Friday, March 30, 2007


The History of Mexican Ceramics

"A peoples’ creativity,
its sensitivity and its
finesse can all be
through its pottery."

Herbert Read
Art Historian

Since the appearance of the Olmec culture, considered to be the “mother of the Mesoamerican cultures”, ceramics took a prevailing place in the lives of the Mexican people. The earthenware vessels, anthropomorphic figures, and various types of utensils found in the archaeological ruins of the ancient Olmec cities of Tajin, San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes, suggest the techniques used in their ceramics: the use of clay, the knowledge of some primitive firing techniques, their means of coloring and painting designs.

The Olmecs transcended their era (1500 B.C. –800 A.D) and bequeathed their knowledge to the cultures that flourished after them.

The Teotihuacans (100 B.C. – 800 A.D.) prepared the majority of their vessels with clay and decorated them with a variety of techniques: mainly stucco, painting, and smoothing.

The pottery of the Aztecs (1325 A.D. – 1521 A.D.) was extremely varied. They made all types of earthenware, plates, jugs, cups, pots, mostly with red and orange clay.

The Mixtecs stood out for their polychrome lacquer ceramics, in which after polishing a piece, they would cover it with white stucco and then paint it.

To the north, the Casas Grandes culture (100 A.D. – 1360 A.D.) produced beautiful polychrome ceramic, basically with geometric motives and influences from the Mimbres culture.

Each region had its own unique characteristics in pottery. However, in all these cultures, the potter himself was given a great deal of importance. The Aztecs summed it up in the following way:

“A good potter:
he puts great care into his work,
he teaches the clay to lie,
he speaks with his own heart,
he brings life to things,
he creates them,
he knows everything as if he were a Toltec
he makes his hands skillful.”

The ancient techniques employed to make ceramics are still used today – mostly in the rural parts of Mexico. It’s curious how these groups were able to preserve their artistic techniques – coil building, open firing, natural pigments – and yet they lost their original language and their religion.

When the Spaniards arrived, the blending of societies allowed the indigenous people to learn new techniques, and the combination of styles gave life to some of the more famous ceramic styles of Mexican earthenware, such as the “majolica” or Talavera.

Puebla’s Talavera is a direct descendant of the Arabic-Andalusian tradition, which began in Spain in the ninth century, when the influence of the Arabic culture passed on its techniques to peninsular potters. In Talavera de la Reina , Spain, it became very popular and took a characteristic stylistic form toward the 16th century. It was then that it was brought to the Americas, especially to the Nueva España, the New Spain, as Mexico was called in colonial times.

Although Talavera is only produced in Puebla, other majolica type earthenware is also produced in places like Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende.

To the west, in Tonala, Jalisco, is another Mexican state with a long tradition of ceramic production. Here, there is more of a Persian influence, including pieces such as stew urns, using gold and silver.

In Metepec, State of Mexico, the ceramic tradition has been influenced by Christian beliefs. Here they create the well-known arboles de la vida, trees of life, which are made to look much like tree.
Wire is used to attach the clay leafs and figurines to the "tree". It is called de la vida because it explains the origins of life. Usually there are figures of God, angles and Adam and Eve, as well as the serpent and some fruit are represented by special figures.

Day of the Dead
trees are also made using skeletons, and images related to the festivity.

Some are made in terracotta, without glaze; others are painted in every imaginable color.

Red ware, which is used to make everything from large cooking pots to rice dishes to table dishes, is typical of Michoacan. The characteristic decoration of these dishes are small flowers made with the thick part of the paintbrush, with white or green paint around a small black circle, as if it were a margarita (the flower, of course!).

In Oaxaca, the town of San Bartolo is famous for its barro negro, black clay. The artwork made with this clay acquires its color through the pigments in the polishing process, which brings out the red color from inside the clay. There are some more recent techniques that bring out a mixture of the natural dark and light tones of the clay, which artists protectively keep to themselves.

The small town of Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua stands out for its beautiful pottery as well. It was here that they reinvented pre-Hispanic ceramics techniques after shards of ancient pottery were found in the ruins of Paquimé. This renaissance was mostly due to Juan Quezada, outstanding Master Potter of Mata Ortiz.

Some Mexican creators have implemented new forms and new designs for typical Mexican artwork, such as ceramic eggs from which little frogs are born, lizards and other little animals; glass and ceramic twisters; key chains with eclipses; masks with a pre-Hispanic or oriental motif; dish sets with images of Tamayo or Rivera; tiles with geometrical figures, etc.

In the 1950s, High Temperature ceramics or stoneware appeared in Mexico. The origin of this type of ceramics is from China, Korea and Japan. This technique was introduced to Mexico by a small group of Mexican ceramic artists who studied abroad, mainly in Japan and the United States. Little by little, it caught on, and these days there are several regional centers in which artists work with Stoneware, such as Michoacan, Veracruz and Jalisco.

As we can see, Mexican ceramics bring together the influences of pre-Hispanic, European, Arabic and Oriental cultures. Whatever technique is used, Mexican ceramics have an individuality and "flavor" that is appreciated for its art and quality worldwide.

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