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  • Natalie Taylor

HISTORY OF ART IN SAN MIGUEL: The Instituto Allende Part II

In the first part of the story of the Instituto Allende, I spoke of its beginnings as the private home of Manuel Tomas de la Canal, and his wife Maria Hervas. The ancient house still has the remnants of the old artistic treasures—the niche on the façade containing the Virgen de Loreto statue, and the murals of renowned artist and muralist Martinez de Pocasangre, on the vault of the private chapel. The house and its contents remained dormant for several centuries, but art returned to the house, and it returned in force!

Following the death of Tomas de la Canal and his wife in 1749, the estate and orchards became the country home of his son Mariano, who built and moved to a new home on the corner of what is today Hidalgo and Canal. Many changes took place after the start of the War of Independence in 1810, these changes specifically affected the original Spanish owners of houses in San Miguel. The Canal family sold its properties, and over the next century it passed through many owners.

During the late 19th and early part of the 20th century, the giant stone edifice deteriorated greatly. In the late 1800s with the start of the festival for Saint Michael the Archangel, there arose a need for additional wood to be used in the bull ring—an integral part of the festivities. Ramon Maria Loreto de la Canal, a descendant of the family and owner of the estate at the time, authorized the removal of some beams for use in the bull ring. However, when word got out that one could remove materials from the old house, the population took advantage and went overboard. In the darkness of night, people descended on the abandoned building and took all that was not attached. Then they began to bring down walls, and break through floors, in search of old treasures, or the legendary tunnels that supposedly ran beneath. The once magnificent orchard also became a victim of this communal plunder. The phrase “Nos vemos en la huerta grande”—let’s meet at the big orchard—became the cry for invading it, and harvesting the fruits and nuts that grew there.

The once grand home of Tomas de la Canal, became a place of ruins, the main doors ajar, and eventually a place for criminals and miscreants. Legends ran rampant about ghosts, and evil deeds in the house, and no woman would be found getting water at the fountain in front of Ancha or the one in front of Golpe de Vista, after the parish bells rang for evening prayers. And thus the old palace remained vacant for many decades.

Finally in 1949 it was bought by Felipe Cossio del Pomar and Enrique Fernandez Martinez. Cossio del Pomar was the Peruvian artist, and diplomat who partnered with Stirling Dickinson. They started the School of Fine Art at the Las Monjas convent, the current Centro Cultural el Nigromante—or Bellas Artes. Enrique Fernandez Martinez, originally from the city of Guanajuato, had been governor of the state from 1939 to 1943.

It was then that the house began to regain its former glory, and eventually became the new location of the School of Art of the Instituto Allende—still functioning to this day. After Pomar went back to Peru, Stirling Dickinson partnered with Enrique Martinez and his wife Nell Harris. They elevated the status of the school, brought renowned artists as teachers, and it was these painters and muralists who left their mark on the walls of the Instituto Allende.

Some significant works are still there for all of us to admire. When you walk along the left colonnade, then turn left, you will be confronted by three entire walls decorated top to bottom with murals. The one on the right is by James Pinto, who lived in San Miguel for several years, and taught at the Instituto.

Across from this, is a mural done by John de Melim, also a part time resident of San Miguel and teacher at the Institute in the 1950s. Although the styles of the two artists are different, the impact of the huge, colorful murals are equally great. De Melim’s mural is shown below.

The mural of John De Melim, showing a festival where the participants have donned all kinds of masks and disguises.

Then on the main wall, facing you as you walk through the main doorway of the Instituto is a most colorful mural, this one done by David Leonardo Castañeda who is a current artist here in San Miguel. This particular mural, a huge work covering a great part of the back wall, is a pictorial history of Mexico. At the center you find Ignacio Allende on a white horse, with the priest Hidalgo to his left, crying out for liberty. There are indigenous people, historical personages, and an amazing number of pictorial allusions to traditions and history.

Inside the art gallery that is part of the Instituto, there is another mural also dealing with history of Mexico. This mural was done by Elaine Hamilton O’Neal.

Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal was an American painter who continued her art studies at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City, under the mentorship of Diego Rivera. It was during that time, in the late 1940s, that she was commissioned to create the gigantic mural at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel. Eventually O’neal achieved international fame as an abstract painter and muralist, known for the work of her final phase which was called action painting. Like the mural of David Leonardo Castañeda, her mural is a pictorial depiction of Mexico’s history. In the mural appear many historical figures, including President Benito Juarez who takes center stage. It is a grand work of art, another artistic legacy available to the residents and visitors of San Miguel de Allende.

The Instituto Allende is comprised of the school of art, and a portion is dedicated to providing a venue for large events, particularly weddings. There is also a plan to open a museum in the near future, and that will be another major addition to the community.

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