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Tree of Life, Adrian Luis Gonzalez, Meyepec, Estado de México

Helmut Köhl...
He who ensouls the clay…

by Liliana Ruiz Velasco Dávalos and Susanna Kirchberg

"He who ensouls the clay,
with a view from above,
composes, rejuvenates.
The genuine potter endows
his pieces with joy,
teaching the clay
to stand proudly,
speaking to the heart.
Toltec, with agile hand,
give life to your pieces
with formation,
know the art.
Another, who knows
the trade, but with
clumsy hands,
acts out life
as though dead."

from an ancient Aztec poem

Helmut Köhl is not just the average gallery owner, he is an architect
of invisible bridges. Constructing traveling exhibits of Mexican arts
is the structural framework he uses to offer a link with which to
bridge the artistic souls of distant cultures. The blueprints for his
newest undertaking, Vida y Muerte, were on exhibit at his Haus der
Kunst, Puente del Arte Contemporáneo gallery in Guadalajara, Jalisco
this past November. Scheduled to open in full splendor November, 2000
in Europe, Köhl´s latest viaduct will offer a visual bridge to the
perceptions of death and life from the vantage points of Mexican and
non-Mexican artists.

The two-week prelude exhibit opened November second, in conjunction
with Mexico's traditional Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
festivities. Like a tantalizing appetizer of what is to come,
paramount works by Marco Antonio Castillo, Adrian Luis Gonzalez,
Theodor Riedl, Nacho Gomez Arriola, Ismael Vargas, Judith Gutierrez
and many other outstanding artists, adorned the exhibit's
main "altar" and surrounding spaces.

Marco Antonio Castillo's exquisitely detailed miniature "Tree of
Death," ‹not more than five inches in height‹ portrayed tiny
skeletons making merry on earthenware branches. Surrounded by flying
doves, plates of mole, mugs of pulque, and a colorful assortment of
fruits and vegetables, the work masterfully depicts Mexican culture
through the use of traditional popular art.

Flanking either side were two miniature Metepec "Trees of Life,"
created by Adrian Luis Gonzalez. Gonzalez's use of soft earthtones
contrasted marvelously beside the vivid reds, purples, yellows and
greens of the "Tree of Death."

At the foot of the installation altar, created by Nacho Gomez
Arriola, hung an impressive wool tapestry by Theodor Riedl (b.
Austria, 1954; d. Jalisco, Mexico, 1987), entitled Vida y Muerte .
The detailed textile personified Mexico's view of the endless cycle
of life and death by using an image of the human face... somehow
familiar, yet unknown, which softly melted into the form of a skull.
The view transforms itself into a child before regressing back to the
original central facial image.

Helmut Köhl, along with son and gallery partner Christian Köhl, will
be commissioning two works from each of these artists, and numerous
others, for the planned November, 2000 exhibit. Scheduled to open in
Chicago, Illinois before continuing on to museums in Germany,
Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and Hungary‹ this is Köhl's second
international-scale exhibition featuring Mexican masters.

In 1984, Köhl, along with above mentioned weaver Theodor Riedl,
Miguel Carmona and Gilberto Ramos began researching, documenting and
commissioning works of traditional Mexican pottery from one hundred
and twenty studios located in fifteen different states (in
conjunction with the German cultural center, "El Puente," who helped
fund the project).

By 1986, the foursome had logged several thousand miles, assembled
three hundred and fifty-nine pieces and had compiled a 238 page book,
in German, cataloging the exhibit. "Wer den Ton beseelt... Cerámica
Mexicana" (He Who Ensouls the Clay... Mexican Pottery) ran for two
years along side the "Glanz und Untergang des Alten Mexico" (Twinkle
and Twilight of Ancient Mexico) exhibit, under the administration of
Director Eggebrecht.

The sub-exhibit of contemporary Mexican pottery was so successfully
received that during the two-year stint, before the exhibition closed
its doors, invitations for showings from other European museums were
already piling up. The display traveled independently for an
additional eight years before being incorporated into the Hildesheim
Museum's collection in Germany.

The tremendous reception which these works received in western Europe
inspired Helmut Köhl to open the "Haus der Kunst, Puente del Arte
Contemporáneo" (House of Art, Bridge for Contemporary Art) gallery in
Guadalajara, Jalisco earlier this year. Köhl, who made Mexico his
permanent home twenty-four years ago, intends to forge an even
stronger bridge between this nation's deep-rooted customs and
international awareness of Mexico's master artists. Haus der Kunst
gallery‹ and Helmut Köhl‹ are a far cry from the "seduce and plunder"
attitude too often perceived as the "norm" in a nation which
continues to totter between the First and Third World.

As Köhl wryly noted, "My friends‹ artists, artisans, creators‹ are
closer to my heart than some members of my own family. Together we
talk about what we can create for the future... not what we can buy
to Œprofit' from. Not recognizing or wanting to know about the artist
of a piece is, in my mind, akin to what happened in Germany during
the 1940s... no one gains by wanting the art while destroying the

The exhibit, and publication which accompanied it, were named after
an Aztec poem which begins with the line, "He who Ensouls the
Clay..." Köhl would like to see the German volume produced in Spanish
and English as well. He noted during a recent interview with El
antiQuario that of the 10,000 issues published, the majority were
sold in the United States. Wer den Ton beseelt was not exhibited in
Mexico or the U.S. Copies of the original book are available from the
publisher, El Puente GmbH, or through El antiQuario Magazine.

El antiQuario‹ Tell us about the "Wer den ton Beseelt" exhibit‹ why
was contemporary Mexican pottery being shown in conjunction with an
exhibition of this country's primeval arts?

Köhl‹ "The exhibit took place in four European countries and ran for
ten years. It was originally presented alongside the "Glanz und
Untergang des Alten Mexico" (Twinkle and Twilight of Ancient Mexico)
exhibition, by the Hildesheim Ethnic and Anthropology Museum‹ they
wanted something that could encompass today´s Mexico as well as items
from the nation's past cultures. We proposed pottery right away
because it has been a conducting rod to the soul of Mexican culture
from antiquity to present day.
We left the high temperature stuff out of the exhibit... organizers
there, and here too, believe that high temperature ceramics are quite
a new-comer to Mexico and are not really representative of the
country's original culture. Anyway, the initiators of the "Twinkle
and Twilight of Ancient Mexico" exhibition decided it was okay to
have traditional contemporary pottery included in the show.
Those two years of work spent documenting and commissioning pieces
for the exhibition made me realize that, in Mexico, influential
pieces of pottery were being produced in areas which were once pre-
hispanic ceremonial centers. Every modern day spot that has something
important to do with Mexican pottery is close to a pre-hispanic site.
Tonalá was there. Guadalajara was not. People in Tonalá were potters,
I mean, they have been producing here at least 1,200 years. Tonalá is
a ceremonial site, a place of traditions. It existed long before the
Spanish came‹ and I think this is the case all over Mexico when
looking at centers which create traditional pottery.
We don´t speak about a potter's tradition being introduced by the
Spaniards... the introduction of some materials and different
techniques, yes, but Mexican ceramics have been here for a long time‹
it is important to observe the extended history behind the practice.
We came up with this theory while preparing for the exhibition and
felt it was important to elaborate on the point. The history and
consequential links which connect this ancient art to the present is
not fictional. We made a map of Mexico, showing the current day towns
which are important pottery centers‹ all are located within a 50 km
radius of pre- conquest cities."

El antiQuario‹ Distinction is often made between "works of art"
and "artisan's work." Does inspiration make a difference, or do you
feel the difference is the mechanical repetition?"

Köhl‹ "Actually, I do not discriminate so much. At home I have
paintings by friends side-by-side with other items which I consider
art pieces‹ such as burnished pots. To me, the quality pottery
created by Tonalá masters, or the Oaxaca burnished black wares‹ which
is fired in a different manner‹ makes me think... why do we have to
make such distinctions between "art" and "popular art." At home, the
items look great all together.
Why should a piece by Toledo, Tamayo or Ismael Vargas‹ or Arévalo‹
stand apart from an item created by Antonio Mateos, winner of the
Presidential Award? This Tonalá potter is a great artist, as are
Salvador Vázquez, Antonio Ramírez and the Pajarito family‹ who have
created some superb burnished pieces.. Jesús Alvarez made the piece
which appears on the front cover of the exposition's catalog. The
Alvarez family, both the father and brother, have produced some
masterpieces in burnished pottery. The same holds true about Jimón
and his widow, Doña Mera, who is another grand master. And the
Bernabé family, famous for the petatillo technique... I mean, these
are important artists..
Then there are other places, like Izúcar de Matamoros or Metepec‹
where the Tree of Life is characteristic. Families over there have
rediscovered the techniques of three or four generations ago, working
once again with natural colors. Pieces by some of the most important
artists, like Antonio Castillo, will fetch two to three thousand
dollars each. You see, regardless of price, his items are art pieces.
Perhaps there lies the difference from popular art‹ every day use of
an item makes the difference between art and popular arts. I believe
artisans are artists."

El antiQuario‹ Why did you name the gallery "Haus der Kunst, Puente
del Arte Contemporáneo" ? Is there some relation to the German
organization, El Puente, which funded the traveling pottery exhibit?

Köhl‹ "No. This is a different bridging. This time we would like to
take Mexican artists abroad and promote visits by foreign artists to
Mexico‹ all nationalities.
Latin America is a land of creative people without a proper place in
the art world, lacking in promotion. Take Fernando Botero for
instance, he became much more famous after his exhibition of
sculptures in Champs-Elysées in Paris‹ and I don't think that he is
so much THE Latin American artist, but rather an artist who was
greatly promoted. We lack that here. Names like Tamayo and Toledo are
just a few of the outstanding signatures from Latin America. Too many
Mexican artists remain "undiscovered" outside of this country... from
the A of Arévalo to Z of Zamora... and numerous in between."

El antiQuario‹ What is on the horizon for future events and exhibits
in Haus der Kunst gallery?

Köhl‹ "We plan on sending a collection of pieces representing
Mexico's Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) abroad. The celebration is
very traditional here, and a unique representation of the culture. We
have received invitations from the Budapest National Museum and also
from Vienna, Salzburg and Munich. Switzerland, and an important
museum in Denmark, are also considering the exhibit. We are
coordinating with twenty-some artists, from Mexico and other
countries, to express the different perceptions of death and life.
The festivities which surround All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead
grasp both "art" and "popular art" in a single expression. The death
altar in Mexico, considered a non-art expression, is art... and it is
a source of enthusiasm and drive for Haus der Kunst gallery‹ another
bridge to help span the chasm of unfamiliarity."