Saturday, April 16, 2011

Mexico, City of Museums

Mexico City is a great museum town. As the seat of the Spanish Viceregency and, briefly, a Francophone Empire, Mexico City has a long tradition of royal patronage that assembled treasures from its rich, multicultural heritage. The Museo Nacional de Antropolog√ća, inaugurated in 1964, began what is now a half-century of cultural enterprise sponsored by public and private means. The latest addition to this assemblage opened the last week in March. Museo Soumaya, built, furnished and endowed by Mexico’s premiere entrepreneur, Carlos Slim, is marvelous in its architecture and its collections, and, as Slim has repeatedly insisted, Mexican from design to execution.

I’m staying in the historic center, a ten-minute walk from some of the city’s marvels: the Palacio Cultural Banamex, which opened in 2002 and exhibits colonial painting; the Museo del Estanquillo, home to the Mexican writer, Carlos Monsivais’, whimsical collection of objects; and my favorite, the Museo Franz Mayer, which houses the decorative arts assembled by the German-Mexican financier in the 20th century. With so much at arm’s length, why bother to visit a museum beyond Polanco and far from the nearest Metro? I can only say that it’s well worth the effort.

The first challenge is getting there. I touched off a spat between the bell captain and the concierge at the hotel when I asked for routing. Turns out that there are two Soumaya museums which complicates matters, but even having the address —Plaza Carzo, Colonia Ampliaciones Granada—gave them little to go on. As the hotel staff parsed its maps, I went out on the street for some real expertise. Locating the nearest taxi stand and waving a newspaper account of the museum’s opening, I asked for volunteers. After a few blank stares, one driver offered that he’d never heard of the museum, but he knew how to find Plaza Carso—and he did. The museum is located on the west side of Delegaci√≥n Hidalgo, on an appropriately neoliberal site between Saks Fifth Avenue and Costco.

The exterior is nothing short of stunning. Clad in a reticulated, shiny skin and situated on a sculpted hillock, the Soumaya stands at a dignified distance from its commercial surroundings. Its silhouette forms a crescent, from foundation to waist to roof—bearing an unfortunate resemblance to the Fukushima reactor. Taking in the full perimeter is currently impossible, as heavy equipment applies finishing touches to the landscape, but the juxtaposition of cranes with the building, one solidly straight, the other delicately curved, provided a striking consolation.

One rectangular door provides the only public entrance. Another rectangle, this a metal detector, stands just inside. Security yields to an enormous vestibule, currently decorated with couches, floor-standing metal sculpture and a multi-media exhibition done by Mexican school children. Looking (way) up reveals a curvilinear, dropped ceiling shaped like the hull of the Starship Enterprise—surely the resemblance occurred to the architect—and looking left reveals a ramp raked gently upward.

Yes, the Soumaya is a serpentine. It’s a museum, after all, and comparisons with Bilbao punctuate descriptions of the opening. The incline feels gentler than Wright’s Guggenheim – I haven’t been to Bilbao—and its surrounding spaces are bare, white, and lowly illuminated. Each of the five floor levels breaks out of the dim monotony in its own way.

The first floor begins with a tribute to gold and silver, and why not? Money built the place and assembled its collections. However, given the telecommunications source of the Carlos Slim fortune, silicon might have been displayed, as well. Precious metal transitions smoothly to their early extraction in the Indies, particularly Mexico and Peru, and to illustrate the South American mines, two floating partitions exhibit a set of paintings from Potosi, Sucre and the north of Argentina done by an anonymous artist in the 18th century. These paintings establish a tone that subsequent floors would maintain—an expansive range of tastes from sculpture and easel-painted high art to the objects of everyday (if elite, every day) life. They also demonstrate the capacity of modern capitalists to search the world for treasures. The Peruvian paintings are known to scholars as the “Crombie Collection,” after their former British owners. I do not know if the current owner will now attach his name to them; the Slim Collection doesn’t sound quite right.

Even with their striking chronological and geographical sweep (El Bosco to Botero; El Greco/ Van Gogh) collections of fine art are strikingly French -oriented. The fifth floor has what must be the largest collection of Rodin sculptures ever assembled. Major impressionist painters, Degas, Pisarro and Renoir (11 paintings and 3 bronzes from the last by my count), all have representatives of their ouvre on the third floor. The fourth floor is dedicated to Mexican artists of the 20th century, with a Diego Rivera painted head at the entrance and canvases by Orozco, Toledo, Tamayo, Dr. Atl and Soriano scattered about. An enormous mural, Siqueiros’ La Tierra como el agua y la industria nos pertencen, strikes a prescient tone. Along with these contemporary Mexican giants, curators have arranged three dozen cases of masterworks by anonymous precolombian ceramicists.

Curators have successfully toned down the glitterati with themes from the Mexican earth. Near the gold and silver tribute hang remarkable sets of Mexican family portraits, including a dozen from the Cumplido Rodriguez clan, completed in the 18th and 19th centuries. A large part of the third floor features travelers’ paintings of the Mexican landscape. An eighteenth-century depiction of the Iglesia de Itzacalco by Pedro Villegas gives way to more familiar scenes of the Valley of Mexico done by English and French visitors in the 1860s. Nearby is a collection of resplendent Guadalupe images done by Mexican artists in the 18thcentury. And would any Mexican art collection be complete without the set of casta paintings displayed on the first floor?

At closing time, the staff was gentle but firm, I noticed a small convoy of black Tahoes pulling up to a side entrance. Apparently, I just missed a private showing that Mr. Slim gave to the Colombian pop star, Shakira, who is in town for a concert. I hope she enjoyed the museum as much as I did.