Rediscovering Mural Paintings: Works for Children by Carlos Mérida and Emilio Amero
Posted on 7 April, 2017
Guillermina Guadarrama Peña
In August, 2016, restorers from Centro Nacional de Conservación y Registro del Patrimonio Artístico Mueble, INBA (CNCRPAM) , began preservation work on the mural paintings located at what is today the Belisario Domínguez grammar school, in Colonia Guerrero, Mexico City. The hallway, the corridors on both floors and some classrooms are covered with paintings made by students from Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado La Esmeralda in the 1950’s. Back then, the school was in the opposite building and it was a suitable place for carrying out student practices. Antonio M. Ruiz, Pablo O’Higgins and Arnold Belkin were mural painting teachers at different times in that period.
The restoration of the works made by the students was headed by Renato Robert Paperetti. It was made possible by the tenacity of this restorer, despite the lack of interest shown by the authorities of CNCROPAM/INBA. The team has rescued and made visible part of the murals painted in 1923, when the school was inaugurated, by two renowned painters of that period: Carlos Mérida and Emilio Amero, under instructions from the Public Education Secretary, José Vasconcelos.
Vasconcelos decided to have murals painted at several education centers, such as the children’s library at the Public Education Secretariat, and the Belisario Domínguez and Benito Juárez schools. For the former, he commissioned Carlos Mérida to paint the classic tale of Little Red Riding Hood, in Charles Perrault version, adapted by the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, who was in Mexico following an invitation by the Secretary. The result was a hybrid concoction. The tale was written on the walls of the library, on top of the mural. The narrative followed Perrault closely: “Little Red Riding Hood is going to visit her grandmother, struck by a strange disease in a nearby town. Little Red Riding Hood has golden locks and a heart as tender as a beehive”. But Mérida didn’t paint her with golden locks; her dark hair is covered by a red cap, or perhaps a headscarf, judging from his sketch. She’s portrayed as a Guatemalan girl, wearing a traditional indigenous outfit: white blouse and red skirt, both embroidered. The wolf is a Mexican coyote, with an impish look in the eyes. On top of this image, the narrative continues: “The wolf with devilish eyes blocks her way: Little Red Riding Hood, tell me where you’re going”.
Mérida’s pictorial line is a combination of indigenous American roots and avant-garde expressions; that is, a newly minted art. This mural doesn’t exist anymore. His palette can be inferred from a sketch of this work published in a magazine.
Roberto Montenegro was commissioned to decorate the Benito Juárez school. He painted the tale of Aladdin in 1925, in one of the library walls. In another wall he painted historical figures such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, perhaps because Vasconcelos was no longer the head of SEP, having resigned a year before, and the new line -stated by Diego Rivera- was history-oriented.
At the Belisario Domínguez school, located in what is now Colonia Guerrero, the seasoned Carlos Mérida was commissioned along with Emilio Amero. This old school was one of the so-called model schools, part of Vasconcelos’ project to build schools in the outskirts of Mexico City, which was a very small city at that time. Built in a Neo Colonial style, it has large classrooms with huge windows flooding them with light; two schoolyards, corridors lined with arches, a gym and a swimming pool. It was inaugurated in 1923 by Vasconcelos himself, as stated in a commemorative plaque.
As the only existing photograph of the school and the mural attests, Mérida painted the walls of the corridor of the second level in the second schoolyard. He may have painted in the first schoolyard as well, but there is no photographic evidence. He appears to have painted childhood scenes, with mechanical attractions and landscapes in his well-known geometrical style. In the opposite wall he painted a frieze which included Maya style houses, interspersed with girls dressed in red, a similar hue to the one he used on Little Red Riding Hood’s cap, houses and girls alike, surrounded by big flowers and small trees in impossible colors, a bit fauve; a pictorial line he had worked on during his years spent in Europe. In the column corners he painted small baskets with flowers; and in parts of the vaults, large figures with flowers in beautiful colors: blue, white, yellow, surrounded by red butterflies.
Amero painted his mural in the ground level walls of the first schoolyard and in the stairwell. At the moment, ony one photograph and a few vestiges have been found. His subject, surely prompted by Vasconcelos, was the Arab tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This, along with other stories from the Arab Nights had been adapted for children in the West.
The tenacious and persistent restorer Renato Robert has found only small fragments of this mural: for instance, a pair of dark-hued feet and baggy trousers, associated with the Arabs and the tale. Judging from the only photograph that has been found, the tale was written on the lower part of the mural; a fragment has been rescued: “His only means for survival was chopping wood, which he then carried on three mules to sell in the city. Even though nobody spoke of thieves in the country, Ali Baba took them for…” The phrase is cut off in the photograph, indicating it was written along the wall. The mural appears in the photograph to have been done with simple drawing, a bit naive, probably to make the children feel closer to it.
There is no other information about these murals; the painters didn’t keep any records that would allow us to learn more about them. Therefore, the effort made by Renato Robert Paperetti and the CNCRPAM team under his direction is a major contribution to the discovery of these images, enriching our knowledge and rescuing our common heritage.
The restorer is also interested in finding murals inside the classrooms. He has uncovered vestiges of works which were probably painted in the 1950’s. There ought to be many restorers like him, but they should have the authorities’ support.