During the 16th century, Spain subjugated most of the region we now call Latin America. War, slavery and disease killed native people in large numbers, devastating their culture. Spanish traditions and Roman Catholicism, transformed by native, African and Asian influences, proceeded to fill the resulting cultural void.
This is the theme of "El Alma del Pueblo: Spanish Folk Art and its Transformation in the Americas," a traveling exhibition of more than 250 objects from the past five centuries. The first major U.S. exhibition of Spanish folk art, "El Alma del Pueblo" ("The Soul of the People") includes pieces from 30 private collections. Exhibition organizer Marion Oettinger, Jr., curator at the San Antonio Museum of Art, has covered "every major category of folk expression: utilitarian, ceremonial, recreational, and decorative," via works from Spain as well as carvings and ceramics from Puerto Rico, Mexico, South Texas, Antigua and Guatemala.
Recently on view at Chicago's Cultural Center (Jan 23 - Apr. 3, 1999) the exhibition is now at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento (May 8-July 25, 1999), and travels to the San Diego Museum of Art (Aug. 28-Oct. 31, 1999) and the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles (Jan. 2000-Mar. 2000). The Cultural Center installed the works in a bright, airy space, arranging them so visitors could enjoy the show esthetically or examine them closely to gain more in-depth knowledge. Wall labels provided plenty of academic information about the object, but it never weighed down the exhibition.
A Communal Expression
The anonymous makers of folk objects may not design, paint, or draw to professional standards, but their straightforward work comes from life. Folk art "represents a collective spirit, a communal rather than an idiosyncratic expression," Oettinger writes. It "does not seek to be avant-garde but instead strives to be in the mainstream of the beliefs, tastes and values of the community in which it is made and used."
Folk art everywhere "serves as a buffer between the individual or the community and the greater social, physical and spiritual environments," he continues. "It is a cultural response to demands of these environments, allowing individuals and communities to cope."
Urge to Decorate
Utilitarian works in the show demonstrate the universal human urge to decorate. A pair of men's garters is embroidered with a beautiful Spanish saying: El dia que te able, enamorado quede (The day I first spoke with you, I fell in love). A wooden grain box, raised above the floor to protect the contents from moisture and vermin, is decorated with rows of gouge marks. A cutter that was used to shave blocks of chocolate for drinks is embellished with a horse motif. Embroidered on a bed cover is the "tree of life," which appears in Mexican folk art.
Many objects in the show embody Spanish Catholic traditions and practices. The oil painting Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe depicts a statue of the Virgin Mary said to have been carved by Saint Luke, brought to Spain many years later, hidden during the Muslim occupation and miraculously rediscovered by a cowherd in 1325. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the ancestor of Latin America's Virgen de Guadalupe, who has a different, completely local history.
The term "ex-voto," which means "according to a vow," refers to an object that is created to thank the Virgin Mary or a saint for favors received. Ex-votos in the form of human limbs, eyes, or even prostheses are still placed on Spanish altars by pilgrims. Some of the faithful have paintings made to thank the Virgin. Similar images are called retablos in Mexico.
The Ship's Model Ex Voto, which was made to give thanks to a saint who brought the donor through a storm, is a particularly handsome work. We see a model ship of wood and sailcloth before a starry sky. The maker has affixed shells beneath the vessel. Ship model ex-votos still hang from the ceilings of some Spanish churches.
One of the most striking works in "El Alma del Pueblo" is San Isidro Labrador, a painting by a Bolivian artist that transforms this 12th-century Spanish saint into a figure for the Americas. Saint Isidro is dressed like a 19th-century hacienda owner. Everything in the scenes of his life and miracles is reinterpreted for native viewers.
Some religious folk objects are discarded soon after use, like Viego Cabezudo (Old Big-Head), part of a costume worn in a religious procession. Representative of the undisciplined element in human character, Big-heads were mischievous figures that ran at people in the crowd, frightening children.
Popular prints flourished in Spain around the middle of the 16th century to the early 20th century. They encouraged Christian piety, carried political messages and told romantic tales. There were also printed games, costume pictures, advertisements, educational materials and risqué items.
Francisco de Goya, a self-taught artist who grew up amidst humble circumstances, was decisively influenced by popular prints. He drew on their coarse vitality in creating his satirical suites of engravings -- Los Capricios, Los Proverbios, and Los Desastres de la Guerra.
"El Alma del Pueblo" includes two costume prints from Goya's day, Man from Aragon and Woman from Aragon, and late 19th-century versions of printed images that he would surely have seen. El Mundo al Revés (The World in Reverse), for example, shows a horse riding his master, an ox cracking a whip as two men pull a plow, two pigs slaughtering a butcher and other preposterous scenes. Such images, which go back as far as ancient Egypt, teach the proper order of things and encourage people to support established religious and political power.
Our Last Chance
"El Alma del Pueblo" may be our last chance to experience Spanish folk art as a living thing. The regional differences that enrich Spanish culture are disappearing as industrialization brings better transport and communication. Traditional religious observances, which have given rise to much folk art, are dying out. Craftsmen are not replaced as they retire, and many folk objects are made for tourists nowadays. A generation hence we will see these objects in museums and antique shops, but not in daily use.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.