Friday, 12 October 2007

Diego Rivera Murals at the National Palace, and Diego and Frida at the Casa Azul

Bev, Judy and I went to the National Palace, which runs along one side of the Zócalo in Mexico City, to see the famous murals by Diego Rivera, which tell the history of Mexico until the late 1930's. As we came in, we were offered a free guided tour by Pedro, an unemployed history graduate of the National University (UNAM), and he turned out to be a very good source of information. Although his English could have been better, he knew his subject well. He told us the history coloured by his own perspective, as someone who identifies with his mother's family as an Indigenous Mexican, and also from a leftist point of view, familiar to me from Barry's influence over the years. Judy and Bev had many questions about the Mexico of today in light of the history portrayed in the murals, and he tackled them all gamely though these answers, less rehearsed than those to our questions about people and events portrayed in the murals, were not quite so informative. Flash photography is not allowed and there were few of the interior walls bright enough for me to take good photos without flash, but I managed to find 2 to post.

Rivera's artistic talent as one of the prime mural painters of the 20th century was manifest, as was his encyclopaedic knowledge of key events in pre-columbian, colonial and modern history. The church, capitalism, the bourgeoisie don't come off too well in his treatment, and nor do the key figures throughout Mexican history whom he saw as having betrayed the common people and the indigenous inhabitants. Still, he was of the generation that saw the potential of science and technology-based development for the future, and there is an optimism about the murals, and also great pride in the nation's history and the success of the Mexican independence struggle and the series of revolutions. Plus tributes to all the food products Mexico has given the world - including maize, tomatoes, avocados, chiles, chocolate, chicle (the stuff all chewing gum used to be made from) - in one panel. Do not miss seeing these murals if you come to Mexico.

We had a quick look at the Cathedral on another side of the zócalo, then wandered through the nicely restored streets of the historic centre to eat lunch at the Casa de los Azulejos, (House of Tiles) , a beautiful building now housing a Sanborn's restaurant. This brought us very close to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the wonderful white marble palace where we booked Bev and Judy's tickets to see the Ballet Folklórico on Sunday night before heading on through the Alameda (Central Park). This runs along Avenida Juárez, and there is an outdoor photo exhibition which featured very evocative photos taken from postcards and posters celebrating Mexican artists of stage, screen and radio from the early 20th Century, including some information about major artists and forms of folk ballads that engaged Bev's interest. We posed for photos there: see these!

I was looking for a silver store where we bought a menorah many years ago to show Bev and Judy their collection of Judaica in silver. Last time I was here they had moved to a new spot along Juárez Avenue (after their original store was damaged in the earthquake of 1985), but they are now gone from this main street (must check them out on the web), so it was a bit of a disappointment. But we ended up across the road from one of the finest state-sponsored artesanía shops, so we popped in to browse through a range of craft from some of the best artisans in the country, then visited the museum which was erected to house Rivera's famous mural "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda", which was originally housed in the Alameda Hotel on Avenida Juárez , which also collapsed in the earthquake. They rescued the mural and reconstructed it as the major exhibit here, with a legend showing all the important historic personages, fortunately in English as well as Spanish, and after the morning's exposure it was an opportunity to consolidate some of the history and remind ourselves of the key real and mythic figures who feature in his work.

The trip home via Metro and pesero was as interesting as usual, and another CD was purchased for 10 pesos. We stopped to pick up some sweetish rolls resembling Challah at a very large panaderia opposite our Metro station. I wanted to show Bev and Judy another of these amazing institutions with their large range of sweet rolls, cakes and biscuits as well as the standard rolls sold for a controlled price (which has just risen by about 10%), all of which are made fresh all through the day and seem to have no preservatives, as they are quite stale a day later. We decided they were a bit too cakey, but the other bread we bought was a great success with our Shabbat dinner.

We spent the rest of the evening talking, listening to music, and tentatively planning activities for the rest of the week in Mexico City. Then we had a quiet Saturday, walking locally to take in the activities on the streets and in the central squares in Coyoacán, then wandering through the produce market. Just a couple of blocks further on we proceeded to the Casa Azul (Blue House) , which was the Kahlo family home where Frida grew up, and later was the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. There is a permanent collection of many of their artefacts and recreated living spaces - living rooms, bedrooms and the kitchen are very interesting, as is the collection of Frida's outfits, which are familiar from her most famous self-portraits. Recently there has been an exhibition of documents. sketches and early works of both of the artists, which were stored in trunks in the bathroom with instructions not to open while Dolores Olmeda (whose former home, now a museum, houses the largest collection of Frida's paintings) was alive. She died just a few years ago, hence the new material on display. Barry and I had seen the huge Frida exhibition at Bellas Artes, and felt that the social, historic and political context in which she worked was barely mentioned there, to the detriment of the otherwise excellent collection. A lot of the documents now on display in the Casa Azul remedy this lack. Absolutely fascinating stuff, correspondence from all kinds of internationally known artists and revolutionaries, interesting publications from the 30's and 40's in particular, lots of photos of famous friends, political figures, artists, actors, singers, playwrights and musicians, taken around the lunch table or in the garden, and it is impossible not to speculate on the extra layers of meaning in the correspondence, wondering who was whose lover when? Plus lots of facsimiles of early pre-columbian codices and books of art from colonial times, all of which influences you can find in Diego's murals, and to a lesser extent in the animals and artefacts in Frida's work.

It had been very hot walking to the Casa Azul, so we were taken by surprise by the downpour which followed and confined us to the coffee shop. It was accompanied, as it is often, by a series of power cuts, so we couldn't get a cappuccino, but managed a cup of tea while we waited for the storm to abate just a little so we could go home. Judy was not feeling well, so she stayed home and went to bed while Bev, Barry and I headed to a local restaurant for lunch. It was pretty close to 5 PM by the time we ate, not atypical for a weekend family lunch in Mexico, and all around there were large multiple generations of families loudly enjoying their comida. We picked up a few odds and ends at the supermarket before returning home, but Judy wasn't tempted by any of the goodies we had chosen, and stayed wrapped up in her quilt on the sofa for the rest of the evening, and for most of the next day too.

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