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The Power of Faith

Each of six paintings tells a tale. here is a man, palms pressed in prayer, the little Virgin of San Juan floating outside his prison cell. There is a woman, kneeling in a green field, cured of her injuries after falling from a train. The scene depicted is not the whole story but its most crucial part—when the faithful are saved from peril by compassionate saints, who arrive draped in capes and surrounded by ethereal clouds.

Known as ex-votos, from the Latin and meaning "according to a vow," the six canvases that open the Modern Mexican Masters exhibit at the Naples Museum of Art are utterly unique. Each one originated through personal experience. They are painted by naive artists with simple, flat perspectives and inspired by what their subjects saw as miracles. The pictures were often offered at the altars of Mexican churches and shrines, and in some ways, they are a page lifted from an intimate visual diary, made by a devout people compelled by Catholic traditions and the need to give thanks.

Although the paintings date from the onset of the 20th century, these humble jewels still have the power to reach across decades and impact museum visitors.

"I’ve seen people walk through, and sometimes they’ll be in front of the ex-votos and say, ‘Aaah, that’s what it felt like,’" says the museum’s exhibitions designer, Chris Erickson. "They have a very real quality."

Erickson led a team of three full-time art installers and two art handlers in the museum’s recent facelift: the re-imagining of the second floor galleries, where part of its vast and permanent collection of Mexican art is on display throughout the season. It took the staff four months to plan the new environs, which sprawl to 2,500 square feet, and three summer months to transform the space.

For its designs, Erickson drew from the natural materials and earth-hued tones used by Mexican minimalist architect Luis Barragán. Walls were torn down and others built up, giving visitors the feel of an outdoor stroll as they move through each room. An 18-by-20-foot latticed partition was constructed, the sort one might find fringing a backyard garden.

"Our Mexican collection is more than paintings on the wall," notes Erickson. "This is more than a standard show. It’s like walking into a courtyard. You don’t feel like you’re inside. We added a lot of delicate details and textural elements. These paintings have a real home."

The Female Influence

Certainly the ex-votos introduce one of the major themes of Mexican art: faith. Yet other motifs quickly emerged when I entered the first of four rooms mounted with 110 artworks. Appearing at once, for example, are women.

They grace paintings by artists such as Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, Rufino Tamayo and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Mothers comfort one another or protect their children. Further on are women at work, carrying pitchers of water or shucking ears of corn.

One of my favorite oils on canvas was made by Rosa Rolanda, and it is one of the few works by women artists on display. Novia de Tehuantepec is arresting, allotted its own wall for the full-bodied portrait of a young bride. In her ornate white-and-gold dress, and holding a candelabra like a sword, her posture is so rigid that she appears almost as a saint.

"Starting with the Virgin Mary, the woman is an iconic familial model that frequently appears in Mexican art," explains Dr. Carol Damian, a scholar of Latin American and Caribbean art and director and chief curator of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum in Miami.

"The woman is family. She is very, very important, the touchstone," he says. "Even for all of the machismo we think about in Mexican society, it’s really the women that are behind the scenes keeping everything together. She’s the head of the house, takes care of the children, the domestic, the agriculture. There is a great pride in the Mexican woman." 

Regardless of gender or even age, the people who populate these realistic pictures appear as they were: not with the classical, aquiline features found in European works, but with dark hair and eyes, full lips and beautiful, burnished skin.

Like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) artists they inspired in the 1930s, Mexican painters such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco summoned forth the lives of common men and women with the colors and struggles of their own country. The interiors of some of Mexico’s most prominent public buildings, such as the National Palace, were painted by these and other Mexican artists, many of whom believed art was a vehicle for nationalism and empowerment.

"After the Mexican Revolution, painting was called on as a way to educate the people," says Damien. "That’s what the muralists were doing by using indigenous subjects. They were creating a style that was recognizably Mexican."

Amassing the Collection

The collection’s most famed work is likely Figura Blanca Desnuda (White Nude). Made by Rufino Tamayo in 1950, it stands at upwards of 6 feet and projects the figurative abstraction for which the painter was best known. In evidence is the exquisite play with palette that earned Tamayo the moniker of master colorist.

Upon first view, the painting appears largely monochromatic—white comprises the cubist, female form, and she stands before a grid of gray and black. The longer I looked, the more color appeared: lavender and green seeps from the background, a dust of blue swirls across her belly and arms.

The canvas is one of several from an era in which the artist considered despair, manifested in part by postwar fears and the specter of nuclear destruction. Deep inside the composition, a clock marks time.

"It’s a very powerful portrayal," says Harry Pollak, speaking by telephone from his Sarasota home. It was his donation of more than 100 objects in 2002 that became the cornerstone of the Mexican collection. (The museum officially acquired another 1,000 pieces in 2007 from Michael and Tonya Aranda, some of which are also included in the show.)

"Tamayo was very involved in dementia at the time," adds Pollak. "It’s estimated that 15 million people have seen that picture." Two years ago, the Naples Museum of Art lent the painting to a major retrospective of Tamayo’s work that traveled from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Miami and then Mexico City.

Pollak began collecting Mexican art with his wife, Sharley, in the 1960s for pleasure and what he calls "100 percent passion for art."

"I expected to lose money, actually," Pollak says. "You have to pay certain fees to galleries, to Sotheby’s and Christie’s. I was inexperienced but, of course, I was pleasantly surprised. Because inadvertently, and unbeknownst to me, Mexican art turned out to be one of the fastest and most dramatic appreciations of modern art."

The Kansas businessman and his wife would make the two-and-a-half day trip by car to Mexico City and also to Morelia, a historic Spanish colonial city and the capital of the state of Michoacán.

In these places they met dealers and visited with artists in their studios; at times the couple would drive across Northern Mexico into rural communities, where they discovered ex-votos and retablos in local bazaars or the basements of churches.

One of the first paintings the Pollaks purchased now resides at the beginning of the exhibit, a watercolor brushed on Japanese rice paper by Diego Rivera that once hung in their home. The couple never stored the art they found and purchased for 35 years.

Much like African-American art collectors Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, the Pollaks had no formal art education. Instead, they schooled themselves on the art they gathered and made their acquisitions by instinct. And, also like the Kinseys, they filled their rooms with all of it; at times the frames of the pictures would even bump against one another, recalls Harry Pollak.

"It ended up that the whole collection had one similarity—the things we liked offered an intense picture of indigenous Mexico," he says. "I think that now it’s found the perfect home. The Naples Museum seems to have really identified with Latin American art. A lot of people wanted this collection, but they were the most enthusiastic about having it."

Broader Connections

The museum rotates its Mexican art at least once a year, particularly its works on paper. "Sometimes we loan out pieces; sometimes we get pieces in. Many times we take a historical approach to our curating, or I’ll see something I haven’t seen before, and it goes out on the floor," explains museum chairwoman, president and CEO Myra Janco Daniels, who adds that the exhibit’s current incarnation offers a number of works that have not previously been shown. Some visitors garner a bit more.

"Twenty-five percent of the county’s population is Latino," says Daniels. "This collection offers them a touch of home as well, a chance to show their children their culture."

"It’s important to see the connection being made across the miles," adds museum registrar Jacqueline Zorn. "Modern art certainly didn’t happen just in America. The White Nude is a prime example of that—it’s almost cubism and is part of the abstract movement. The Carlos Romero piece from 1940 is an excellent example of a surrealist landscape."

The watercolor Zorn refers to floats a solitary, humanoid form far above the earth’s surface but still tethered to it with delicate, dark brushwork. Like so many of the show’s pieces, it meditates on the power of the land and the people it sustains.

"You read about Mexican artists’ concern with social change," Zorn says. "But most of all, they were very aware of humanity."  

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