Two weeks ago, I gave a public talk at the museum titled The Global Story of Talavera Ceramics, which set out to trace the exchange of technology, shapes, and designs that influenced the distinctly Mexican art form of Talavera Poblana. This post aims to share aspects of Talavera’s fascinating history as they were unfolded in the museum galleries through close observation of works of art in a group setting, and also to record my process for facilitating the gallery learning experience. This second purpose is intended to help me reflect on my approach as a museum educator as I strive to negotiate the multiple cultural contexts contributed by each visitor and historical and visual information in order to lead to a build-up of meaning about the works of art we considered. As this record of our discussion may indicate, I feel strongly that thoughtfully mediated group dialogue, in which viewers must partake in interactive communication to work out meaning for themselves, is fundamental to facilitating deep experiences with works of art. I’m joined in this belief by many art museum educators, and am particularly inspired by the work of Olga Hubard, whose book Art Museum Education: Facilitating Gallery Experiences (2015) I highly recommend to other educators. This talk, with its intensive focus on historical content and exploration of cultural contexts that were, for many visitors, unfamiliar, was particularly challenging to design in a dialogical, visitor-experience-centered mode.
At this point, you, like many of the visitors on the tour, may be wondering what Talavera Poblana is, exactly, and what could be global about it. I began my talk with inquiry into these two points, eliciting visitors’ prior knowledge first about Talavera Poblana ceramics—one of Mexico’s most celebrated and longest-lived artistic traditions, spanning over 400 years of history—and Puebla, Mexico, where they are made, layering in additional information as needed.
Talavera and Puebla
For many people who have lived in Mexico, visited there, or are otherwise more familiar with its artistic traditions, the term Talavera may evoke images of the colorful glazed ceramics used as dishware or as decoration in homes, as decoration or for ritual objects in churches, and as tiles covering the facades or cupolas of buildings, particularly in Puebla.
The Mexican government defines Talavera as tin-glazed earthenware made following traditional techniques in specific areas within the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala that have been granted a Denominación de Origen. This official recognition, which also serves to regulate the production of Talavera, alludes to its status as one of the most important ceramic traditions in the Western Hemisphere.
Puebla was founded by the Spanish 60 miles southeast of Mexico City less than 10 years after they’d conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. The city was erected in a valley surrounded by numerous indigenous city-states that possessed rich ceramic traditions. The three main social strata in early colonial Puebla were rich conquistadors and their descendants, a merchant class, and an indigenous community comprised of three principal groups: the Tlaxcaltecas, Cholultecas and Huejotzincas. Not long after its founding in the 16th century, Puebla became known for its production of what later came to be know as Talavera, which remained a vital art form through the 19th century.
After we had laid this groundwork, I gathered visitors’ hypotheses about what the global nature of this art form might be. When asked what cultures they thought might have influenced Talavera‘s development, visitors’ responses ranged from Islamic and Chinese to the indigenous Mexican and Spanish cultures. We delved deeper into some of the influences of the central Mexican indigenous groups—in considering the highly developed polychrome ceramic traditions of the surrounding Central Mexican city states, visitors deduced that there would have been both a skilled artisan workforce and the necessary materials for ceramic production (in fact there was an excellent local supply of the two types of clay needed to create the ideal elasticity for Talavera ceramics), and that these traditions likely influenced design, as well—and of the Spanish colonizers, who brought to Mexico the potter’s wheel, the use of kilns for firing, and the tin glaze that gives Talavera its characteristic milky white ground.
Talavera Tells its Story
In order to build on our ideas and broaden our understanding of the global history of this art form, we transitioned to the museum’s Folk Art Gallery, where we would have the opportunity to view two pieces of Talavera from the 18th century. I informed visitors that we would later visit other areas of the museum to observe ceramics from different places and times, to help us see points of global exchange visually.
At our first stop, visitors encountered the two pieces above, displayed side-by-side in an eye-level case. I began by giving them a full minute to look, then opened up the floor for their observations. Visitors’ initial remarks centered on the surprisingly large sizes of the pieces, the scene depicted in the interior of the leftmost piece, and on the contrast of the polychrome panels at the base of the piece on the right with the rest of its blue and white exterior. I then asked the visitors whether they had seen anything like these objects before. They made comparisons to Islamic and Chinese art, citing colors, shapes, or imagery when I prompted them to back up their ideas with evidence in the pieces.
From this open-ended beginning, I asked visitors to focus their observations on the shape of each object. We began with the piece on the left, noting its flat bottom, high walls, and wide, flaring rim.
As we considered its shape, I shared the fact that it stems from Islamic art , then asked visitors how this could be explained. A number of visitors proposed that the Islamic influences may have come to Mexico via Spain, due to the fact that it had comprised part of the medieval Muslim territory known as Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, or Islamic Iberia. I shared additional information about Al-Andalus’s origins (in 711 CE, Berber and Arab Muslim peoples invaded the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula from northern Africa), the fact that, at its peak, it had occupied most of modern day Spain and Portugal, and that it eventually became one of the great Muslim civilizations in history, known, among other things, for its advances in learning and the relatively peaceful coexistence throughout most of its history of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Not surprisingly, I explained to the group, Islamic culture exerted a strong influence over many areas of life in the peninsula during the 700-year period in which Muslims held political power (parts of Spain remained under Muslim rule through 1492), including on ceramic production. This influence on ceramics endured well after Muslim rule had ended. I then shared some of the main contributions of Islamic culture to ceramics in the Iberian peninsula, including the use of tin glaze to create a milky white ground, the Arab kiln, the use of tiles as architectural decoration, surface decoration styles and motifs, and shapes, including the shape used for Basin, above, known in Spanish as a lebrillo.
Thus, I explained, when Spanish colonizers brought over works of Spanish pottery such as the basin or lebrillo below for potters in Puebla to emulate, in order to decorate and supply the colonizers’ homes and churches, they were simultaneously infusing the work of Mexican potters in Puebla with influences from across the Islamic world (the lebrillo shape is believed to have originated in Egypt, Syria, or Turkey and was brought to the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th or 9th century). I shared that Islamic artistic influences on Puebla ceramics may also have come via potters of Muslim descent who escaped persecution in Spain and settled in Mexico, despite repeated prohibitions against their emigration to the Americas.
Next, I asked visitors to focus the shape of Jar, below. Some visitors focused on its bulbous swollen shoulders, one likening it to ‘garlic-mouth vases‘ from the Chinese ceramic tradition. Others fixated again on its polychromed base, wondering whether it were a separate piece and what its function might be.
I then informed visitors that this objects shape originates from Chinese ceramics, specifically, the kuan, a type of storage jar used widely beginning in the 14th century. Turning things back to them, I asked how we might explain this Chinese influence. One visitor mentioned a trade route that existed between Mexico and China. I contextualized the comment, explaining that in Europe and elsewhere at the time of Mexico’s colonization, there was tremendous vogue for Chinese blue and white porcelain, and layered in additional information on the trade route the visitor had cited. I provided the group with a graphic representation of the route (below), known as the Manila Galleon trade, which shows Puebla’s position along Spain’s trade route with China via the Philippines (also a Spanish colony by this time). Due to its location along the route, large quantities of late Ming and early Qing pottery passed through Puebla on its way to Europe—much of it staying there—which in turn greatly influenced Talavera. The Chinese influence can be further explained, I added, by ceramics in a Chinese style made in Spain that were imported to Mexico, which scholars believe probably reinforced the trend.
After exploring shape, I asked the visitors to come forward and spend time looking at each piece again, this time selecting one detail that intrigued them. I then invited them to share their chosen details with the group and speculate on its significance, encouraging others in the group to contribute their ideas. I layered in art historical information and context, when relevant. In this way, we built an understanding of how each piece embodies influences from indigenous, Chinese, Islamic, and Spanish sources, and were able to reflect on the unique innovations of the Mexican potters. Following are some highlights from our exploration of the visitors’ chosen details.
Talavera poblana, Puebla, Mexico, Basin Depicting a Cistern, Tower and Domed Building, 1775-1825
- The collection of buildings depicted in the central medallion of the base are exoticized architectural motifs inspired by the fanciful landscape images found on Chinese pieces such as the Ming Square Bottle with Landscapes below.
- The inclusion of the native gourd that pours water from atop the tower into a cistern below draws from indigenous iconography—gourds have been used in Mexico since ancient times as containers for liquid and are frequently depicted in Mesoamerican art.
- The blue vine surrounded by small blue dots that rings the flat bottom of Basin may be a vestige of aborronado or “blurred dot” patterning, a style which used repeated dots in deep tones of blue created by thick application of cobalt oxide. It became one of the most prevalent and longest-lived decorative patterns of Talavera ceramics, and continued to be employed in combination with other styles, as we see in Basin. It is believed to have been an Islamic import to Spain, later adopted by both Mexican and Chinese potters. The aborronado style demonstrates the horror vacui (fear of emptiness) that marked much Spanish and colonial design, a design concept that was also introduced to Spain by Islamic artisans.
- The gray vertical sections with white dotted clusters on the walls of Basin reflect the vertical divisions of the walls of plates and bowls that are a distinguishing characteristic of Chinese ware, and which are also present in Hispano-Moresque ceramics (Spanish pottery style that originated in Al-Andalus).
- The lobed compartments enclosing flowers are also Chinese inspired. This form had become a popular convention for framing decorative scenes in Europe and Mexico by the 17th century. Examples of this device from Qing China can be seen in the vessels below.
- The flowers inside these lobed compartments are simplified Chinese peonies. The outer ring of flowers on the plate below is an example of how peonies were depicted in Ming Chinese blue and white porcelain.
- The use of black to outline many of the motifs and landscape elements may reflect the tendency to use strong outlines to define forms characteristic of Mesoamerican painting in Mexico (see the polychrome bowl from Cholula, below).
- Together, the latticework bands, the sinuous vines with abstracted sunflower-like blossoms in a curving vertical pattern, and the vertical vine pattern, are reminiscent of 18th century brocade fabric produced in Puebla.
- The vertical vine pattern, which also appears around the neck (see below) and base, is common on Mexican majolica on rims and necks. It was probably derived from a classic Chinese scroll, a Ming dynasty ceramic standard. In the Mexican version, we see continuous undulating vines with thick leaves, here with flowers interspersed.
- Jar’s polychrome base, in which each panel is painted with a vegetal motif, is a Mexican variation on the lotus petal panels often found as borders on Chinese vessels beginning in 14th century. The lotus petal border is one of the most enduring motifs in Chinese ceramics and can be found throughout Buddhist art. Each panel of border, which often frames other decorative motifs, depicts a single lotus petal with the tip turned sometimes down, sometimes up. In this Mexican variation, we can see how this Chinese theme has been schematically rendered.
- The seven-dot flowers along the lattice bands and on the white ground may, like the blue-dotted vine in Basin, be vestiges of the aborronado patterning that continued to be employed in combination with other styles. Here, you can get a sense of the thick application of cobalt oxide that results in slightly raised dots.
Connections in the Chinese Art Galleries
After this detailed exploration, we headed to the Chinese art galleries, where we viewed a selection of ceramics that would be able to teach us about the period of Talavera‘s most direct and intensive exchange with Chinese art. Through discussion of the three pieces below, made during the Ming dynasty, we further explored the ideas that had already begun to emerge around trade, the market, and colonization, and the ensuing exchange of designs, shapes, and technology.
I began by giving visitors the opportunity to look closely and identify motifs, colors, and shapes that they’d observed in the Talavera pieces in the prior gallery, and shared more about the prevalence of these wares in Mexico from verbal accounts and archaeological information. I then shared two points intended to complicate the group’s understanding how artistic exchange happens. The first was the fact that the blue and white style we may consider to be iconic of Chinese ceramics was actually a hybrid style that resulted from the commingling of Mongol and Chinese ceramists when China formed part of the vast Mongol Empire. The second was that the pigment used to create this iconic style, cobalt-blue ore, was introduced to Chinese porcelain in early 14th century, brought most likely from Persia, where it had been used on ceramics since the 9th century. I then asked them to share what this information, along with our observations so far, contributed to their understanding of the forces that can drive artistic exchange.
Connections in the Islamic Art Galleries
In the Islamic art gallery, visitors observed the fritware bowl below, again identifying traits they had previously seen in the Talavera pieces, including the fact that fritware, like Talavera and other tin-glazed earthenware, seeks to emulate the white translucency of Chinese porcelain in a period where the technique for making porcelain was unknown to ceramists outside of China. As they observed, they began to note additional elements that they recognized from the Chinese ceramics we had just seen. I then shared the fact that Iran during the Ilkhanid period (1256-1353), when Bowl was created, was also under Mongol rule, and was experiencing a period of tremendous cultural exchange due to the the free movement of Chinese goods and artists that Mongol rulers were encouraging throughout their empire.
In this way, visitors had begun to build an understanding of how ceramics from across the globe and from different time periods both embody and influence political and economic forces. I concluded by asking them to share what their biggest takeaways had been, which ranged from “Globalization is not new!” to “the sheer amount of different influences in Talavera.” I also invited visitors to venture to our gallery of American colonial art to view Chocolate Jar (below), and encouraged them to question why the curators may have chosen to display this Talavera piece in a gallery that has traditionally only displayed works of art from colonial territories that eventually became the United States of America.