The Art of Ruins and Women and Mexico

“Woman is a living symbol of the strangeness of the universe and its radical heterogeneity. As such, does she hide life within herself, or death? What does she think? Or does she think? Does she truly have feelings? Is she the same as we are? Sadism begins as a revenge against feminine hermeticism or as a desperate attempt to obtain a response from a body we fear is insensible.” Octavio Paz–Labyrinths of Solitude.

Paz’s definition of an unabashedly macho notion of an hermetic Mexican identity makes the thought of Adela Breton arriving side-saddle on a mule, shrouded in black, startling. It also does much to explain the yoking together of images and the surrealist nature of the four painters discussed by Dawn Ades in her talk “Labyrinths of Solitude”. We saw how, while retaining many distinctly Mexican characteristics: atachment to landscape, preoccupation with identity and a love of fiesta-bright colours, Frida Kahle, Maria Izquierdo and the Surrealists Remedies Varo and Leonora Carrington sought to define their identity both as women and as artists in relation to that macho culture.

Fresh from the spas of Bath, Adela Breton (1849-1923) travelled frequently to Mexico between 1894 and 1907 to record Mayan wall frescoes and statues. Inheriting her father’s interest in archaeology, as well as his “inherent propensity to wander”, Adela Breton returned to Mexico thirteen times, despite physical hardships and nagging arthritis, spurred on by a passion for Mayan colour.

Travel, self-image and cultural identity were the themes for a day of events entitled “Women and Mexico” to celebrate International Women’s Fortnight at Bristol Museum. An exhibition of over sixty local artists, entitled “Women For Art” accompanied “The Art of Ruins: Adela Breton and the Temples of Mexico”. The Bristol-based Mexican performer Heo Legorreta singing “La Bamba” and other Mexican folk-songs brought to life Adela Breton’s sketches of Mexico and the reconstructed Doorway of the Upper Temple of the Jaguars which formed her stage. She sent sound sailing through the ruins where once only the grass sang. Later, her swirling Mexican dancing electrified the usually still museum hung with skeletons of dinosaurs.

“Purposeful Lives: Victorian and Edwardian Women who Broke the Mould”, a talk by Dr June Hannam of Bristol Polytechnic, discussed the context of Adela Breton’s achievements by focussing on the involvement of Bristol women in the affairs of the day.

“Our Nature lies in movement; complete calm is death” wrote Pascal. The movement of women since ancient times, as nomads, as slaves, as explorers and the movement of the infant both within the womb and rocked in its mother’s arms, to some extent explains the motivation of women travellers past and present. In her talk “Women on the Move” Myfanwy Vickers considered travellers like Jean Battan who, disguised as a man, circumnavigated the world; James Miranda Stewart Barry, who spent forty years in the British Army disguised as a male doctor so that she could travel; Mary Kingsley, travelling to the West Coast of Africa and basking in the “ecstasy of travel”; and Lady Anne Blunt who defied delightfully shockable Victorian society by travelling through Arabia in tweeds and keffiyeh.

Travel as a form of defiance and of freedom, a means both of defying patriarchal expectations and of realising personal and professional goals, is celebrated in the determination of all such women. It was, however, suggested from the floor that such individual achievements had no place in a feminist continuum. What does solo travel by women of independent means do for the feminist cause? she quibbled. The answer is women are individuals whose identity must be personal before it can be public.

It was only after the deaths of her invalided parents that Adela Breton was free to travel, visiting Central and South America, Egypt, Australia, Japan and Fiji between 1900 and her death in 1923. In 1894 she went to Mexico. A trained watercolourist, accomplished photographer and amateur archaeologist, she then contacted Alfred P. Maudsley, a noted British archaeologist and Mayan specialist. Maudsley recommended that she travel to the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, c. AD800 to 1100, in the Yucatan peninsula, to verify the accuracy of some of his drawings. This was the beginning of years spent meticulously recording buildings, architectural and free-standing monumental sculpture, mural paintings and other smaller objects.

At Chichen Itza Adela made casts of the sculpture and copied the paintings of its Great Ballcourt, the largest ballcourt in Meso-America. Her life-size copies, and quarter size details, of the frescoes of the Temple of the Jaguars are remarkable for their accuracy. She loved the Pre-Columbian blues and reds and pastel greens, her imagination delighted by its polychrone stone and stucco sculpture. “These people saw in colour and light and shade”, she revelled. Nevertheless, what she couldn’t actually see, she wouldn’t paint, remarking: “… in attempting a reproduction of this kind there must be a tight rein on the imagination, for when the eye has become somewhat accustomed to the style, it is easy to imagine details …”

The murals of the Upper Temple of the Jaguars which Adela copied represent the most complete and graphic depiction of Mayan warfare and its aftermath since the late Classic murals at Bonampak, Chiapas. Her records are thus central to an ongoing debate over the origins and foreign influences of the vanishing art of these ancient cities now eroded by weather and acid rain. Similarly, her copies of the murals in the Temple of Agriculture in structure known as Teopancaxco in Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, now deteriorated, are the most comprehensive ever to have been made.

The watercolour sketches of Mexican ruins and landscapes have a luminous quality. They preserve the tranquility of what were then isolated and unfrequented sites, bright greens and mustard yellows offsetting the structures which even in the sketches Adela Breton records in detail. She paints with a photographic eye, sometimes framing ruins or panoramas with ancient archways or monuments, sometimes including passers by for perspective.

Her watercolour sketch of the ruined courtyard of the Palace of the Columns at Mitla is enchanting. Pablo Solorio, her devoted Indian manservant, sits amongst the remains. The desolation of the arid landscape gives one a sense of the immensity of Adela Breton’s task, the solitariness and the bleaching heat.

Adela was fully accepted by everybody, with the exception of Edward Thompson, United States Consul to the Yucatan, who was irritated by her female presence and her quiet persistence. She travelled by train or horseback, staying in anything from haciendas to thatched huts and temple ruins. Her exported sense of Victorian propriety, which fuelled comments like “the young women here all ride astride which is so unnecessary and ungraceful”, surprisingly did not prevent her from disregarding the stereotypical expectations of the Victorian spinster.

That her work did not receive the acclaim it deserved until recently may allegedly be due to archeological fashion. It perhaps has more to do with gender and the domestic duties that framed her quest. Shortly before her death she wrote: “It is too bad of Mr Thompson not to let you have my cenote drawings. They can be of no use to him. I will try to do some more, but have quantities of things waiting to be done, & much of my time now goes on household work though I simplifly as much as possible.” [To Tozzer, 24 June 1921]

To be an outsider, to work on foreign soil, is sometimes easier. But, clearly, only when you choose to be the outsider. In “Labyrinths of Solitude” Paz isolates solitude and violation as the condition of the Mexican psyche. Insecurity is clothed in aggression. Colonialism bred a “servant psychology” which in turn breeds

“suspicion, dissimulation, irony, the courteousy that shuts us [the macholaway from the stranger, all of the psychic oscillations with which, in eluding a strange glance, we elude ourselves, are traits of a subjected people who tremble and disguise themselves in the presence of the master.”

You only have to look at the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) to see how such colonising has been transferred. Frida Kahlo was for a long time famous as the wife of the muralist Diego Rivera (inspired, incidentally, by the murals at Chicen Itza recorded by Adela Breton). His public art, his initially revoluntionary and later allegorical state-commissioned murals contrast with Kahlo’s private and introspective self-portraits. The Mexican notion of chingada, of the woman as the symbol of passivity and of the violated Mother and therefore as Nothingness, is surely contained in “Self-portrait”, 1931′. Rivera is also in the painting. He is shown as the painter, she as a small and fragile woman. She assumes the persona of a passive woman and not an active painter.

In “My Grandparents, My Parents and I” Frida Kahlo takes up the Mexican preoccupation with identity, exploring herself as a mestizo, of Spanish and Indian origin. She portrays herself as a naked infant joined by a blood red umbilical ribbon to her family. The search for an adequate identity, political and cultural as well as personal, in a tradition steeped in misogynistic mythology, clearly is not easy. It became more complicated for Kahlo after a tram accident in 1925 which prevented her from having children and which led to a series of operations.

By subverting the ex-voto convention used in most popular paintings, in which an inscription gives thanks and praise to a virgin or saint who has intervened in an event depicted beneath it, Kahlo rejects the myths of the macho and the miraculous. “Self-portrait with Cropped Hair” shows Kahlo wearing Rivera’s suit. She sits on a chair, staring perhaps accusatively, certainly defiantly. The floor, the cracked and arid Mexican landscape, is scattered with skeins of hair which also climb the chair like bindweed. She has replaced the traditionally complacent inscription of the ex-voto convention with “I am bald so you love me no longer.”

Maria Izquierdo (1902-1955), to many better known as the girlfriend of he surrealist Andre Breton, uses the motifs of the circus and still-lives to explore identity. While Paz is busy defining the woman as the “supreme mystery” Izquierdo confronts her spectators with aggressive realism. In “The Circus,” 1939′ she is surrounded by lions with male faces for whom she is performing. In her still-lives she uses an object or set of objects to confer identity. Thus in “The Bridal Veil”, 1943′ the bride is absent. It is the veil, the dressing table and toiletries and other paraphernalia that add up to the bride.

The whole day of events had been an unlikely celebration of women defining, albeit with familiar difficulty, self-identity. To link women in Bristol, past and present, the Victorian achievers and the artists exhibiting in “Women for Art”, with women in Mexico whilst highlighting the constraints of both cultures was an imaginative feat.

It doubtless explains the gusto with which visitors took up paint brushes in a self-portrait workshop led by the Mexican painter, Marisa Polin. I arrived half-way through to see a woman staring at an egg shape in lurid green, waving a paint brush and shouting “I don’t know what I look like!” There was only one way to find out: paint!