Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Rivera Frescoes: Instauration, Restoration

Michael Sedano

Today I am sharing a series of photos shot at Mexico City's Secretaría de la Educación Publica across a span of ten years, first in 1995 and again in 2005. With some trepidation, I hope to revisit these walls in the near future to see what progress time has produced. I hesitate because once photographers were free to photograph any wall. My most recent visit to el Castillo de Chapultepec, zealous guards threatened to confiscate my camera if I so much as raised the viewfinder to my eye! Fortunately, the educators have a much friendlier actitud.

On the 1995 visit, I spent an entire morning in the Secretariat, shooting every panel possible, plus some interiors. It is a short walk from the Secretariat to el Zocalo and el Palacio Nacional, where Rivera has covered the second floor with a richness of precolumbian themed work. There, again, I took detailed images.

On my most recent visit, I reached the Secretariat late in the day and was able only to rush through a couple of interiors and cursory shots of key panels. Sadly, I didn't make the effort to track down the worst of the samples and cannot illustrate a before-and-after of the destroyed panels.

As the first pair of photos illustrates, certain of Rivera's frescoes were totally obliterated and their reappearance on the walls must be seen as instauration rather than restoration.

I did, however, have the good fortune of shooting Rivera's 1923 work, "La Feria Del Dia de los Muertos," during its ongoing restoration. The first set of images shows an artist patiently cleaning the substrate at the bottom of the mural.

I did not find a guide to ask if the damage resulted from weatherization or terremoto.

Ni modo, the work was in dishearteningly terrible shape. At bottom center, large swaths of detail have disappeared.

Have a look at the next image, at right and below. Note the figure of a woman in yellow dress in the 1995 image. Left of her all that remains is white plaster. In the close-up you can make out the artist using a point to clean off the surface in preparation for a repaint.

Notice how in 2005 all of the bottom center has been restored. Figures emerge to the left of the yellow clad woman. Now the work bench dedicates itself to work higher up, at lintel level. When I stood next to the work however, I could not make out what aspects were under repair or restoration. Study the over-under close-up and note the excellent quality of the surface.

Below see an over-under layout of close-ups showing more or less the same region. This is a set of figures at the far left of the panel, above the lintel and just to the right of the half-round clerestory of the portal. At top, the restored sections are barely noticeable. At bottom, the damage makes your heart stop.

I am working on a series of illustrated lectures on Mexico City's mural frescoes--Rivera, Siquieros, O'Gorman--and welcome leads to books and other resources. One highly informative resource I found for the Education Secretariat and the National Palace is a long out-of-print tourist manual, by R. S. Silva E., Diego Rivera's frescoes in the National Palace of Mexico, City: a descriptive guide. Mexico City : Sinalomex Editorial, 1965. I am grateful to John McDonald, a senior librarian at the Claremont Colleges Libraries, for letting me borrow the book from the Honnold Library. The title is also available at UC Berkeley. Silva points out that the personages in the Dia de los Muertos detail include actress Celia Montalban and bullfighter Juan Silveti, with the cigar.

You can click on each of the images in today's post to view the files in much larger, better detailed size. In fact, I've laid out the Rivera over-under image as a picture postcard that you can print on heavy photo stock and mail to friends. Click here for this, and other, print 'em yourself postcards from Read! Raza.


Ann Hagman Cardinal said...

Fascinating, Michael! Thanks for sharing these photographs.

I'd be curious to hear more about the method of restoration. I studied with Dr. James Beck at Columbia and he led the resistence to what he called the "repainting" of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He said that Michaelangelo always applied a “l’ultima mano,” a layer of glue that muted the colors, and that the Disneyesque colors of the "restoration" went against the artist's intentions.

I doubt that Rivera had such concerns, but I hope they are being true to his original work.

msedano said...

ann, thank you. glad you like 'em. i linked the title to the secretariat's discussion of the murals, including some general details of restoration, both earilier and the efforts currently underway.

Here's the link in plain: http://www.sep.gob.mx/wb/sep1/sep1_Murales_de_la_SEP

norma landa flores said...

In the book, "Mexico A History In Art" by Bradley Smith, Doubleday & Company, Inc. ISBN: 0-385-03239-0, first printed in 1968, pages 249-288 contain illustrations and discussions of techniques, artist's motivations and political pressures. It makes the period 1910-1940, Revolution And Progress, come alive for me because Diego and Frieda were close friends of my aunt Maximina Landa Sanchez and my cousin, Esther Alaniz Rousseau. My mamá gave me the book when I earned my BA in Chicano Studies.

According to my paternal grandfather, Andres Lujan, who did some plastering work for Diego, here in L.A., Diego would be in favor of restoration. He told his workers to take good care of things when he was away. The method he told them to use was whatever the WPA would pay for.

The last time I was in La Capitál, in 1990, I noticed workers restoring Diego's murals on the walls of El Palacio Nacional De Méjico. I had to buy a packet of post cards in order to see what they were white washing. I remember thinking that they better do it his way or else he'll be back to haunt them! Ha Ha! Ha! Ha!.


Anonymous said...

It seems like the photograhs inspired the core process -

"...instauration rather than restoration."

What a shame. But it seems like all is not lost. Excellent investigation. The lecture series sounds fascinating.