Roman Catholics in central Mexico a century ago decorated scraps of tinplate and with images of Jesus, Mary and the saints as a way to give their faith a focal point.
Now a sampling of these small, infinitely varied paintings, called retablos, goes on display in a new show at the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art.
"I wanted people to see as great a variety as we could provide,'' said Gloria Fraser Giffords, the art historian who organized "Mexican Painting: The Art of Private Devotion," which opened Saturday at the Spencer. "They have a certain precious quality people like.''
The exhibit features more than 80 examples of retablo painting, which flourished in Mexico from about 1820 to 1910. First presented at the Meadows Museum of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the show will be at the Spencer through March 8.
THE PAINTINGS range in size from 2 by 3 inches to 14 by 20 inches. They could be carried or placed at a small altar set up inside a house. Artisans used oil-based paints and took their inspiration from prints and catalogs that were in wide distribution throughout Mexico.
Giffords said the whole folk movement, which was almost exclusively Mexican, died away when lithographic images on tin became readily available in the 20th century.
"It seems to be faddy,'' she said. "You have some of this painting in Brazil and Guatemala but nowhere else.''
Mary and Jesus appear frequently on these paintings, especially the retablo laminas, which were used as devotional images and rarely signed or dated. Retablos ex-voto, which often are signed and dated, bear witness to a miracle in a person's life, such as a vision from a venerated figure or a cure from a serious disease.
THE BIG difference between these retablos and the better-known icons found in Eastern Orthodox churches is the retablos' originality in style, she said.
"In Eastern Europe, the traditional church painting used big eyes and thin noses in a way that put the figures into a totally different reality,'' said Giffords in a recent telephone interview from her home in Tucson, Ariz. "With the Mexican retablo tradition you're dealing with an area that wasn't controlled like the Orthodox monks were (in monastaries). You have a lot of variety and a great sense of naturalism in some.''
Giffords, an art preservationist as well as a historian, wrote a book on the retablos in the late 1960s. She said she first became interested in these images as part of a master's thesis project.
"I WAS spending a lot of time in Mexico, and I wanted to work with primary source material,'' she said. "Then I went into a shop in Nogales (Ariz.) and I saw these little icons there that I liked. I went to research them, and I found out no one had ever written about them. Then I had to convince my adviser to let me do the thesis, but he was wary of folk art. He said they were like quilts you could say one was good and one was bad, but there was no through-line or movement, like romanticism or modernism. So I chose to write on the iconography of the paintings, which is a good topic for any master's thesis.''
To assemble the exhibit, which was co-sponsored by the Meadows and InterCultura of Fort Worth, Tex., Giffords had to sift through more than 12,000 pieces over the course of three years. She said she began to see patterns in the styles of various retablo artists.
"IT WAS really great to see so many in so short a time that I found out I could identify certain artists,'' she said. "We don't know their names, but we gave them some.''
Assessing the quality of a retablo depends almost entirely on the collector's tastes, she said. Retablo artistry generally comes in two categories: the academic, which is a conscious imitation of a European painting style, and the naive, which seem to be inspired more by the artist's imagination than a catalog or print.
"First, you look at condition,'' she said. "Since they were used as altar pieces, sometimes smoke and candle wax would ruin them. Then in terms of quality you can look at the naive and the academic. I really like the naive, but some academics swoon over the ones that could have come off of a Victorian catalog cover.''
RETABLO COLLECTORS today can find pieces mainly in U.S. shops in the Southwest and with U.S. collectors. Some of the highest-quality retablos have sold for $2,500 at the Sotheby's auction house in New York, and they can go as high as $9,000 in the inflationary Mexican economy, she said. Overall, the Mexican stock of retablos has declined, mainly because U.S. citizens have bought up a lot of them, and they weren't held in particularly high regard as art objects in this century.
"If the truth be told, in the '60s, '70s and '80s there weren't a lot of collectors or scholars interested in them in Mexico,'' she said. "They were like an oak table from your grandmother that you wanted to get rid of to get a stainless steel, Formica table. A lot more are available to be seen now in the United States.''
THE SHOW proved to be popular when it opened in Dallas, Giffords said. It drew heavily from the area's Hispanic community as well as people who wouldn't ordinarily go to a museum.
"These are the people museums are trying to attract,'' she said.
She said she also hopes the show will encourage more people to become more interested in all of Mexican art, which enjoyed a U.S. renaissance in a 1991 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She also wants people to open up their idea of aesthetics, at least enough to allow devotional retablo paintings a spot.
"Unfortunately, Anglos and Europeans too are very egocentric and chauvinistic about what they think art is,'' she said. "But even if of 5,000 people who see the show in Lawrence one person has a raised consciousness, then I guess it's worth it.''