Mexican calendar art was a unique, ephemeral art form, often dismissed by the cultural elite as mere advertising. But to the Mexican public, the images of the calendar girls were embraced as the nostalgic emblems of Mexican culture and pride.
The calendars are painted snapshots of a distinctly Mexican world: a world that is perpetually beautiful, eternally in love, rife with revolutionary passion, provocatively sexy, relentlessly patriotic and ever poised for a fiesta!
The advertising art that was popularized after the Mexican Revolution reflected the changing image Mexicans had about themselves as well as the image of women. Women were glorified as soldaderas in the Mexican Revolution and painted as the sexy, confident, equals of men.
The role of women changed dramatically during the decade of the Mexican Revolution – they learned to take charge on the farms while their men folk were away – some women joined the roving battles of Pancho Villa in the North or Emiliano Zapata in the South – trying to keep their families together while providing the soldiers with first aid, food, laundry services, erecting mobile campsites, scouting for water, wood, and necessities. Thousands of women did this for their men-folk and then earned money by providing services to other soldiers. Women learned to be resourceful; developing their strengths and some women became important leaders of the Revolution working as sergeants, spies, strategy and armory specialists. Famous corridos tell the stories of the soldaderas and adelitas who would switch flawlessly between cutting onions, garlic and chiles to armed soldiers who defended their camps against attacks by federal troops. The poetic license of calendar artists add the fact that the soldaderas would do this while wearing their best dresses, tacones, aretes and not a hair out of place!
Tehuanas – A.X. Pena 1935In the mid 1920’s, the social engineers, led by the brilliant Minister of Education, Jose Vasconcellos, attempted to create national identity by instituting compulsory education, creating the first kindergartens and public art projects. The goals of the Revolution – land reform, worker rights and freedom from dictatorial oppression were still weak and Mexico was fragmented and ethnically diverse. Illiteracy was over 70%. Over 300 languages were spoken. Communication between states was almost impossible. Something had to be done to unify all classes, all ethnic indigenous groups and make the isolated citizenry feel like they were included in the new rebirth of Mexico. The paintings embraced a nostalgic sense of national identity, which became known as “Mexicanidad.”
The mural and advertising artists of the time rewrote Mexican history, returning power to the pre-Spanish, pre-Conquest times. Wide brushes painted the creation of Mexico as an idyllic time, with strong, glamorous Aztec and Mayan rulers. Calendars painted by Jesus de la Helguera and his contemporaries showed a bountiful and vibrant Teneochitlan with Aztec princesses wearing feathered headdresses and jade jewelry. Calendar painters of the 1930’s – 1950’s would paint Mexico symbolized in the body of youthful, beautiful indigenous women, frequently holding over-flowing baskets of fruit and flowers which represented a resource wealthy country ready to take it’s place in the world.
While calendar artists painted popular themes, their styles were greatly influenced by companies that wanted to link their products to the high-class European “look.” This usually meant more criolla, fair-featured women were painted over mestiza or indigenous morena looking women, even thought the outfits they wore would be typically regional. The painters of the advertising calendars were instructed to paint their calendar girls with faces that resembled famous film actresses of the day. Maria Felix, Dolores del Rio, Judy Garland, Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor’s likenesses can be found under resplandores of the Tehuana, sombrero of a cowgirl or trenzas of a traijenera.
A.X. Pena and Jorge Camarena were two artists that frequently painted indigenous women with strength and pride.
Throughout the 1940’s, women continued to take jobs in the city’s factories while Latinas like Conchita Cintrón pushed cultural limits as the most famous woman bullfighter in history! She was wildly successful in Spain, southern France, Venezuela, Colombia, Portugal and Mexico, killing over 750 bulls in her twelve-year career. When Spain prohibited women bullfighters, she defied the definition by entering the bullring and fighting on horseback in the rejoneadora style. She was a great bullfighter and enjoyed defying anti-women regulations. She was arrested on several occasions, but this would only add to her popular legend. Cintrón died just last year, February 17, 2009, and is remembered as one of the cultural feminists of Latin America.
After the Mexican Revolution, there was a shift of population to the cities. A new consumer class was born! Mexican and American companies alike were trying to sell luxury items like cigarettes, liquor, soda pop, beer, soap, hot chocolate, records, light bulbs and tires by painting the products into “exclusive” advertising calendars.
The more prolific calendars, called “line calendars” featured a beautiful woman in a tipico setting, but didn’t have products painted into the artwork. These were distributed by local tortillarias, zapatarias, cheese shops, mechanics, molinos, stores that sold furniture, perfume and cantinas. The aguinaldos were free gifts, given away in December, to their favored customers.
Featured Image: Dancer with Toucan Headdress – Armando Drechsler 1942.
First published in HispanicLA.
She is the Author of Mexican Calendar Girls The Golden Age of Calendar Art 1930-1950 by Chronicle Books.