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  • Natalie Taylor

ART SLEUTHING IN SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE

For more than a year I have been writing about the history of art in San Miguel. There are so many artistic treasures in our city dating back to Colonial times, when major novo-Hispanic artists created sculptures and painting, most of which remain on walls and back rooms of the churches. There are also later works, those that appeared after our city moved from decay to a rebirth, and a move toward renewal. In the 1930s and beyond, San Miguel was invigorated by the founding of a school of art, and the influx of new artists. These newcomers also left their legacy here, mostly with murals on many of the walls of public buildings and churches.


The Weavers: A mural of Pedro Martinez in Bellas Artes


It is all here—the old art, including pre-Hispanic artifacts, and the new generation of Mexican and foreign artists who arrived in the 20th century. The problem is finding out about them and getting historically accurate information about their lives and works. You would think that it’s as simple as going to the public library or searching on the internet. But that is just not the case. Information is scarce and conflicting, which means sifting through data and either finding a reputable source, or making a personal decision as to which information or explanation is most plausible. As far as possible I like to go to the earliest, and local sources. And this is where one has to play detective.


An example of this is gathering biographical data on Pedro Martinez—a muralist who left four separate murals at the Ignacio Ramirez Cultural Center. The murals are beautifully executed and have his signature, which means he did indeed exist and painted them. But when did he do them? Who was he? What happened to him afterwards? When I began doing my research about Martinez, almost five years ago, there was hardly anything about him anywhere. No biography online, nothing at the offices of the Cultural Center. I was left with some tales told by some of the tour guides—he had a sick child, he gave up art forever after leaving San Miguel, his murals here were his only artistic legacy. Today, if you look up Pedro Martinez online you will find a bit more, including the article which I eventually wrote about him. But in December of 2018, when I was searching, there was hardly anything available.


Pedro Martinez working in his studio in Mexico City


I continued asking questions of whoever I could speak to—old city residents, historians, anyone who could know. To make it clear, I am a native Spanish speaker, so there is no language barrier. But after more than a year, I had drawn a blank. Then one day as I was going through videos on YouTube—anything having to do with San Miguel de Allende, there was one about Pedro Martinez. The narrator, in Spanish, was talking about his life, his marriage and children, his works, and in each frame there were old family photos. It was a complete biography and I was thrilled. Then I began to question the authenticity of the information. Who was this telling the story? Had this person been privy to all this information? How reliable was this? I scrolled to the end, and there it was—the narrator was his own son, Pedro Jr.!



On the left, Pedro Martinez self-portrait. On the right, his son Pedro, in 2016, when he compiled the YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ixyw1lFvOuI


I transcribed and translated the narrative, and this became the basis for an article in Atencion in my series on the history of art in San Miguel de Allende, which can be accessed here: The History of Art in San Miguel de Allende: Pedro Martinez - Atencion San Miguel | English Version (atencionsma.com)


Two upshots followed, both of them quite positive. The first was finding out that Pedro Martinez had done all the murals in a hacienda turned luxury hotel in the 1930s. The Hacienda Santa Engracia, in the state of Tamaulipas is still there, and my husband and I visited, and stayed in it.


The visit is worthy of a complete story, but the main point was that the murals of Martinez were all there, though many are in need of restoration. The same is true of the hotel itself, a faded beauty aging with each passing year.


Martinez’s painting of the hacienda as it was in its prime. When we visited, the view was the same. Indeed, the reception was along the wall on the right, where a doorway can be seen. Everything else looks pretty much as shown in the painting.


Below is one of the murals that is in good condition. Like many of the others at the hacienda, it depicts the surrounding countryside.



In the main dining room there is another mural, and this one is both humorous and lovely. It is still wonderfully preserved, with vibrant colors, and a setting that calls for relaxation. A man lying on a hammock—probably after his mid-day meal—eyes closed, sipping something through a long straw, as a boy pulls the hammock with a rope. The epitome of post prandial indolence!



The other positive outcome of my research about the artist and his life, was being contacted by his son, Pedro Martinez Sossowski, whose video had been my inspiration. He was very happy with my article about his father, and thanked me profusely for having published it. He even shared some personal anecdotes of his time in San Miguel de Allende, when he was a little boy, but still remembered certain events that took place when the family lived here.


So the detective work in this case was extremely rewarding. Many of the pieces of information I have found about other artists, or a particular work of art—have come about through serendipitous encounters, but mostly through persistence, and following the trail of any clues. When one of these leads to finding something I have been searching for years, it makes me feel like Sherlock Holmes uncovering evidence in a criminal case.



Just to be clear—I do not smoke a pipe (nor any type of tobacco), nor is the attire something I tend to wear. But I have made use of a magnifying glass a few times when inspecting works of art!

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