Monday, July 14, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 6b: Laughing at death in Museo de la Muerte

Monsters on parade. How'd you like to answer a knock on your door and find these characters, arm-in-arm and reeking of tequila, asking you "where's the party?" I had to chuckle when I came across this little tableau in Aguascalientes' Museum of Death. There's so much going on with this group that it's hard to know where to look first. The central devil-figure is horrific enough, but why are his hands gripped in the teeth of flaming-eyed critters on either side? For that matter, why are those critters literally crawling with snakes and lizards of various sorts and sizes? There's something so cheery about this group that it's hard to be scared of any of them. A lot of the material in the museum is very funny, which goes to the heart of Mexico's relationship with death. It is a part of life and not something to be unduly feared, but instead appreciated and even mocked.

"OMG!!"  I dubbed this unnamed figure the "Oh, my god!" statue. The expression of astonishment, consternation, and dismay expressed by this skeletal figure can be understood immediately by anyone. While this is a modern creation, similar expressions can be found on clay figures from the Shaft Tomb Culture dating back to 300 BC.

The dead like to party too! Grinning skeletons crowd around an overflowing banquet table. Food, drink, and a festive atmosphere are a part of Mexico's traditional Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) fiesta each November 2. It's hard to be solemn or gloomy when all about you are enjoying themselves so much.

Music and dancing are also part of the scene. This pottery ensemble contains a number of skeleton couples dancing wildly. I could almost hear the mariachi music and the raucous laughter. The sculptor has captured the joyous motion of the dancers perfectly.

A day at the amusement park for the skeleton family's kids. The figures throw their hands out, just as living people do on an exciting amusement park ride. This child's toy functions by turning the crank at the side.

My attention was caught by this large, rather goofy mask. The tongue drapes down while the bugged-out eyes stare in wonder. Above the eyes, the toothy jaws of a grinning skull adorn the forehead.

The skeleton family that moulders together, stays together. This is another vignette where there's a lot going on. The central figure is the father, who clutches a scythe, always Death's hand-tool-of-choice. A baby skeleton hangs against his bare ribs, its arms around his neck. Meanwhile the father keeps a protective hand on the shoulder of a boy who seems about to run off to play. Accompanying the boy is a skeletal dog, looking equally ready for a romp. Another adult figure stands to the left of the father, also holding a scythe. This may or may not be the mother. The figure's head droops, perhaps drunkenly, while its arm is thrown over the father's shoulder. The hand clutches a bottle. The father's face is turned away. Is he expressing disapproval of his drunken companion, or is he hungrily looking at the bottle? You decide.

A Tree of Life inhabited by skeletal musicians. Perhaps these are the guys playing for the dancers seen previously. The instruments appear to be mainly brass and drums. Tree of Life sculptures began appearing shortly after the conquest. They were used to evangelise the indigenous people by telling biblical stories. By the 20th Century, Trees of Life were appearing that bore no relationship to religion. However, this one contains a figure at the bottom center who may be an angel wearing a hat decorated with a cross.

The skull as a medium of art

A ceramic skull is decorated with painted flowers and other designs. As you saw in my last posting, people have been using skulls as decorative mediums since at least the era of Teotihuacan (100 BC - 650 AD) and perhaps even earlier. This is a modern creation, but the elongated skull seems to hark back to the Maya practice of deliberately deforming the skulls of infants to mark them as members of the nobility.

Another flowered skull wears a toothy grin. This pottery skull has been beautifully painted. The sign indicates Patzcuaro as its place of origin. Patzcuaro is famous for its Day of the Dead fiestas.

A surreal example of skull decoration. The colours of this red, green and white pottery creation are those of the Mexican flag. This guy looks like he just won the lottery, or watched his mother-in-law fall headfirst into a mud puddle.

An actual skull, with its eyesight returned. The sculptor has achieved a startling result by taking a real skull and filling in the eye sockets with flesh-toned plaster and wide-open eyes. The eyelashes enhance the effect. I half expected the skull to say something cheery as I went by.

A hooded gremlin protectively hugs a large skull. He seems to be saying "it's mine, all mine!" As you can see from the above examples, humor forms a large part of the Mexican attitude toward death. It seems to me that this is a much healthier frame of mind than the north-of-the-border tendency to look upon it all as depressing.

This concludes Part 6b of my series on Aguascalientes. Next week we'll take a look at José Guadalupe Posada and his famous catrinas. I'll show a number of examples of his 19th and early 20th Century engravings that satirised Mexican society of the time. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If so, feel free to comment either in the Comments section below or by emailing me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. I am curious about one of the masks you have in this web page. I am talking about the skull mask "Deathmus grinning skull.jpg" ("A surreal example of skull decoration.") Do you know what part of Mexico this mask is coming from?
    Thank you,


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim