Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Mexican Miracle Paintings, Charmed Life, Wellcome Collection

Went to see the Infinitas Gratias show at the Wellcome Collection for our group project. It was a collection of Retablos, paintings on metal sheets that are given as offerings to Saints as thanks for 'miracles'. People would commission a specialist illustrator to paint their story for them. 

It was really interesting to see how the tradition of painting has died out, and how people now give valuables as their offerings, for example their wedding dress. Interestingly all the retablos seem to follow the same format, picture at the top, text at the bottom, always the text seems quite simply and straight forwardly worded. The modern offerings were much more of an outpour, some like an internal monologue. Hand written on notepaper etc. Maybe this was from having to have somebody else paint your retablo (with the old ones, so are more detached). Also what was interesting was in the twentieth century when new technologies started coming in, some retablos began to mix photography and painting, for example will have a small photo of the person offering the retablo in the corner. What was very strange was the presentation of the modern offerings, they had sort of recreated a church wall in the gallery which was covered with modern day offerings. I was wondering did they get permission from the church, the people, did people agree and know about the exhibition, did they make it all up? There were photographs and letters and weddings clothes and clothes and baby clothes. 

What was also really interesting was that I learnt that Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera were greatly influenced by the retablo paintings, and were some of the first people to collect them. This would have been right at a time when Mexico was forming it's identity so very interesting. 

Quite a few of the retablos are thanking saints for curing illness after or through an operation. There was just one lady, who had cancer of the face, who thanked the Doctors as well as the Saints.  Really really interesting to see how events effect individuals. 

Bats invaded Carlota Valdez's house and flew over her bed at nights and they filled her with nightmares and their dreams. She feared they could be vampires and would suck her and her cats' blood and they would be converted into the living dead for all Eternity. Very worried, Carlota prayed to Saint Quiteria for protection. The saint worked a miracle for her, the bats left to live somewhere else, and Carlota gives thanks with this altarpiece.

(image and text from poesygalore.blogspot.com)

Also on was the Charmed Life exhibition.  Really great! Had a big glass top display full of interesting charms.

“It seems that the soul... loses itself in itself when shaken and disturbed unless given something to grasp on to; and so we must always provide it with an object to butt up against and to act upon.” Michel de Montaigne, 'Essais', 1580 

"I found itinerant hawkers of curios selling the hippocampus, tied in bundles of three with red worsted. These were sold for luck, a poor survival of a very old and grander legend...[in Venice] I found that the wives of fishermen, nursing babies, kept a dried sea horse on their breasts to facilitate the flow of milk... I am very much inclined to believe that the curious white metal prow of this remarkable boat [the gondola] is evolved from the sea horse." Edward Lovett, 'Magic in Modern London', p. 87

Pink glass sea horse, used as a charm.
Courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum [1985.51.541]

Hazelnut with copper mount and wire link at the top for attaching to a chain or similar.
Courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum [1985.51.195]
(image and text from wellcome collection website.)

For both exhibitions, there was this really nice thought of people placing their faith in objects. The feeling that this retablo, or charm, will DO something for you. Interesting our relationship with objects, I imagine people would get very attached to their charms or amulets, but the retablos are given away as objects- I wonder if people form some sort of attachment to them during the time they own them. I think people pilgrimaged to different areas of the country that were representative of the saint that they wanted to thank, and then gave the retablo offering, so they couldn't really go back and visit it afterwards. Almost like the notion of graffiti, leaving your mark somewhere, you have put your story into the world and others will see it but you wont again. Even weirder then the idea that people collect them- though truth be told i'd happily own some retablos because I think they're amazing. 

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