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Tucson Weekly Spanish Soul

"El Alma Del Pueblo" captures the lives of old- and new-world artisans.

By Margaret Regan

MAY 4, 1998:  OUR LADY OF the Rose has no relation to the over-exposed Rose of the movie Titanic, but she's a queen of the sea all the same. Lashed to a wall at the Tucson Museum of Art, she's a gorgeous carved ship's figurehead who bears a wooden rose in her hand. Once upon a time, she guided Spanish sailors across the Atlantic's treacherous seas. Right now she helps visitors navigate their way through the gigantic show El Alma del Pueblo: Spanish Folk Art and Its Transformation in the Americas.

Produced by a folk artisan in the port city of Barcelona around 1900, "Our Lady of the Rose" is just one of the many pleasures in this wholly pleasurable show, which opened last week in TMA's newly expanded galleries. The exhibition unapologetically presents the work of "el pueblo," of the shepherd, the sailor, the blacksmith, as worthy of museum display. For southern Arizonans who've grown a tad weary of shows of our own region's multicultural folk traditions, El Alma offers a refreshing visual change. There are religious paintings and trinkets, embroidered christening caps and carved furniture, walking sticks and puppets, festival figures and pottery, popular graphics and ironwork, making for an altogether lively mix of functional and ceremonial crafts. Fully two-thirds of its 308 objects are from Spain; one-third are from the New World, but they hail as much from Puerto Rico, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia as from Mexico.

Like that lovely figurehead, many of the Old World works remind us that Spain was once a great seafaring nation. (In fact, when the traveling show visited Miami, curators imposed a maritime theme on it, building display cases that suggested ships.) Some of the exhibition's most charming works were created by sailors relieved to have weathered a dangerous crossing. The three-dimensionally inclined made detailed models of sailing ships; those who favored a flat surface painted colorful "ex-votos" depicting near-wrecks at sea, with the intervening saint or Virgin Mary supervising from one corner. The grateful sailing craftsmen would hang their models or paintings in churches in thanksgiving for their safe passage. A splendid example of a ship model from Cataluña, complete with a mosaic of shells beneath, is from the 19th century; and so are most of the little shipwreck paintings.

Even the arte pastoril, the art made by the shepherds left behind by their seafaring brothers on Spain's craggy hillsides, somehow speaks of the sea. The Spanish shepherds had a carving tradition akin to the scrimshaw of whaling New Englanders. They made intricate incisions on the bones of their dead sheep, or on the horns of their goats, delicately creating scenes of a bullfight (in a 19th-century Salamanca cup) or even, in one case, perhaps awed by a sailor's fantastic tales, lovingly carving the mythical creatures of the deep.

The erudite show, replete with informative wall texts and a scholarly catalog, was curated by Marion Oettinger Jr. of the San Antonio Museum of Art. Bringing an anthropological bent to his aesthetics, Oettinger traces the evolution of some genre objects as far back as the Greeks and Romans. A tiny Greek horse, a bronze from about 500 B.C., was found in Andalucia. It's an ex-voto ancestor of the milagro, the silver legs and hearts so plentiful today in South Tucson and parts farther south. He tells us that Roman ex-votos too have been found in Spain. Made of wood, wax, bones and metal, they were "testimonials to the power of the spirit world."

The spirit world of Spanish Catholicism quite rightly gets ample play in this show. There's a beautiful "Virgin and Child" carved in the severe Gothic style of the 14th century. A later artisan, steeped in the Spanish baroque, added gilt and paint to dress them up. An ex-voto painting is dedicated to San Ramón Nonato, patron saint of midwives and women who give birth by Caesarean section (curiously he's a Dominican monk). The relieved mother smiles in bed, the midwife cradles the infant and the dad does his part by praying on his knees to the saint, who hovers up in the left-hand corner. Religious art tells us about the people's alma, or soul, as the exhibition title reminds us, but as the childbirth picture demonstrates, it also conveys information about the soul of secular life. Similarly, an ex-voto of stone masons tumbling from a wall reveals their clothing, tools and building techniques. The painting sailors, of course, enlighten us about the tricks of their trade.

The secular objects show how that same spirit of the people can make the ordinary more fun. A ceramic lizard is a toothpick holder; a carved writhing snake is walking stick; a sculpted face looks out from the drawer of a chest. A fine ironwork section proves that folk art and fine art don't always work in isolation, either. A fabulous iron sign from a 1900s Barcelona butcher shop is adorned by the amiable heads of those the butcher would kill: a cow, a sheep, a pig. But this extravagant affair, highlighted by punched-out letters, owes a debt to the high-arts modernism that swept Barcelona in those days. The fertile dynamic of turn-of-the-century Barcelona helped give rise not only to the anonymous imaginative ironworker and the carver of "Our Lady of the Rose" but also to "high" artists like Picasso and the innovative Barcelona architect Gaudi.

Many of the folk objects are reprised in slightly altered form in the Americas section of the show. We find carved horns, glazes ceramics, Mexican retablo paintings, echoes of the Spanish ex-votos; innumerable Blessed Virgins (the Spanish Lady of Guadalupe's transformation into Mexico's patron saint is discussed). A high-relief "Our Lady of Montserrat" from 1820s Puerto Rico has black skin and she's seated under a grove of Caribbean ceiba trees. In a 19th-century "Adoration of the Magi" painting from Peru, the familiar stable is set in the snow-capped Andes and the shepherd's wearing a poncho.

Not all uses of folk art are benign of course. San Isidro Labrador was a 12th-century Spanish farmer who became the patron saint of farmers all over Latin America. In an 1866 Bolivian painting, though, he is not a benevolent protector so much as he is an arrogant ruler. A huge figure presiding over a Bolivian hacienda, the giant San Isidro dwarfs an entire population of workers. The painting gives us much information about the life of the people, from their assorted ethnicities to their trades. But this painting, no doubt commissioned by the hacendero himself, works to justify the man's rule: He's made himself the equivalent of a saint. A beloved folk symbol venerated by the people has been usurped by their master.

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