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Sculptures in Wax

by Gabriel Cerda Vidal

Taking off his small sombrero, the little man twirled the hat by its brim nervously between his hands. The others were speaking about him as though he wasn’t even present. He knew this was going to be an uphill battle. His body was thin, pale and decimated. Studying the floor with feigned interest, he finally worked up the courage to interrupt, “Please, sir! If you can’t do it, nobody can. Please, sir, do it out of the goodness in your heart!” Maciel took him by the arm. Carefully, he examined the little man’s eyes, his legs and gently tapped his chest a few times. Maciel returned to his seat, pensively running his fingers through his hair...

They say that in Guadalajara, during the unrestrained decade of the
sixties, an unusual nativity scene was erected on the streets of Galeana and Juarez, in the city’s center. The startlingly life-like figures were wax creations made by an artisan named Ismael Pardo. The collection of a dozen or so pieces had been crafted using a new technique developed by the artist which, up until now, has never been documented in any publication. During the past thirty-plus years the process used by Pardo has been kept a closely guarded family secret which, thanks to the ravishes of time, is now becoming a faded memory. Through the skilled hands of another remarkable artist, what was on the verge of being lost through the passage of years now holds promise of continued vitality.

The Spanish Ancestors
The origin of wax figure molding is vague. Some historians place the art form’s roots stemming from the Renaissance period, when large-scale sculpture was replaced by miniaturisation. The trail of clues grows cold from there up until the year 1653, when the art reappeared with a religious slant. A monk from the Juan de Fiesole sect, by the name of Eugenio Torices, is mentioned as garnering considerable fame in Madrid, Cordoba, Malaga and Cadiz for his creation of nativity figures, or “capillas,” in wax. Such artists were known in Spain at that time as “Belenistas.”

Torices was not alone. In different regions, other Belenistas were gaining recognition for their art, such as: Jose Gines, who worked in Valencia, Spain, in 1768; Roldana, in Seville; Salzillo, who, with his Baroque-style figures, was well known in Murcia, Burgos, Valladolid, Granada and Seville; and Amadeo, a prolific Catalonian artist, son of a family of potters, who acquired fame for his wax work in the city of Barcelona around 1745. All of these artists, and many others like them, were known in Spain as the “Great Masters of Belen.”
In 1777, Juan de la Cruz compiled a collection of classic Spanish garments with the intention of using them for an artistic prepresentation of national identity. At the urging of Cano y Olmedilla, he commissioned a series of graphic prints based on the different styles of dress found among the country’s distinct social classes. To illustrate the costumes of New Spain, he created six stamps from sketches drawn by his cousin, Manuel de la Cruz, representing indigenous dress styles. By 1828, numerous artists were profiling the relationship between fashion and class status. One of the most well know groups of work from this period is a series of 28 lithographs produced by Claudio Linati, titled, “Trajes civiles, militares y religiosos de México” (Civilian, Military and Religious Dress of Mexico). These pieces inspired a new trend in the art of wax figure making.

Wax Figures in Mexico
Contrary to popular belief, there is no documented evidence of wax figure making in Mexico prior to the 19th century. For historians, the realist period offers a wealth of information on social and ethnographic conditions in the country. From literature to the visual arts, the people and culture were studied from a societal perspective. Although portrayed somewhat romantically, the value of these images is undeniable as both visual art and historically speaking. Bakers, farmers and street-sweepers were among those represented in manuscripts, fine art and in wax during this period.

Regarding the art of wax figure making and the characterisation of social classes, Linati commented, “The people of Mexico’s villages naturally lend themselves to fine art. Many foreigners solicit the wax flowers, santos and virgins executed by the country’s lepers. These artisans have an amazing flair and skill with the medium, although most have never studied the art.” The practice of portraying social classes in art was common from the end of the Colonial period through the 20th century. These arts have not only helped to preserve some of the country’s traditions, they have also increased awareness and understanding of its people for outsiders. Collections of Mexican wax figures can be found in the British Museum, in London; the Musèe de L’Homme, in Paris; the Goya museum, in France; El Museo de América, in Madrid; as well as in museums in Germany and Switzerland.

Linati’s reference to the pieces being produced by “lepers” (Franz Meyer is also quoted as calling wax figure artists lepers) actually refers to the artisans as coming from humble backgrounds, not the disease. Although most of the artists remain anonymous, there are individuals and families whose work is known by name, such as the Hidalgos, who have been creating wax sculpture since the 19th century.

Zeferino Hidalgo’s signed pieces are in the Musèe de L’Homme, a pair of sculptures by Juan Hidalgo are in the Museo de América, and Luis Hidalgo, who carried on the family tradition through the early 20th century, has works in the Museo de Arte in Patzcuaro, Morelia, San Luis Potosi and pieces in private collections in the United States. Luis’s work was more folk-style, his figures were often made by hand, rather than with a mold. He is credited as having inspired the famous Mexican poet, Carlos Pellicer, with one of his wax nativity scenes.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, the hub of wax figure production has primarily been in Michoacan, Morelia, Patzcuaro, San Jeronimo Purenchecuaro and Puebla. The art is still being practised in Oaxaca, Puebla and Veracruz, where clay and wooden molds are used to created wax decorations which are applied to candles. The Bajio region, which includes Salamanca, San Miguel de Allende and Irapuato, is also known for wax works.

Carlos Maciel
Sadly, the art of wax figure making is now practically lost. One of the last artists still productive in this field is Carlos Maciel, who inherited the tradition from his family. “During Christmas time, our godmothers used to give out elaborate wax figures with sweets hidden under the figures skirts,” explains the artist.The Maciel family tradition of wax figure sculpting dates back to at least the beginning of the 19th century, when they were active in Zamora, Michoacan. As was common practice, their figures were created for the benefit of the local community in the form of nativity scenes. “We made all different figures for the nativities, including shepards and animals. Each year we would recreate any pieces which had been broken over the course of time,” recalls Maciel.

For the past six years, the artist has been working with wax full-time, usually, but not always, creating figures with a religious motif. Maciel’s main prerequisite is that the subject matter is something he finds interesting or pleasing. The artist is an illustrative author who enjoys researching the piece and theme before he begins work. “I don’t do this as a marketing technique,” he comments, “it is for personal fulfilment.” Included among some of the figures he has created over the years are representations of different social classes and characterisations of popular historical figures.

Because of the detailed nature of his work, Maciel does not have
employees. He is personally responsible for every aspect of seeing a piece created from start to finish. His pieces are usually sold before he initiates them. “It is hard to keep up with the demand. Because the work is so detailed, one must have considerable patience,” he confirms. At one time he did have two apprentices, but unfortunately they are no longer involved in the business.

Maciel’s technique of molding was passed down to him from his mother, as were most of the tools he uses, such as: gesso molds, picks, pliers, dentist instruments and other equipment necessary for shaping the detailed miniature sculptures.

The process begins with melting the wax and forming “bricks.” The bricks are sliced into thin sheets and place in the sun to be bleached clean. Color is added, usually from natural pigments, while the wax is still hot.

Carlos Maciel works using molds. He has only one form for the male
figures and one for the female. The different characteristics of each figure are added later, at the artist’s discretion. Maciel adds that one of the most difficult aspects is in designing the clothing properly so that it appears realistic.

There are several different techniques used to fashion the figures
dress. One is creating the face and hands from wax, while the body and clothing are formed with wax covered paper. Another consists of sculpted figures wearing wax dipped cloth clothing which is carefully draped into place. Many artists prefer this method, as the cloth can be reshaped to allow realistic folds and creases in the garments. “Sra. Bravo de Irabien makes her figures using a base of
wire and wood, which gives them a lot of movement and life,” declares the artist. This application is done with wax from Campeche.

Wax is also used to create religious medallions and cameos, which normally feature a full or profiled face, mounted in a wooden frame and protected behind concave glass. The pieces normally measure about 10 inches, and some even use real human hair for the head. Besides his original creations, Carlos Maciel also restores vintage wax
figures. He is currently working on saving the famous Pardo nativity scene. “Working on Ismael Pardo’s figures is like receiving a lesson in wax. I’ve unearthed his technique, discovered how he put the pieces together,”notes the artist. Thanks to this sculptor’s dedication and artistic skill, the formidable nativity will once again be used to represent Christmas.

Throughout our conversation, a timid gentleman sat quietly in the corner. He had the humble stance of a man used to working in the corn fields under the hot sun.

“He is stunning! Must be from Puebla,” exclaimed Maciel.

The man was nearly 70 years old. For the past five years he had been praying someone would be able to heal his deteriorating body.

The interview was over. Now it was time to chat more casually and attempt to strike a deal. Maciel suspected where the conversation was going. Pursing his lips, the diagnoses appeared grim. The silence was torturous.
“There’s not much left of him, look— he’s all face. He wouldn’t be able to stand the heat of a flame, look how thin his body is... no, and look at the little hat he has. I don’t think I could do him justice.”

“Oh, Carlitos!”

“The heat would kill him, completely destroy his body. He’s so handsome, but look here, someone tried once before and failed,” he said, pointing to a scare on the campasinos’s leg. “Maybe with modern glues...”

“Help him, Carlito’s, you can do it!” We chimed in unison.

That is when the little man removed his hat, twirling it nervously between his hands. Up until that point he had been humbly silent, like a shadow, like a figure made of wax. The inanimate man studied the floor, then he spoke for the first time. “Please, Sir! If you can’t do it, no one can. Please, Sir, out of the goodness in your heart!”

Maciel examined him once again, more carefully this time. No one breathed.

“There’s not much hope. I could possibly transplant a new body on him,
but who knows...” “Whatever it takes, Carlos. Whatever it takes.” We said with renewed encouragement. “The alternative is very dangerous. Perhaps it would be best just to clone him, science has become so advanced these days... Or, possibly I could fill his body with gesso, slowly rebuilding it. I had thought about possibly using dry ice, but no. The wax needs to be hot when one works it. Yes, perhaps with gesso, little by little...”

“There is no hurry, Don Carlos. Take as much time as you need.”

“All right then, leave him here,” Carlos Maciel finally agreed. “It is going to be very difficult, but I’ll try my best.” The man smiled like a child who was being given a piece of candy.