Friday, July 2, 2010

Mexican vintage

Title : Mexicana : vintage Mexican graphics
Editor : Jim Heimann
Cover art : Torrero
   [Köln ; London ; New York : Taschen, 2002. "Icons" series].

style ***
substance ***
collectibility **

An irresistible, all-color collection of printed ephemera from the Golden Age of Mexican graphics [1], Mexicana is indeed a little off-topic, and not owned by me personally, but a fun discovery and worthy of inclusion for its high quality graphic art which connects it, however indirectly, to the vintage paperback movement.

The subject matter covered includes bottle and can labels, matchbook covers, cigarette packets, bullfighting and wrestling posters, travel brochures, menus, magazine covers, advertisements, and especially calendar paintings. A number of illustrations are the fetching if rather idealized portraits of Mexican women, and herein is the closest connection to the vintage paperback aesthetic of more or less the same era.

A substantial number of images derive from the travel industry, and they tend to present Mexico as a bucolic paradise of lush landscapes and Old World architecture, populated by vibrantly happy [if somewhat Anglicized] beauties dressed in Old Spain [or in some cases, mythic pre-Columbian] garb, and often accompanied by similarly traditionally dressed country squires. Fair enough – travel advertising today gives much the same message, albeit in less quaint visual language.

When a signature on the illustration is legible there's names like : Diego Rivera, Carlos Merida, Armando Drechsler, Antonio Gomez R., and Jesús Helguera – a goodly company indeed. A minor quibble is the paucity of descriptive detail for the individual items; in fact the only textual material in the entire volume is a one-page introductory summary [in English, German and French, but curiously not Spanish].

Covering much the same terrain is Mexican Calendar Girls, by Angela Villalba ; foreword by Carlos Monsiváis (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2006). The rather significant difference is that this work has all the exquisite textual and descriptive detail, bilingual no less, which Mexicana lacked. Nonetheless, Calendar Girls and Mexicana share many qualities. In particular, both books might be described as a pleasing combination of graphic design, mythology, kitsch, cultural history and cheesecake art [2]. Come to think of it, this is q pretty good description of the qualities of vintage paperback cover art, but again, it's the cheesecakey female depictions which are the most direct connection to classic era vintage pb art [3].

The Art Deco element present but not dominant in Calendar Girls and Mexicana comes front and center in Deco España : Graphc Design of the Twenties and Thirties, by Steven Heller and Louise Fili (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1997). It’s a tasty, wide-ranging collection of Spanish graphic design styles as employed in fashion, book and magazine covers, travel, and of course Spanish Civil War posters. Like Mexican Calendar Girls the present volume has a sprightly text and good documentation of individual items, with the illustrations being of a more abstract and purely graphic nature, lacking the emotional charge of the two Mexico books. Deco España then has a more 20th century sensibility, if you will, as opposed to the folksiness of the two Mexican titles, the images of which conjure up a timeless, romanticized, and myth-invoking nostalgia.

[1] Why does it seem that the ‘golden age’ for almost anything is the 1930s and 1940s?

[2] As Carlos Monsiváis puts it so succinctly in his Introduction, “The calendar art mixed Hollywood fantasies and Mexican legends.”

[3] Indeed, Mexican calendar artists occupy an analogous place to that of American vintage paperback cover artists; so many of the calendar paintings today considered brilliant were created in the thousands by anonymous, underpaid artists who were little appreciated at the time. But the differences were fascinating as well; the women in the Mexican calendar art, however seductively depicted, nonetheless have a natural and wholesome quality that contrasts sharply with the vintage pb’s highly stylized, urban, decidedly femme fatale look.

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