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Critic's Notebook: Mexico City's new Soumaya Museum disappoints [Updated]

April 20, 2011 | 11:30 am

Salvador Dali's sculpture The Triumphant Angel  Reuters

The new Soumaya Museum that opened in Mexico City late last month is a bit of a shock. The cause is not the building, which does add a striking profile to a redeveloping section of the city's upscale Polanco neighborhood.

New art museums pushing architectural envelopes are commonplace, and the Soumaya's eccentric, windowless, cinched-corset shape -- call it the "bustier building" -- is no different. Clad in hexagonal metal tiles, the computer-assisted design makes a techno-tizzy out of traditional Colonial Mexican, ceramic-tiled building facades.

The best news: Admission is free.

But the small shock is just how weak the museum's collection is, and how poorly the paintings, sculptures and decorative arts have been installed in the open floor plan galleries. Six big floors of displays offer, at best, less than two floors of museum-worthy art.

Building REUTERS Actually, even that should not have been a surprise. A vanity museum, the Soumaya has been housed in a more modest space in the Coyoacán district for several years, but a sharp curatorial sensibility has never been much in evidence. If you love Salvador Dali's cheesy Surrealist bronze sculptures of the 1970s and 1980s, churned out for moneyed provincial buyers; posthumous (if authorized) casts of Auguste Rodin masterworks; or, sentimental Victorian odes to childhood innocence, carved in marble, this is the place for you.

The top floor is a veritable football field crowded with scores of examples of the stuff, each on its own white pedestal. The forest of impossible-to-contemplate material even obscures significant works, such as fine terra cottas by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875). The overhead fluorescent lighting is, well, fluorescent.

The net worth of Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim Helú, whose museum this is, is estimated by Forbes at upwards of $74 billion. (Slim is Forbes' answer to the question, "Who is the world's richest person?") The 150-foot-tall Soumaya tower is said to have cost about $70 million to build, though it's not quite finished. Young architect Fernando Romero, who formerly worked in the office of celebrated Dutch designer Rem Koolhaas, is no doubt tiring by now of being identified as Slim's son-in-law.

Interior paintings David Rochkind Bloomberg The collection is eclectic. One strength is Spanish and Spanish Colonial art. The latter is highlighted by a range of fine examples by José de Páez (1720-1790), a painter of refined Rococo religious piety, while the best of the former includes devotional paintings of saints by Francisco de  Zurbaran (stripped down and nearly modern) and El Greco (Expressionist to the hilt).

Among an exceptional group of painted standing screens, including masterpieces by Juan Correa (1646-1716) and Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), is a remarkable multi-panel depiction of the biblical flood by an anonymous artist (or artists). Gilded, Chinese-style clouds above the deluge betray its origins in Macau for the colonial export trade to Mexico or Spain.

Not much distinguishes the rest of the European art. A painting said to be by a follower of  Leonardo da Vinci generally makes you wonder just how far behind he was following. A full-size bronze replica of Michelangelo's Vatican "Pietà" is a tourist souvenir.

The emergence of Mexican Modernism is not well traced in mostly minor landscapes by José María Velasco and Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), which need to be strong to underscore the subsequent nationalist ferocity of Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Good examples of their murals are here, but they're adrift, exploding out of nowhere. Nineteenth-century portraiture fares better, culminating in four by the eccentric, self-taught national treasure Hermenegildo Bustos (1832-1891).

Interior paintings AFP Getty Images Throughout, the museum installation feels rushed. What possesses a curator to position a large, finely wrought Spanish Colonial sculpture of the Christ child in a vitrine pushed up next to a bright-red fire extinguisher and an emergency-exit door? Overhead track lights illuminate the limed-wood floors at the base of free-standing walls, all stark white, apparently in an attempt to bounce indirect light onto paintings; instead, hot spots illuminate baseboards, while paintings are shadowed at the top.

Overall, the installation sags. Works are dispersed thematically -- saints here, Jesus over there, landscapes and Bible narratives around the corner. It would benefit from, say, grouping Paez's paintings and the uniquely Asian-style Colonial screens, most of which stand on too-narrow risers. Strength would build on strength, rather than being diluted. The absence of discreet rooms makes displays look jumbled.

The Pre-Columbian art is largely perfunctory, especially given the city's unparalleled Museum of Anthropology a few miles away. Ditto the Colonial furniture and decorative arts, which can't measure up to the great Franz Mayer Museum downtown. A large array of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and drawings (Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, etc.) is uniformly poor, seemingly driven by close attention to an accumulation of brand names.

The difference between private art enthusiasms and public museum displays can be vast. The Soumaya is an object lesson in the perils. For now, despite large resources, art is not the emphasis in this vanity museum. The question is whether it will someday become the focus.

Update: Additional photos (Credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times) show some installation issues at the Museum:

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Art review: 'William Leavitt: Theater Objects' at MOCA

-- Christopher Knight, in Mexico City

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photo: Salvador Dali's "The Triumphant Angel" in the top-floor gallery of the Soumaya Museum. Credit: Reuters. Museum interiors photo credit: David Rochkind / Bloomberg, and AFP / Getty Images

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