This past summer, Artist’s Magazine contributing writer Judith Fairly visited Albuquerque, New Mexico. Read about its vibrant art scene in Fairly’s article, “Eye on Albuquerque,” in the January/February 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
In the meantime, enjoy this bonus article about The Torréon Fresco.
The Torréon Fresco: Mundos de Mestizaje
by Judith Fairly
The largest concave fresco in North America is located within the Torréon at the entrance to the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Entitled “Mundos de Mestizaje,” the 4,000 square-foot fresco surrounds the viewer with a painted tapestry that weaves together the threads of 3,000 years of Hispanic history.
The fezlike shape of the 45-foot tall adobe Torréon (“tower”) is evocative of watchtowers built centuries ago by Spanish colonists for defensive purposes. Inside the cavernous space, lit from above by a cupola ringed by phases of the moon that reference the passage of time, the hushed voices of visitors gazing up at the monumental work reverberate like those in a cathedral. Four madonnas rest on columns aligned with narrow windows that face the four compass points. More than 100 historical and allegorical figures trace the progress of Hispanic culture from the cave paintings at Altamira in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula to the Americas and points between.
It took almost a decade for the artist, Frederico Vigil, to complete the Torréon fresco; it is painted in the buon fresco method, a time-consuming, physically demanding process. Numerous historians and scholars were consulted when Vigil began to design the fresco, which he expected would 3.5 years to paint. In addition to the exhausting physical labor and the crucial blending and application of inorganic pigments that become permanent once they’re applied, an added challenge of painting a fresco that spans a 360-degree arc is maintaining scale and perspective to the viewer below.
Originally from Santa Fe, Vigil learned the art of fresco during an internship in 1984 with Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Pope Dimitroff, husband-and-wife apprentices to the great Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, who were eager to pass on their knowledge to a younger generation of artists. Vigil had painted 12 major frescoes before he undertook the Torréon project, which covers an area larger than the Sistine Chapel.
The fresco explores European, African, Asian and American connections to Hispanic heritage and culture. Mayan, Aztec, Peruvian, Anasazi, Christian, Celtic, Roman, Phoenician and Moorish saints, symbols and figures are represented. “As I painted, I learned more of our story as Hispanics,” says Vigil. “The most important thing I learned is that we as Hispanics are ‘mestizaje,’ all interrelated…all of humanity, we are all brothers.”
Vigil’s fresco work is featured at the University of New Mexico, the Albuquerque Museum, the College of Santa Fe, the New Mexico Fine Arts Museum of Santa Fe, the old County Courthouse in Santa Fe, and other churches, schools and public buildings.
About Fresco Art
FRESCO: a painting done rapidly on wet plaster on a wall or ceiling. The fresco’s pigments penetrate the plaster and become permanent when the plaster dries. (Fresco is one of the oldest forms of painting; the cave paintings at Altamira, Spain date to the Paleolithic period, ca 16,500 years ago.) This method of painting was used extensively in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire and reached its pinnacle during the Italian Renaissance with great masters including Raphael, Botticelli, Giotto, Tiepolo, Masaccio, and Michelangelo. Great artists of the “Mexican Muralist” movement include Jose Clemente Orozco, David Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, who renewed the art of fresco in the 20th century.
The buon fresco method is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. First, the surface is rough plastered with several layers of a lime, cement, and sand mixture, followed by a layer with a smooth surface. Each layer is allowed to dry for 7-10 days between coats.
When this smooth layer has cured, the sinopia—a rough sketch of the overall design, named after the red pigment originally used for this purpose—is drawn. An outline of the sketch (“the cartoon”) is then transferred from the sinopia onto translucent tracing paper.
When the artist is ready to begin painting, an area that comprises the day’s work (the giornata) is covered with one or more fine, thin layers of plaster called the intonaco. The cartoon on the tracing paper is perforated along the outlines of the design, held up to the damp plaster, and pounced with a bag of powdered charcoal to transfer the design to the intonaco.
The artist uses inorganic pigments that are mixed with water, commencing at the top of the wall or an area where the seams of the giornate can be concealed. Under normal conditions, the plaster will dry in 10 to 12 hours, giving the artist a window of 7 to 9 hours in which to complete the giornata. The wet plaster acts as a binder for the pigments; once the plaster dries, the particles of pigment become permanently fixed in the wall.
Not all pigments work chemically in the alkaline lime-based plaster, however, and pigments often change color when the plaster dries. The a secco (“dry”) method allows artists to make use of a wider range of coloration and to maintain color integrity. Pigments are suspended in a binder (egg tempera, oil or polymers) and painted on rough, dry plaster—or on top of a buon fresco to correct mistakes, add details, or remedy color issues. This was the method most widely used by fresco painters after the Middle Ages, but a secco frescoes have a considerably shorter lifespan, particularly when they are painted on top of the smooth intonaco layer of buon fresco.
A third approach, mezzo-fresco, is painted on nearly-dry intonaco so that the pigment only penetrates partially into the plaster. This method was adopted by Tiepolo, Michelangelo and other Renaissance painters as a time-saving device and became standard practice by the end of the 16th century.