Mexican Folk Retablos: Images of Devotionhighlighted examples of this unique art form that flourished in rural areas of Mexico during the nineteenth century. The exhibition provided an insight into the faith and devotional practices of the Mexican people, and an art form that has influenced such well-known figures as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Jose Guadalupe Posada, among others.

Sponsored by a friend of the Michener Art Museum, the exhibition was organized by the Arizona Arts Commission and curated by Gloria Fraser Giffords, an expert on retablos and the author of many articles and books includingMexican Folk Retablos, University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Oil paintings of religious imagery on tinplate first appeared in Mexico’s rural central states during the nineteenth century. Largely by anonymous artists, these small works known as ‘retablos’ – from the Latin retro-tabula or ‘behind the altar’ – were created by the thousands. Little is known about the individuals who painted them, but what seems apparent from the large numbers produced is that they were extremely popular and that they were collected from the remote countryside, where they were primarily the religious art of rural people.

‘In religious terms, these paintings provide a way of expressing devotion to a favored icon. In cultural terms, they represent one of the few means by which common people can give public expression to their anxieties, needs, fears and sufferings,’ author Douglas Massey, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and a specialist in Latin American and Mexican Studies, writes in Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States.

Almost 50 years ago retablos began to be collected, mostly by individuals in the United States who were fascinated by the charming naiveté in many of the examples, as well as their strong decorative qualities. The skills of the artists range from those who appear to have had some formal training, to those who were guided by their instinctive sense of color, line, and form.

Painted with an oil-based paint, the choice of tinplated iron sheets as a substitute for canvas was most likely a fortuitous choice in the beginning. Mexico’s Independence from Spain in 1821 opened the nation up to free trade. Tinplate, produced in England during the nineteenth century, was imported into Mexico in enormous quantities as raw kitchen implements, lanterns and candleholders, pipes, and containers of all types. Coinciding with the availability of an inexpensive and durable support was the nineteenth-century phenomena of a blossoming of popular art of all different types. In particular, the creation of religious imagery in rural areas began to flourish, and artists in Mexico began using small pieces of tinplate as the support for paintings of saints.

Retablos cover a variety of subject matters, but by far the most popular were those representing the Virgin Mary, in particular Nuestra Señora, Refugio de Pecadores. Images of Jesus were also popular, especially those of El Niño de Atocha. These two particular images, along with several others, represent a specific icon and are faithful reproductions of the prototype – the only diversities are the skills or particular style of the artist painting them.

Retablos were most likely bought during religious festivals or pilgrimages and later installed within areas of a home dedicated to the personal devotions of the family members. Occasionally they were placed in an elaborate tin frames, although many appear to have been simply nailed to the wall or propped up on a shelf or table, surrounded by other religious tokens and accompanied by flowers and candles.

In the early twentieth century, as colored lithography made images on paper cheaper, more attractive and more fashionable than the retablo, these painted images ceased to be made. Over the years they were sold to peddlers and antique dealers and ultimately came to rest in private and museum collections. These examples from an abundant and expressive form of folk art are also testimonies of the Mexican people’s faith and devotional practices, providing us with a glimpse of a distinctive culture and another age.