Wellcome Trust’s exhibit called Miracles and Charms is a respite from the Frieze-netic atmosphere of the past month and from the latest da Vinci saga of the National Gallery. I got tickets for Leonardo but will be postponing it until a time when I won’t be kicked out after 30 minutes of viewing! In Wellcome Trust, I can take all my sweet time to peruse the artworks without having to worry about the Leonardo-hungry crowd who want to take a piece of the newly discovered Salvador Mundi painting. In contrast, Magic and Charms is a very small and intimate show which explores the relationship between art and religion.
Not a new concept indeed if one has just been in other museums on a medieval trip. Religion has had an awful long winding road from being a cult of praise to being a subject of irony and indifference. And now here comes this exhibit which explains human nature, and our propensity for supplication and devotion to the spiritual when one goes thru a life or death changing circumstance. And for those who want to understand Mexican history, this is a great place to start.
The first half of the exhibition is called Infinitas Gracias which show an array of Mexican votive paintings – small paintings drawn in tin roof tiles or small plaques which tell of personal stories in the moment of crisis and humility. Dating as far back as the 18th century, the paintings are testament to a person’s faith when confronted by challenging circumstances: ill health, gun fights, kidnapping etc. – and how much one calls upon saintly intervention to overcome these difficult situations.
Votive paintings are quite different from traditional Christian art because they are done by commissioned yet anonymous artists. Their objective for creating the art is not to achieve the perfect contours of expression but to maximise the use pictorial space to represent their customer’s experience. Some paintings seemed as if they were pulled out of a page of a magic realism book: a person survives a lightning strike while a saint hovers above in a cloud or someone is saved from drowning while falling asleep in a pool. Indeed, there are stuff from everyday life but it’s these little surreal things that make the exhibit very interesting.
The paintings also demonstrate Mexican’s flair for colour – for example, hospital scenes are not all white-washed as expected. The use of colour in these ex-votos and the depiction of social history is truly Mexican indeed. For them, religious devotion is a celebration of colours, a far cry from the somber and opulent style of Christian traditional art. In Mexico, faith and gratitude is to be expressed to the world and not to be repressed inside the walls of a chapel. Indeed what this exhibit shows is how much Catholicism has shaped Mexican national identity and how religion has become a very big part of their lives.
In the other side of the room, these votive paintings are replaced by items from Modern times: wedding gowns, photos, baby clothes, school diplomas, braid of hair and scribbles form a wall collage of divine supplication. The best of course are the ex-voto paintings, which are sort of a precursor to Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo’s style and even the brochure to the exhibit indicated that the couple collected them when they were still alive.
Seeing this exhibit really made me wonder whether these two great painters could have achieved their pinnacle of success if it weren’t for the ex-votos paving the way.