Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, dreaming of a unified and independent Mexico, sustained the Mexican Revolution and thus all things indigenous. They, like many other artists at the time, were highly influenced by educator and philosopher José Vasconcelos as well as painter and filmmaker Adolfo Best Maugard who both encouraged a return to Mexico’s native roots. This was the beginning of “Mexicanism” in the fine arts. Previously Mexicans, colonized by Spain, had a sense of artistic inferiority feeling that anything of cultural worth had to be of European origin.
So with this Mexican Renaissance, Frida and Rivera began collecting Hecho en Mexico. Their collection included folk art, Pre-Columbian artifacts as well as over 1000 retablos many of which are on display today at the Casa Azul. Collecting retablos was made easier for them by the fact that during the Revolution, many churches were closed by the authorities facilitating the appropriation of the retablos inside.
The term retablo comes from retro tabula (“behind the altar”) and, in Spain, refers to the large paintings behind the church altar. However, in Mexico, retablo generally refers to small devotional ex-voto paintings commissioned by someone who wants to give thanks for an answered prayer.
The origin of a retablo is a need. And to resolve this need, one prays for help. If this need is taken care of, thanks must be given. So a retablero, one who paints retablos, is commissioned. The ex-voto painting has 3 basic elements: an icon of the person prayed to, a graphic description of the reason behind the prayer, and an inscription describing and thanking.
Prayers are generally directed to the Virgin of Guadalupe but sometimes Jesus or anyone of the infinite number of saints is supplicated including St. Lucia, St. Francis, St. Juan Diego and St. Peter of Verona.
Frida found a retablo regarding a trolley car accident that so resembled her own that she decided to retouch it in such a way as to make it seem that the retablo had been made specifically for her. At the bottom she added the inscription: Mr. and Mrs. Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde C. de Kahlo give thanks to Our Lady of Sorrows for saving their daughter Frida from the accident which took place in 1925 on the corner of Cuauhtemotzin and Calzada de Tlalpan.
Many of Frida’s paintings resemble retablos in that they are narrations painted in a naïf style with an element of despair based on real life situations.
When André Breton saw Frida’s work, he called her a surrealist. But he also said that Mexico was the most surrealistic country in the world—relief sculptures of bloodletting Aztecs, Day of the Dead skeletons, martyred saint statues, imaginary animal carvings are all examples of this surrealism.
One of Frida’s paintings is based on a newspaper article about an unfaithful woman who’d been stabbed to death by her husband. The husband defended himself by saying that “it was just a few small nips”. Angered by the violence so frequently inflicted upon women, Frida painted the massacred wife (Unos Cuantos Piquetitos, 1935).
Dorothy Hale was the wife of a well-to-do portrait painter but when her husband died in a crash, Dorothy was left without means to support herself. She decided to resolve the situation by throwing herself out of a skyscraper window. Dorothy’s friend, Clare Booth Luce, commissioned Frida to do a portrait for Dorothy’s mother. But the result was too hardcore for Luce who, instead of giving it to Dorothy’s mother, kept it hidden for years (The Death of Dorothy Hale, 1939).
When Frida discovered her husband was having an affair with her sister, she decided it was time for a divorce. Wearied by womanhood, Frida replaced her Tehuana costumes for a man’s suit, cut her long hair and portrayed herself with scissors in hand and locks of hair scattered all over the floor. The verse of a song is painted across the top: «See, if I loved you, it was for your hair, now you’re bald, I don’t love you anymore». (Pelona, 1940)
Although there is no longer a market for retableros as in years past, there are artists such as Alfredo Vilchis Roque, Fermín Luna Sanbrano (or Zambrano) and David Mecalco who make paintings in retablo style. And, in the not too distant past, migrant workers from Mexico working in the U.S. also commissioned a number of retablos. Today, instead of commissioning retablos, many people simply leave on the wall of small churches photos with inscriptions of thanks.
I, too, have a passion for retablos. Retablos are not only visually delicious, they also represent the concept of gratitude. That’s why years ago I wrote about the Aesthetics of Appreciation and did a series of Cardboard Retablos. Expressing thanks for what we have has many benefits like reshaping our brain.
A smile can automatically lift our spirits as can gratitude because both provoke chemical reactions in our brain. Both increase the production of serotonin and dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitters. Gratitude, then, is like Prozac. Some people take pills. Some people say thanks.
When you start expressing gratitude on a regular basis, negative thoughts are sent to the shadows. Instead of seeing the glass half empty, you see it half full.
The more you give thanks, the more you realize how much you have to be grateful for. So why not make a retablo!
(Originally posted HERE)
Related links: A Brief History of the Mexican Votive Paintings That Inspired Frida Kahlo
Copyright © 2015 Cynthia Korzekwa. All Rights Reserved