October 24, 1999

For Potters From Spain, a New World of Styles


NEW YORK -- Over the last 400 years, the innovative potters of Puebla, a town east of Mexico City, have done what potters do best: they have taken dazzling designs from the ceramics of other cultures and reproduced them. Then, to mark them as Mexican, they have added images of a cactus here, a parrot there.

Americas Society
Tin-glazed earthenware: a jar with goose handles and fruit and foliage in relief.

Spanish artisans began making pottery in Puebla by the 1570s, a half century after Hernan Cortes routed the Aztecs in the Spanish conquest. These master potters, who had been sent from Spain to set up the ceramics workshop in the town, turned out an international mix of styles in their favorite medium, tin-glazed earthenware.

The first jars, basins and platters to be made there reflected the bold shapes and elaborate patterns of Spanish and Islamic cultures. Then, by the early 17th century, they added colorful Italian majolica, blue-and-white patterns from Ming porcelains and folk-patterned tiles based on Flemish and Dutch models.

The aim was to match the impressive works being made back in Spain by the country's finest ceramists in Talavera de la Reina, a town near Toledo that became Spain's Delft.

Just how brilliantly these Spanish potters succeeded in transforming the traditional terra cotta ceramics in Mexico is the little-known story that is revealed in "Talavera Poblana: Four Centuries of a Mexican Ceramic Tradition," an exhibition at the Americas Society Art Gallery, Park Avenue, at 68th Street, through Dec. 12.

The show of 86 pieces, lent mostly by American and Mexican museums, was organized by the Americas Society and the Hispanic Society of America, both in Manhattan, along with the Museo Amparo in Puebla.

The Spaniards chose Puebla as the site of their ceramics workshops for a good reason. "Ceramics had been produced in or near Puebla since 1200 B.C.," said Margaret Connors McQuade, the curator of ceramics and furniture at the Hispanic Society, who organized this show and wrote the catalogue. "And while I'm certain that the Spaniards probably used the ceramics knowledge of the natives, only pure-blooded Spaniards were permitted to be the master potters under Puebla's ordinances, which governed the potter's guild. Perhaps they felt threatened by the skills of native potters."

Americas Society
Tin-glazed earthenware: a platter emblazoned with an image of a Jazz Age flapper crowned with peacock feathers.

But from the start the Spanish introduced colors, shapes and motifs never before known in Mexican ceramics. The introduction of cobalt blue glazes, popular throughout Europe and Asia from the 16th century on, produced the most pervasive change.

Puebla's potters lavished cobalt glazes, imported from Spain, on their works in ways that far exceeded the density of the imagery and the intensity of the colors on, say, the Chinese-influenced Korean and Vietnamese blue-and-white ceramics from the same period. The rich blues first appeared on traditional pieces in the Spanish style and in the Islamic or Hispano-Moresque style: gourd-shaped bottles patterned with leaves, a bulbous jar with serpentine handles depicting a bullfight and large basins awash with traditional Islamic strapwork.

By the early 17th century, Chinese blue-and-white porcelains were the dominant inspiration for Puebla's potters, who translated Ming imagery of exotic birds and palace gardens to the surfaces of their earthenware pieces. Some artists replaced foreign motifs with native ones that depicted a waterbird on a cactus, poised like an Aztec eagle. They also added parrots and crested quetzal birds to the foliage of Chinese-style gardens.

The adaptations were probably produced by potters who had actually seen Chinese porcelains. At the time, Chinese porcelains were shipped by Spanish galleons from Manila to Acapulco to remain in Mexico or be sent on to Spain.

While ceramic production flourished in Puebla throughout the 18th century, it declined both times Mexico gained its independence in the 19th century, from Spain in 1821 and from France in 1862. Vigor returned to the Puebla potteries after the artist Enrique Luis Ventosa arrived from Barcelona in 1897.

His illustrator's sharp eye and his training in the Art Nouveau style proved invaluable to him in producing platters emblazoned with boldly graphic images like coats of arms and Jazz Age flappers crowned with peacock feathers, works he sometimes made with Ysauro Uriarte, who created the shapes.

Ventosa's works prompted a re-examination of those by earlier Spanish potters that are among the finest objects in the show. By then, Puebla had become a must place to visit for the well to do, in large part because of the ceramics.

In 1904, Emily Johnston de Forest, the daughter of John Taylor Johnston, founding president of the Metropolitan Museum, went to Puebla with her husband, Robert W. de Forest, who later became president of the Metropolitan. The couple brought back many early Talavera pieces, which were later sent to the Metropolitan. When she showed her collection to Edwin Barber of Philadelphia, he headed to Mexico and assembled a similar selection that is now in the Philadelphia Museum or Art.

The offbeat earthenware produced in Puebla today looks nothing like any of the ceramics that came before. But the asymmetrical crosses, frog figures, cracked eggs and an arklike whimsy are in harmony with the current interest in funky ceramics throughout the world. And they inspired the current show.

In 1997, David Rockefeller, the founder and honorary chairman of the Americas Society, visited Puebla, where he saw contemporary tin-glazed earthenware. He was so impressed that he asked the society to bring the pieces to New York, then helped pay for the show.