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Revival of the Watercolor in Coyoacan

by David Everett

Most of us remember our first watercolor set. A rectangular tin box with a hinged lid. Inside were squares or circles of dry paint, waiting for water to bring them to life. For most of us, however, it became too lively, the colors running and smearing all over the paper, in some places forming tiny spikes in the fiber of the paper. We wanted real paint, oils or acrylics, paint that would stay put, and paint that would paint over mistakes. Fortunately for watercolors, not every child felt this way. Back in the 1920s in Cuernavaca a boy named Alfredo Guati Rojo was inspired to paint after seeing the Diego Rivera murals on the walls of Cortes's palace. Alfredo's art teacher in primary school was himself a student of Eduardo Solares, who was commissioned to paint a new fresco in the palace. Alfredo got to help the muralist by marking up the tareas, areas to be painted in a single day. Fresco is a kind of watercolor painted on a white wall instead of white paper. But wall or paper, young Alfredo was hooked.
He eventually earned a masters in the plastic arts from San Carlos Academy in 1940, worked there for a while, and then lit out on his own.
As it is for most beginning artists, his paintings were hard to sell, and he had to figure out how to feed himself. So he taught. He eventually started an art institute that branched beyond the plastic arts into ceramics, fashion and furniture design, and jewelry making. After a gallery owner declined to show any of his works with the argument that watercolor was a minor art form, his calling was clear.
In 1957 the institute set up a gallery/museum in Colonia Roma in Mexico City, which mounted the city's first major exhibition of watercolors, "El Salon Anual de Acuarela." All of the museum's subsequent exhibitions got good press and stirred a renewed interest in watercolors. During these years, Alfredo and his wife Berta Pietrasanta collected watercolors and in 1977 created the National Watercolor Museum. They offered their collection to the state in exchange for funding, but with no luck. So they gave shows and concerts to raise money.
In 1985 the great earthquake of Mexico City destroyed their building. Alfredo speculates that the city government felt sorry for them, because it then bought them a house in Coyoacán, a beautiful site with a huge lot that Alfredo and his wife have transformed into a delightful garden that surrounds the museum buildings.
Alfredo and Berta and their museum have been a major force in restoring watercolor to its rightful place among the arts. And Mexico is a fitting place for this to happen because some of the earliest known watercolors in the world are the Codexes, those cartoon paintings on amate paper describing the teaching and rituals of pre-Hispanic Mexico. In a sense, watercolor is even older. The ancient paintings of animals in the caves of Altamira in Spain are more than 15,000 years old. But as Alfredo points out, it was when the European techniques called tempura and fresco came together with the Chinese invention of paper that modern watercolor painting began.
If you are a frequent shopper of antique stores and art fairs, the watercolor museum can offer your eye a quick education in the astonishing varieties of watercolor styles. You will see that those watercolors that ran all over the page in grammar school can be corralled into every style of painting from precise superrealism to a freeform impressionism. But whatever the style, there is always that special quality of watercolors: transparent colors on white paper that let the light dance through them.
Along with the paintings there are also watercolor portraits in lockets, frontispieces of books, architectural drawings, shards of Aztec Codexes, and other surprises. A visit to the museum may help you spot a bargain at your next art and antiques fair.
The young man named Alfredo who started teaching because he was an unknown and his paintings wouldn't sell is now an 80-year-old master whose paintings sell before they are painted, and are sold to help support his museum. When you are wandering through the gallery, look for a large painting of circus gymnasts. In the background you will see Alfredo Guati Rojo riding a unicycle with a likeness of the museum you are visiting balanced on his head.
The National Museum of Watercolor (Museo Nacional de Acuarela) is located at Salvador Novo 88 in Coyoacán. It is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. till 6 p.m. Admission is always free. Call 55-54-1801 for more information.