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Art & Culture

“Codex Mexico: The Book as Art”

To view images full size, left click on each

Twenty-two Mexican artists presented stunningly attractive fine-art book productions in a presentation of contemporary and historic art treasures by the Mexican Cultural Institute.

Housed in a Washington mansion whose interior rooms and stairways are richly decorated with Mexican murals, frescoes, and easel paintings, together with Talavera tiles from Oaxaca, the Institute has since the early 1990s sponsored a series of celebrated artistic and cultural exhibitions showcasing the arts and cultural richness of Mexico. (See, “Mexican Cultural Institute’s 16th Street Mansion Near Meridian Hill Park Now Designated as a DC Historic Landmark,” The InTowner, Jan. 2013, issue PDF page 1; http://tinyurl.com/cenzcfy.)

Francisco Toledo, Esclavos. For this work, Toledo was asked to create a work that  celebrated Mexican Independence. Toledo responded  with this image of a slave ship, noting, “There’s nothing to  celebrate.”

Francisco Toledo, Esclavos. For this work, Toledo was asked to create a work that celebrated Mexican Independence. Toledo responded with this image of a slave ship, noting, “There’s nothing to celebrate.”

The current exhibition “Codex Mexico: The Book as Art,” further advances this series of presentations by illustrating in the work of 22 artists employing the graphic arts and artisanal printing skills built on the almost 600-year tradition of Mexican book printing, a tradition that began in 1539 with the publication of the first printed book in North America on a press brought to Mexico City from Saville, Spain. These amazing productions also serve to showcase and illustrate the works of well-known writers and poets.

The word “codex” in the title “Codex Mexico” reminds one both of the origins of Western book publication in the early manuscript books called codices of Roman law and Christian scriptures, and of those discovered by Europeans in Meso-America where an entirely separate and independent process had created the famous Aztec and Mayan codices and those of the Zapotecs in Oaxaca. These pre-Columbian codices were tragically burned by the conquistadores and the evangelizing Spanish Catholic missionaries; very few survived — less than a dozen of these pictographic and syllabary accounts of the history, beliefs, and astronomical accounts of these fascinating and still alive early Mexican cultures.

Ironically, far more survived of those codices that were produced in the post-conquering period when indigenous scribes together with Spanish monks created new codices that combined Indian pictographs representing images, symbols, and syllables with Spanish language text.

“Codex Mexico” as an exhibition in collaboration with the Stanford University Libraries is further enriched with the inclusion of outstanding examples from the  Codex Foundation in Berkley, California and that of Codex Australia, all of which reflect, at the least, a mini-revival in the production of fine press and handmade books.

The exhibition opens with examples of powerful graphics and revolutionary writings. My favorite is one of the first objects on display — an oversize, two-leaf work of text and printed image encased in blood-red book covers of the type no doubt carried as meeting folders by members of the Council of the Indies. The work is entitled Esclavos (Slaves), with text on one side by the distinguished economist and political historian Antonio Garcia De Leon, author of Chiapas: Resistance and Utopia, and, facing Garcia’s text on the other side, a stylized and surreal cutaway depiction, frighteningly colored, of hundreds of slaves chained row after row in the hold of a ship while enduring the lethal middle passage — this as pictured in an etching by Oaxaca’s great graphic artist and draftsman Francisco Toledo.

Saúl Kaminer, Esclavos. For this work, Kaminer collaborated   with poet Esther Seligson, spending time in the studio  poring over images.

Saúl Kaminer, Esclavos. For this work, Kaminer collaborated with poet Esther Seligson, spending time in the studio poring over images.

A very different and poignantly elegiac work is The Lost Diary of Sacajawea, with text in the form of a poem by Debra Magpie Earling and photographic interventions  concocted by Peter Rutledge Koch, founder of the Codex Foundation. This work is bound in what appears to be a replica of the kind of stiff leather map case which could have been carried by Lewis and Clark on their overland expedition across the Louisiana Purchase to the Pacific Ocean. Beautifully printed, the opened page in the catalog illustration of this bravura work is from the poem and is titled “Building Mandam Camp.” It includes these first two stanzas:

“There is no fever / like the fever of white men building / the sound of trees falling / hissing / the sound of branches snapping, cracking, dying.

“Building / they are building their houses. / One day their buildings will devour the sky.”

These exemplary examples of extraordinary, handmade fine press books filled the entirety of the Institute’s handsome first and fourth floor galleries. And, “Codex Mexico” was replete with examples as fine as these first two; it was also full of novel, accordion-style gatherings of leaves, astounding bindings and book boxes, glorious reproductions of paintings, photographs, and colored etchings. The prints and drawings illustrating all of these books were uniformly exquisite. “Codex Mexico” continued through June, 2013.