from the Mayan dialect into Spanish and English as if he had never heard the spiel before... what a performance! The same transportation took us to an open covered porch with a thatched roof where we had a hearty lunch. Here are pictures of the Mayan and our guide as well as an image of his house and interior.

On another evening we were taken to Chichen Itza  the most famous of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatán.  Projected on the great Pyramid, originally hidden by the jungle, we saw a sound and light show telling the history of the site.

Near by was an ancient ball court where the Mayans played a game called pitz that was part of their political, religious and social life.  The rubber ball ranged in size from a soft ball to a soccer ball. The players could not touch the ball with their hands but bounced it off their hips trying to get it through stone hoops along the ball court.  The loser also lost his life... that is one way to reduce the population!  Here is a bronze demonstrating the technique.

More to come...

Sunday, October 9, 2016

My First Trip to the Real Mexico

My wife is on the Board of the Spanish Colonial Society and Museum and she never does
 anything halfway so she has immersed herself in Spanish Colonial art and its history.

We were in Mexico once about 15 years ago but it was at an Eco (ecological) resort meaning
that there was no internet and you went to sleep when the sun went down. There were a
 minimum of modern conveniences, in other words, a total rest! But it could have been pretty 
much anywhere.  There was, however, always delicious fresh fish which was brought in by the
local fishermen.

Penelope studied Spanish, and still does, so she went to Mexico for two weeks for an intensive 
Spanish course a number of years ago. This time, however, she decided we would share in a
tour offered by the Spanish Colonial Museum. We are only going on one of the two tours offered
and that starts off in the Yucatan state in the city of Merida. One of her fellow trustees owns a
house down there and arranged for a native guide who speaks English. Also, the museum's 
curator, Robin Farwell Gavin, who is an authority in the field and also speaks Spanish was there
to fill in the gaps.

Robin Gavin Discussing the Mission Church
in Mani, Yucatán

The guide's concept was not just to show us sites but to explain the culture from the social,
 Mayan and historical points of view. Therefore, the first day we were taken to different districts 
in Merida including where the foreigners live and the commercial districts. The shops are very 
small and plentiful and in the tourist areas each shop has its hawkers and owners yelling for you
 to come into their shop. A man sitting in an outdoor cafe decided that I looked like a smoker and
wanted me to buy the cigars he was selling. When he started to follow me I had to yell, "I
 DON'T SMOKE" so that he would go back to the table with his buddies.

There are a great many abandoned houses and we learned that if you want to buy one of them, 
they are not expensive but cheaper if the "For Sale" sign is in Spanish and it is best if you send in 
a local to negotiate with the owner.

Because of the poverty it is difficult to keep the economy going in the smaller villages and they
 have found artificial ways to continue and in some towns it is through fashion. Though the
 pattern may remain the same, each year the women are expected to wear a new dress in a
 different color. These dresses can cost as much as U.S. $250 which can represent 6 months
 salary for someone if they do not have a seamstress in the family. Those who cannot afford it 
and wear last year's color are marked as of a lower class. The plus side, though I am sure the
 impoverished don't feel so, is that the ones who could afford the new dresses are also expected
to pay more to the Church. Someone in our group asked if one moved to a new village would
 you be accepted, the reply was, only through marriage. It is the same everywhere, the keys to
 success and social acceptance are marriage and money.

In the villages the Mayans live in thatch roofed houses which allow the air to go through them 
giving cross ventilation since they cannot afford air conditioning. Only sleeping is done indoors 
as cooking and most activities remain outside. Many of the gift shops sell beautiful hammocks 
and they also hawk them at the outdoor restaurants in the tourist area. But it surprised me to
learn that 80% of the local population still sleeps in them.

Hammock on wall
 hook in a wealthy persons home

We visited a number of churches one dating from 1549 in Mani, Yucatán, most of the paintings
 and sculptures were replaced in more modern times, but here we saw 17th and 18th century
carved painted and gilded altarpieces. Many were built on top of what had been Mayan
pyramids, reusing the same stones. As these were Missions, impressing the Indians with the
vast vaulted spaces was part of the effort to convert them. Mexico today is still mostly Catholic 
but I had not heard before that there has been a large Evangelical movement in recent years.

Mission Church in Tecoh, Yucatan

The trip will continue and I will report more as time goes on.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Eric Stiebel, My Father

In July of 1911 a doctor and his wife had a little boy who grew up in their home town of Frankfurt am Main, Germany.  He went to school in Frankfurt and then, following the German system attended colleges in Frankfurt, Munich & Berlin.  One day in 1933 he was told that he would have to leave school because he was Jewish and shortly thereafter he left Germany.  When his American-born son asked him how he knew it was time to get out he replied, “when I was thrown out of school I knew that I was not wanted” and that was all I ever heard from him about that experience.

Eric Stiebel ready for University

He did, however, impart another interesting lesson from his experience in his homeland.  He told me, “It can happen here” which was a shocking statement to a child growing up in the United States.  Frankly, I remembered it but could not fully comprehend or internalize it until the 21st century when I watched a fair percentage of my country turn on all Muslims.

The two senior partners in our family art dealership moved to establish the firm in Amsterdam. My father moved to Paris where his brother had already established a private art dealership in the 1920’s because he loved everything French.  There was one problem, however, visa issues.  You could only stay five months on a travel visa so every five months my father went from Paris to London and then back again.  My mother joined him in Paris where they were married in 1937.

As you may have gathered my father was the youngest member of the firm and Intelligently his cousin, Saemy Rosenberg, had set up a company in New York in anticipation of the necessity of leaving Europe and in 1939, seeing the writing on the wall they sent my father to New York, to wrest the firm from the lawyers who had ben the nominal officers and set up the business.  The “office” was my parents’ apartment and because it had to represent the new art dealers in town they were allocated enough for an apartment on Central Park South.  I was born in 1944 pushing the business out of our two-room abode to a gallery upstairs in an office building on 57th Street.  The original space on the back of the building eventually expanded to the entire fifth floor.

I asked my father what he did during the war and he said, “mostly work with lawyers to prove that my relatives were vital to this country’s interests.”  Soon, however, a great deal of art was pouring in from Europe and he and his partners, who he had gotten into the country via Mexico and various countries in South America, had to start to field all the requests from cash starved Europeans and the demands of the American Museums who were eager to collect old masters and other European art.

My father was the consummate European Gentleman.  Like in any store or gallery we usually gravitate to the person that we believe will be the greatest help and many clients gravitated to Eric Stiebel just because of his calm and dignified matter.

Whenever the doorbell rang in the 57th Street gallery our secretary (today known as an executive assistant) would go to the door and announce who was there.  The first thing that my father would do was pull a slip of paper out of his pocket and write down who it was, so that he could report to my mother that evening.  She usually demanded that he repeat the conversations verbatim!  Today he might have emailed.  I actually caught him taking the time to write his note when Jackie Kennedy was announced.  The Secret Service agent waited outside in the hall.

In the film we made of the history of the firm in 1989 in celebration of 50 years in the United States my father said,  “I definitely have enjoyed my life as an art dealer tremendously.  Whenever somebody asks me… I say that I don’t know any other profession which brings you in touch with beautiful objects and also with the most interesting people, constantly.”

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Gustave Baumann “Fiesta de Santa Fe’s 1926 Parade”

I have written about Gustave Baumann (1881-1971) several times ... the first sentence of that blog says, “More than any other artist Gustave Baumann captured the essence of Santa Fe.”  Now the History Museum in Santa Fe has done an exhibition of his work that doesn’t even cover an entire wall! The single work is a 1926 painting, which Baumann reworked in 1938 recalling the Fiesta Parade of 1926.

The Fiesta has been celebrated in Santa Fe almost every year since 1712.   It commemorates  the retaking of Santa Fe by the Spanish in 1692 after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when they were driven out by the Pueblo Indians.   We must not forget that the Native Americans were here first!  The myth is that it was a peaceful retaking but history says differently.

The Palace of the Governors (now part of the History Museum) in Santa Fe has its own printing press, which produces and reproduces books for sale.  There you can find  a recreation of Baumann’s studio with his tools and other materials.  Tom Leech is its Director and he managed to secure the Baumann painting “Fiesta de Santa Fe’s 1926 Parade” as a gift to the Museum from the Baker-Eddy family who had bought it from the artist.

According to the official website for the Fiesta de Santa Fe it’s mission is “to honor and preserve the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe in accordance with the spirit and letters outlined in the original Fiesta Proclamation issued by the Santa Fe City Council on September 16, 1712.”  When you get behind the scenes of any event there are always politics and frictions below the surface.  In the case of the Fiesta it was both that it was a religious event starting with a mass at the cathedral, a reenactment of the “Entrada” where Don Diego de Vargas reclaimed the city and a parade now known as the “Desfile de la Gente” with floats including one with the fiesta “queen” and her court.   For the past two years there have been demonstrations on the Santa Fe Plaza by Pueblo Indians objecting to the myth that the re-taking of the area by the Spaniards was a peaceful event.

Baumann’s painting is his recollection of when the conflict was about how tired and boring the religious and historical pageant had become.   Together with other artists he plotted to make a fun Pasatiempo parade.  As he himself observed in 1926 “I’ve seen much larger parades where people cried with boredom.   I’ve never seen one where sides ached from the laughter…”

The  hijinks included a the tire blow-out collapsing a Harvey tourist bus constructed by painter John Sloan and a bull fight with a bull made by Bauman (shown upper right) .  On the back of the painting Baumann added a legend with the characters in the parade.   In the archives of the Bauman family Tom Leech found photographs that Baumann took and pages of hand written text about the parade.  Some of those photos have been added to the installation.

The painting has a frame made by the artist that compliments the picture perfectly.  It is not too ornate or too pedestrian.   Here is a detail of the corner of the frame ...

Many museum’s have done one painting or object shows like this and they are often the best because they are perfectly edited and focused.  It is obvious that it is easier to concentrate on just one piece rather that an A to Z show with all the works of art from a single period or country or even one artist.  Here Bauman’s painting provides a historical echo the current discontent with an entrenched community event.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What R&R ?

I have always wanted to write a Missive about a hospital stay. My latest experience was at the New Mexico Heart Hospital in Albuquerque.  The day before my arrival there I was having lunch at my favorite sushi bar with a friend and I was complaining about the boring 3 day stay ahead of me.  She said comfortingly “Everyone can use some R & R” (rest and recreation).  In retrospect that was a very funny comment.

I have had arrhythmia on an off for about 20 years and it used to go away by itself with rather basic medicines, or in doctor’s jargon, meds.   Meds used on a continuous basis seem to wear off eventually and so it was with me.  The med that I agreed to try this time, Tikosyn, requires the hospital stay for monitoring while “loading” as they term it. The reason being that it could make things better but also had the potential to make things worse.  My Electro Physiologist  whose specialty is arrhythmias, known in the trade as the electrician, told me to be ready for a very boring stay.  Shortly thereafter I found in the New Yorker this cartoon, which was proven absolutely correct.

The NM Heart Hospital is up to date. First, they hook you up to a heart monitor so that they can keep track of your heartbeat while you are there.  These days you do not have to be attached to a wall plug but can move around and carry the large battery-powered  instrument along with you. There are antennae everywhere to keep track of you as long as you stay on the same floor in the hospital.

I was very grateful that my wife stayed in Albuquerque and kept me company during the day.  For exercise we walked the halls and happily the floor includes two balconies where you can get sunshine and air. Further my room had Wi-Fi so I could use my computer, IPad and cellphone as well as watch TV.

Signs all over the hospital state how important rest is for heart patients, however, rest is hard to come by. They check your vital signs such as blood pressure, temperature and heart rate every four hours and then there are all your pills to be given morning, afternoon, evening and night.  They administered the Tikosyn every 12 hours and then 2 hours after that gave me an electrocardiogram (EKG).  Not to mention doctors visits from the electrician and an internist. 

To take my second night in the hospital as an example at 8pm I got my magic pill, at 10 pm the EKG.  At 10:30 my final pills including a sleeping pill.  The bed is a thin air-mattress that expands rolls and inflates and deflates making it sound like there is someone in bed with you and you are moving all night.  The idea is to prevent bed-sores.  On the night in question the first sleep interruption was at 2:15 AM because my heart monitor was out of juice so a charger joined me in bed.   At 4 AM I was wakened to take my vitals. At 5 AM I was wakened to take daily bloods, at 6 AM pills were brought to me and breakfast arrives around 7 AM.  So I must ask what rest does one get in the hospital?

The happy ending is that they got my heart back in rhythm with a cardio-version and the Tikosyn seems to be keeping it there, so I am now home where I look forward to enjoying some real R & R!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Diego Romero (1964 - )

If you are a collector you know what it means to wish to own something you cannot have.  Still one does not give up until one finds something to fulfill or at least ameliorate the need!  Not that the desire for the “original” object ever goes away it just takes the edge off.  Part of the fun of collecting is to chase your dream. For twenty years I have wanted a piece by Diego Romero whose work I knew through the pot bought by my friend, the late Ted Coe, (see Unfortunately for the Ralph T. Coe Foundation he left that piece to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  The pot was made in 1994 and note the inscription’s last sentence, “LIFELONG AMBITION: TO BE THE NEXT DON TRUMP OF INDIAN GAMING!!!

Diego Romero was born and raised in Berkeley, California, home to his non-Native mother, but his father was from the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico and that is where Diego spent his summers. Like so many Native families the Romeros have become a “dynasty” of artists. in which Diego and his brother Mateo are the third generation.  I have written about Mateo before  ... Diego’s wife Cara is a photographer whose work we bought last year and his son Santiago, also a ceramicist, has sold us a couple of small pieces.

Diego went to art school in Berkley and then attended the Institute of Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe for a year.  He went back to Los Angeles to the Otis Parsons School of design for his BFA and then UCLA for his MA which he receive in 1993.  A short while later he made a name for himself with a series of polychrome pots in a comic book style called the Chongo Brothers. A chongo is a Southwest Native man who wears his hair in a traditional bun.

Diego works in the classic manner of Southwest Native pottery with an underlying influence of ancient Mimbres  pottery.  I found a blog about Diego from the King Galleries, in Scottsdale, Arizona. It illustrated a bowl with a Coyote, which is a staple in Diego’s work, stating that the blocky stylization was inspired by the work of the artist Keith Haring , and further from Diego “ Originally Coyote (the trickster) tempted us to drink too much, messed with our cars and made us behave badly.  Later on Coyote appeared dancing in groups per Haring - but more representing happiness and fun (Life is good).  Fox and hound were a whimsical addition to make a happy trio.” 

Diego participates every year in Indian Market but he brings only a few works. Over the years we have visited Diego’s booth and he was either sold out or what he was showing was not quite what we had in mind.  Fortunately, one gallery in town has a very good relationship with Diego and his family and regularly exhibits their pieces.  It is the Robert Nichols Gallery.  Nichols came from the East coast with a collection of folk art as well as older Southwest pottery to sell in Santa Fe but soon decided to support living Native artists.  As is often said the dead ones don’t need it!

Recently Robert Nichols has had a larger selection than usual of Diego’s work, or maybe it was just that he put them all out in cubicles showing one pot in each space.  I liked several of them and I asked my wife to pick out one.  After she did, I asked her about another and she explained why she chose the one she did … so I concurred.

Written in gold lettering along the rim is the signature Diego has adopted “CHONGO MADE ME” along with the inscription  “CAYOTE & HOUND’ FIRST APPEARANCE OF HOUND’ ”. 10 ½ inches in diameter.   The bowl was featured in and Exhibition Coyote - Diego Romero and Santiago Romero at the Robert Nichols Gallery in 2011 and illustrated in the local art magazine “THE” in August 2011 previews.

Thomas Hoving recorded the excitement of collecting in the title, “The Chase and the Capture” that he gave to the 1975 exhibition and catalog of acquisitions made by the Metropolitan Museum. My chase for a Diego Rivera pot lasted two decades but I am delighted with the work that now lives in our home.