Mexico, California and Arizona/Chapter 10

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Mexico, California and Arizona  (1900)  by William Henry Bishop
X. The Fine Arts and Literature

X.

THE FINE ARTS AND LITERATURE.

I.

THE school of fine arts, on the other hand, the Academy of San Carlos—which was to celebrate with a special exhibition the one hundredth anniversary of its foundation—produces, both in its collections and the ability of its directing professors, a most satisfactory and agreeable impression. You enter galleries which carry you back again to the Louvre and Uffizi. They used a great deal of bitumen, the old painters here. In its darkening it has left now and then only isolated lights upon a face or bits of drapery to glimmer out of a midnight gloom. It is an artificial taste, no doubt, to like it, and "caviare to the general;" but like it one does, at its most artificial, after a long absence from anything of the kind.

The walls recall such galleries as that of Bologna in the liberal scale of the works displayed. With such models before them, there is no reason why students should fall into a niggling and petty style. As a matter of fact, they do not. They seem to excel in a bold, large composition and the rendering of grandiose ideas. This, rather than color, is their strong point. If our New York schools of art are able to equal the portfolio of drawings I saw as the result of a fortnightly exercise, they are certainly not in the habit of doing so. Nor were they at all equalled by those of the prize competition of the students


"Las Casas Protecting the Aztecs" (image of a priest standing in prayer with arms crossed and holding a cross in his left hand. Aztecs lying around him.



LAS CASAS PROTECTING THE AZTECS.

By Felix Parra.

 of the British Royal Academy which I saw in the first year of the presidency of Sir Frederick Leighton. This devotion to large academical ideas—the fortunes of Orestes, Regulus, and Belisarius—it is true, is a source of weakness rather than strength from the money point of view. The market of the time demands a domestic, genre, realistic, and not a grandiose art. The market for art of any kind in Mexico is extremely small. There are no government commissions farther than an occasional portrait or two, and enlightened patrons hardly exist. There are no pictures of consequence in the best Mexican houses. The predictions at Havana were not verified. The abundance of native talent receives little encouragement. Many a bright genius is forced to paint his inventions on the walls of pulque shops, and finally to quit the profession for lack of support. 

The subjects are, for the most part, severely religious, in consonance with the taste of the wealthy convents, the patrons of art for whom they were originally painted. The series is in a declining order of merit chronologically. The earliest Mexican masters are the best. They came from Europe, contemporaries of Murillo, Ribera, the Caracci, trained in the splendid Renaissance period at its acme, and they left here works which do it no discredit. Mexico was a hundred years old already, and it was high time that art should arise when Baltazar Echave began, somewhat after the year 1600. There is a romantic tradition that it was his wife who first taught him to paint.

The genius of this early school is very decorative, and marked at once by refinement of sentiment, breadth, and vigor. It delights in rich stuffs arid patterns, in the glitter of plate and weapons. It fills up all portions of the canvas symmetrically, and colors with a subdued richness. I recall a St. Ildefonso, by Luis Juarez, as
an exquisite work. The saint, in a rich red mantle, by a praying-desk arid chair, both draped in the same color, is receiving from angels the paraphernalia of a bishop. The mantle of the nearest angel is in burnt sienna, and these warm red hues, relieved by cool whites, are repeated throughout. There is a group of six angel heads composed in an ellipse, and, in the air, a Virgin, with that bevy of fluttering angels about that take the place of clouds in landscape. The minor heads, painted chiefly from the same model, are full of sweetness and intelligence.

Arteaga has a noble St. Thomas; José Juarez, a quaint couple of child martyrs, Saints Justo and Pastor, who trudge along hand-in-hand like a pair of burgomaster's children (the scenes of their martyrdom shown in the background), while angels rain down upon them single pinks, roses, and forget-me-nots, carefully painted. A younger Baltazar Echave, and Juan and Nicolas Rodriguez, are of almost equal force.

A second period begins with Ibarra and Cabrera—the latter very much the better—at the end of the same century. They are without the same distinction. Their figures have a bourgeois air. They aim to be pictorial instead of decorative. The crude red and blue garments with which we are monotonously familiar in religious art come in with them; and the draperies, in smooth, large folds, are apparently made up out of their heads.

The foreign gallery boasts many excellent works of the school of Murillo, and an original each of Murillo, Ribera, Carreño, Leonardo da Vinci, Teniers the elder, and Ingres, with also probable Vandycks and Rembrandts.

A collection has also been formed of works of merit, contributed to the regular biennial exhibitions, and purchased by the Academy to illustrate modern Mexican
Click on image to enlarge.

"The Death of Atala." [By Luis Monroy.]

art. The religious tradition still prevails to a large extent, though the subjects are now taken from the Scriptures instead of the Bollandists. They are Hagar and Ishmael, the good Samaritan, the Hebrews by the waters of Babylon, and Noah receiving the

olive-branch, and the like.

There is in this contemporary work the general fault of an over-delicacy and smoothness of painting, and a lack of realism, while the design is excellent. These voyagers in the ark have not experienced the woes of a deluge, and the shepherds have the complexion of Lady Vere de Vere. Rebull, who studied at Rome under Overbeck, repeats here the dove-colors, violets, and lemon-yellows of the modern decorations of the Vatican done under that school.

The works of the latest period, under the able direction of Señor Salome Pina, a pupil of Gleyre, are much more virile, and the subjects more secular. We have now Bacchus and Ariadne; the death of Atala; the slaying of the sons of Niobe; an arch and dainty Cupid poisoning a flower, by Ocaranza; a charming fisher-boy, by Gutierrez. Some of the artists have had the advantage of study also abroad. The strongest of them all, Felix Parra, now enjoying a grand prize of Rome, produced the masterpiece, a great canvas representing the friar Las Casas protecting the Aztecs (from slaughter by the Spaniards) a work in sentiment, drawing, and color worthy to hang in any exhibition in the world before he had seen any other country than his own.

Velasco has set a powerful lead in landscape. He is especially a master of great distance. His favorite theme is the curious, sienna-colored Valley of Mexico, which he paints to the life. There are some scattered works of the early school, besides, in the houses of a few dilettanti at the capital
and Puebla; and some few in the cathedrals of the same places, though scarcely to be seen, from their disadvantageous positions. Good pictures need not be looked for in the churches. No doubt they were once numerous, but they have been sacked from the country by invaders and others, and found a profitable market abroad.

II.

In sculpture there is talent corresponding to that in painting. The stately system of burial, in the panteons, lends itself to sculpture and furnishes opportunities which with us are relegated to the commonplace tombstone-makers. The panteon is a solid city of the dead, walled in, paved, and with courts and arcades like a city of the living. The monument of greatest note is that, by Manuel Islas, at the Pantheon of San Fernando, to Benito Juarez, "the second Washington" of his country, old Padre Hidalgo having been the first. His effigy in marble, so realistic and corpse-like that it seems to have been modelled from an actual cast in plaster, lies upon a mausoleum, with a figure of Fame bending over it. The realism of the principal figure is almost repulsive, but it is redeemed by the grace of the angel, and nobody can deny to this large work great vigor and dignity.

The bodies are not buried, but sealed up in mausolea, or in niches in a wall, which present somewhat the aspect of a Roman columbarium. Some of the monuments are of the lovely Mexican onyx, with letters in gilt. I noted one bearing only the initials M. M. They were alluring to the curiosity, and on inquiring I found that it was that of Miramon, general-in-chief of Maximilian, who fell by the executioners' bullets, with his master, and General Mejia, at Queretero,
There were no flowers on this one to-day, but the tombs of the patriots were elaborately decked, for it was great festival of the Cinco de Mayo.

I walked out and stood in the round-point by the colossal bronze statue of Charles IV. The Paseo de la Reforma and the causeways glittered with bayonets; the cadets were coming down from the Military School back of Chapultepec, and the garrison from the Citadel, to join in the procession. The troops were reviewed in front of the National Palace—as troops in smaller numbers seem always being reviewed there. They are mainly of Indian blood, and small in stature. The cavalry especially had a rusty look in their outfit, and did not compare with the dashing Rurales. The officers, on the other hand, are trimly uniformed and quite French in aspect. There were patriotic speeches in the Zocalo; the main thoroughfare was strung with lanterns; and our Iturbide hotel was very picturesque, with its three tiers of balconies draped in the national colors—green, white, and red. From time to time, as the procession moved, cannon were fired in the Plaza, and the bells of the cathedral turned over and over, like the wheels of machinery. I never saw a better-conducted crowd. There was no fighting, no inconvenient elbowing, no drunkenness. In the evening the lanterns were lighted, and the great square was filled with venders of fruits and knickknacks, around little bonfires of sticks, where they would bivouac for the night. Later, red lights were kindled in the towers of the cathedral, and every detail within stood out upon a lurid ground as if they were burning. One could imagine the camped venders in the square to be the ancient Aztecs resting upon their arms, in order to attack Cortez in his quarters on the morrow.


III.

Scarcely the same improvement is to be got from Mexican literature as from Mexican art, but it is not without its interest, both in itself and as an aid to knowledge of the people.

Journals are very numerous. They are started upon slight provocation, and as easily disappear. They attain, as a rule, but a circulation of a few hundred copies. It is thought that the Monitor Republicano, by far the most important, may circulate from six to eight thousand. The problem of existence for many of them would be difficult without government aid. Subventions are given, without public objection, so far as I have observed, to the greater part of those managed with ability. The system of subventions to the press was begun by our old friend of school history, Santa Anna, and has been continued ever since by governments which could not afford to have anything more than the truth told about them, at any rate. It is an encouraging sign, however, that the Monitor is not a subventioned organ, yet speaks its mind temperately and without apparent malice.

There is no efficacious law of libel, since extreme violence of language is often indulged in by the periodicals in their controversies with each other and outsiders. The duel, which still survives, is somewhat of a corrective upon this. The newspaper is about such a one in appearance as at Paris, and includes a daily section of a serial story. A Sunday edition is published, with literary selections, and particularly poems, in large supply.

Actual literature as such is poorly paid. The reading public is small. A thousand copies is a good edition even for a popular book. The chief literary lights are found,
as a rule, not of the shy, scholastic order, but possessed of talent for oratory and bustling affairs. They take posts in Congress, and are appointed as cabinet ministers. General Riva Palacio, Juan Mateos, Prieto, Paz, Altamirano, Justo Sierra, Peza, are deputies; Payno, a senator; Cuellar, who wrote under the pseudonym of "Facundo," a secretary of legation. These are the native writers whose works are more frequently in the hands of the public than any others.

Prieto, who is chiefly a poet, however, has written a book of his travels in the United States, in which some amusing things will be discovered. He finds that with us "the totality [ lo colectivo ] is grand and admirable, but the individual egoistic and vulgar." He saw Booth's Theatre, which is all of white marble ( el Teatro de Both, todo de marmol blanco ); and, besides our hotels, the establishment which we call a "Boarding" ( el Boarding ). The Hudson and East rivers, he says, are two arms of the sea, which freeze in winter, and even the immense quantity of ice collected from these does not suffice for the demands of the summer.

The poetical talent, of which we had a premonition in Cuba, is that which principally abounds. There is plentiful skill in versifying, with here and there a strain of something very much higher, in the volumes of the numerous authors. Prieto, above-mentioned, is found principally a poet of "occasions." He writes for the unveiling of statues, to steam, electricity, and the like. Juan Mateos strikes a fierce patriotic note. Altamirano, a fiery Indian orator, who models himself in Congress rather after Mirabeau, chooses as his themes for poetry bees, oranges, poppies, morn, the pleasures of rural life. They are excellent subjects in themselves, but it is an artificial, and not a real, existence he describes. He would like to be Horatian, summons nymphs to disport with him in the shade, and abounds in florid terms, without thought.

Carpio is inspired more or less by Biblical subjects, as Pharaoh and Belshazzar. In De Castro, Zaragoza, Gustave Baz, and Cuenca are found charming conceits, of pensive cast, and bits of description of a limpid purity. Jewellers in words they may be called at their best, affiliated to the Venetian school.

The argument of Zaragoza's "Armonias" (Harmonies) is briefly as follows: "When the flowers are dead, and spring is over, the swallows take their flight; and when again the flowers of spring adorn the mead, they, too, return, bringing blessings on their wings.

"But when the illusions depart and leave behind them only the thorns of the passions, in vain, we invoke and wait for them to return. The illusions, the swallows of the heart, return, alas! never."

So Gustave Baz, brooding in the sere winter over some heavy sorrow, reflects upon the return of spring. But the very contrast of its joyousness, the fresh rippling of the brooks and melody of the birds, will but render his sadness the heavier. "Then most keenly," he laments, "will break forth my grief. Then weightiest will the air be laden with my sighs."

The gem of the Lyra Mexicana is undoubtedly a certain fugitive sonnet, "A Rosario," by an unfortunate young man, Acuña, who ended by taking his own life. The poem expresses the charming ideals in love and the bitterness of its disappointment, in a youth of fine and sensitive nature. It has a poignancy and realism which have, perhaps, never been surpassed. He returned from a long journey, as the story is told, and found his betrothed the wife of another. The shock proving unen-
durable, he committed suicide, leaving to the faithless one the poem, a part of which may be thus rendered:

"Well, then, I have to say that I love you still, that I worship you with all my being. I comprehend that your kisses are never to be mine, that into your dear eyes I am never to look. . . . Sometimes I try to sink you into oblivion, to execrate you....But alas, how vain it is! my soul will not forget you. What will you, then, that I should do, oh, part of my life? What will you that I should do with such a heart?.... Oh, figure to yourself how beautiful might have been our existence together!... But now that to the entrancing dream succeeds the black gulf that has opened between us farewell! love of my loves, light of my darkness, perfume of all flowers that bloomed for me! my poet's lyre, my youth, farewell!"

IV.

If one try to select the most obvious trait in the native fiction it is undoubtedly patriotism. This patriotism is rampant in the press, and in the forms of official life. The authorities are Citizen President, Citizen General, and the like, as in the first French Republic, and they conclude their official documents with the formula: "Liberty In The Constitution." The usurpation of Maximilian served to bind the country into a certain unity and awake this feeling to its utmost.

Two romancers, General Riva Palacio, and Juan Mateos, have made use of the events of the French invasion in a curious class of bulky novels, to call them so, which have scored a popular success. "The Hill of Las Campañas," and "The Sun of May," of Mateos, are respectively more or less authentic accounts of the final defeat and execution of Maximilian, and the defence of
Puebla, slightly disguised. In "Calvary and Tabor," Riva Palacio treats of the career of the Army of the Centre in the same wars. Numbers of the characters therefore are persons actually living, to be met with every day, which gives to this fiction a singular effect.

Thus, in "El Sol de Mayo," Manuel Payno, Altamirano, and Riva Palacio himself are mentioned and their manners described in the debate on the financial measure which brought on the Intervention. Lerdo, long since an exile, resident in New York, was at that time "el profeta inspirada de nuestra nacionalidad" (the inspired prophet of our nationality).

I pick out from the same book this paragraphic mention of our own civil war: "And Edmundo Lee shone like a star in the victories of Springfield and Bull Run." Perhaps the friends of General Robert E. Lee would have some difficulty in recognizing him under such a description.

These novels are printed with each sentence as a separate paragraph, for easier reading. They first began to rival somewhat the popular Fernandez y Gonzalez, by some called "the Spanish Dumas," whose works are printed in the journals, together with translations of those of Gaboriau and Dickens. Another flimsy series, in covers of green, white, and red, called "Episodios Nacionales" aim to sugar-coat a didactic exhibition of the events of the War of Independance. One individual after another tells a long, dreary narrative about what happened; these fall in with somebody else who tells more, and so it goes.

These stories are read chiefly by the middle and lower classes, the upper class, as in most provincial states of society, preferring books from abroad. Their favorable reception may be accounted for in part by the lack of
regular histories and of newspaper intelligence, so that populace may to some extent be getting their information for the first time.

Riva Palacio has written also, with Manuel Payno, a large work appropriately called El Libro Rojo (The Red Book). It gives an account (and graphic illustrations) of the heroes and other notables in Mexican history who have come to violent ends. This is a fate that has over-taken aspirants to distinction quite regularly, and the plates from the book, hung up at the book-stalls in the Portales, are a ghastly chamber of horrors. The three lighting curates of the early insurrection, Hidalgo, Morelos, and Matamoras begin the series; and Maximilian, Mejia, and Miramon, standing with bandaged eyes at the Hill of las Campañas, for the present conclude it.

Several minor writers have feebly essayed the Aztec material for fiction. Riva Palacio has availed himself also of the picturesque life under the Spanish viceroys. Of him it is to be said that, though of the sensational school, and careless in plan, he has, not unfrequently, passages of genuine force, and unhackneyed incidents that enchain the attention.