This article is from the May 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Las Joyas de Mexico

The Mexican Art of Papier Mache

by Lynne Doyle 

Lynne Doyle is a longtime Mexico File subscriber and contributing editor from Maine. The object of the Las Joyas de Mexico feature is to highlight for MF readers some of the lesser-known but most rewarding of Mexico’s geographic, human and artistic treasures. Lynne can be contacted at LinfordD@aol.com  

They are all over the place in Mexico – in every tourist shop and market in just about every city and town in the country – both large and small papier mache figures of one kind or another, executed with varying degrees of skill and artistry. The art form goes back a long way in Mexican folk art and is not limited to any one village or area as are many of the media unique to the country. Thus it is with some difficulty that I attempt to describe this very special expression of Mexican artistic genius. However, in my view, the various types of papier mache figures generated by Mexican artists reflects in a significant way the artistic styles of the areas in which they are generated, and many of them are especially beautiful, and so are worthy of some examination. 

Perhaps the most familiar figures are the very popular and inexpensive “viejos” that are such a large part of tourist fare. These figures vary in size from seven inches all the way up to 15 inches tall and no two are ever the same. They are made with scraps of cloth and miniature pottery, wood and straw pieces designed to reflect the elderly peasants of Mexico and the various ways they earn their livings. Added to the figures are miniature versions of pottery, various animals, packs of wood and straw, and many other expressions of rural life in Mexico. These figures have been around since I was a child living in Mexico, and while today’s versions are more varied and perhaps more skillfully done, the essential style remains the same. I have always been completely stymied as to why these figures are so inexpensive to purchase – the faces, hands and feet on these pieces are so very moving and expressive – but they are, which perhaps explains – in part at least -- their enduring popularity. I am told that these figures are made all over the country now, but they originated in the famous Sermel factory outside of Guadalajara in the village of Tonala.  

The artists of Sermel are also responsible for the famous papier mache clowns sold all over the world. I have seen these little figures, generally about six inches tall, all over the United States, the Caribbean and even in England. Not quite as inexpensive as the Viejo figures, these little clowns are nevertheless not cost-prohibitive and share the exquisite fabric details and facial expressions of other Sermel products.  

Very exciting to me is a new line of figures initiated three years ago at Sermel, the folk dance series. Again, the facial expressions, figural postures, and fabric combinations are entrancing and each figure is totally unique. The costumes vary and represent individual dances from specific regions of the country.  More costly than the Viejo figures, these pieces are generally between twelve and 14 inches tall, and I have seen them only in the Sermel factory gift shop in Tonala. 

Less widely known, perhaps because they are usually very expensive, are the alebrije figures originated in the 1920’s and 1930’s by the famous Linares family of Mexico City, the most widely recognized of whom was the late Pedro Linares. Pedro’s son Felipe and grandson Leonardo have become renowned artists in their own right and are still producing these original pieces, and the vintage dragons and monsters are still very marketable through dealers and the internet, although at sometimes exorbitant three-and four-figure costs. Of singular significance to Mexican folk art collectors, each of these pieces boasts complex construction of newspaper or paper bags built over wire, intricate and colorful painting, and again, no two are alike.

Another very popular Mexican papier mache form is that of female figures with innocent little faces and yarn hair, intricately painted costumes and hats, and generally wide, heavily decorated skirts. Also in existence at least since my childhood, these pieces come from two distinct areas of Mexico that I know of – Guadalajara (as distinguished by the signature Tonala style of painting on them) and Mexico City, where the renowned artist Abelardo Ruiz has been creating them for at least 40 years. They vary in size from 3.5 inches tall to one of my favorite possessions, a 34 inch tall figure my husband fondly refers to as Shirley, after the friend who gave her to me. These figures vary in price – some 8 inch pieces can be had for as little as $10 in markets, and some of the larger, vintage pieces for considerably more – but occasionally, some very intricate and valuable examples can be found on eBay for practically nothing. 

Perhaps my favorite and most exciting example of the artistry of papier mache can be found in the skulls usually made for Day of the Dead celebrations. Two of these skulls made by the Linares family were featured in the Great Masters in Mexican Folk Art exhibit that toured the world several years ago. Unfortunately, these skulls are not found for sale in stores and markets in Mexico (I have seen them only in high-end art galleries), and when they do appear (usually from dealers or on the Internet), they are rarely signed in spite of the truly remarkable styles and patterns with which they are decorated.. These pieces are an unparalleled expression of Mexican craftsmanship – the bold coloration and intricate designs reflect Mexican humor and artistic mastery as few other mediums do.  

There is no end to what Mexican artisans will create in papier mache. We have all seen the marvelously realistic reproductions of fruit, vegetables and pastries in markets, intricately dressed catrinas in various sizes and ladies in antique French clothing and hats, and fantastical masks, nativities, fish and other objects with bold and complicated painted designs. Many people do not necessarily connect Mexican folk art and the medium of papier mache, especially Americans, who see papier mache in a way that is very different from the Mexican version. But Mexican artistry comes through in this medium in ways similar to other Mexican media – bright, distinctive colors, complex, involved patterning with paint, as well as amazingly hand-crafted and totally individual pieces. If you have not already discovered its charm, it is well worth your consideration as you appreciate the remarkable folk art of Mexico.