Red – The Colour of Blood and Fire: On the Cochineal Trail.

Posted in Uncategorized on March 7, 2018 by brunyfire

Continuing on the red trail finds Brunyfire in the very palatial Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.1708823B-B875-4639-9DA7-634DCB3FDE6EAn imposing building that stands on the site of the original National Theater built in the latter part of the 19th century. It was then decided to replace this building with a more opulent one for the upcoming Centennial of Mexican Independence celebrations in 1910.

The old theatre was demolished in 1901, and the design for the new theatre was awarded to Italian architect Adamo Boari, who favored neoclassical and art nouveau styles. Despite the 1910 deadline, by 1913 the project had stalled for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the heavy building started to sink into the soft spongy subsoil (not surprising as Mexico City’s site was originally a lake) and secondly, the political and economic instability of the country at that time, lead to the Mexican Revolution that lasted until 1920.

Finally, in 1932, construction resumed under Mexican architect Federico Mariscal who completed the interior but updated it from Boari’s original plans to a more modern Art Deco style. 98F50D00-00BA-4736-9F6B-E6701B0DB372The building was completely finished in 1934. (Above image of downstairs from the cafe – image below of the domed, central ceiling).8311C6BF-9F1D-4E45-AEAA-98C77AC43DB7D3719BE6-5558-4CD7-9D50-AF401BFAA283Brunyfire’s main reason for visiting the Palacio de Bellas Artes during early February (2018) was to catch the exhibition, ‘Mexican Red, the Cochineal in Art’ that follows the trajectory of Mexican cochineal, from the highlands of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica to Europe.

Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus)……..6A352918-F3B5-41CC-90A8-550CA914F9D6 ………refers to the female of the species, a parasitic insect that lives on the prickly pear which when crushed……..010E62A5-1218-463D-8856-B17DC995DF05CABC1BA7-745B-4804-B544-61BDFB84E1F9……gives off a dark, red colour, known as carmine, that comes from an acid that the oval-shaped bug produces to fend off predators. In combination with different solutions, the carmine from the cochineal is capable of a plethora of tones of red – from deep blood red to pale pinks. The Zapotecs and Mixtecs cultivated and used the dye for centuries before the arrival of Cortez – the Aztec word for cochineal was nocheztli from two words: nochtli (cactus) and eztli (blood).6E450E71-2F91-4D97-AABA-45BBDB212F8D2270D267-B837-489E-B70B-3122FA987FBAIt was of such great value that tons of the product were sent to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (what is now a Mexico City) as tribute during the century before the Spanish conquest. With the conquest by Cortez from 1519- 1521 the first shipment of treasure to be sent home a few years later included cochineal, and Spain became intensely interested in its economic possibilities, guarding the true nature of the dye’s identity a well guarded secret for centuries. The association of blood and sacrifice that was so deeply embedded in the Mesoamerican consciousness was important not only for the existing economy and society that the Spaniards encountered in the sixteenth century, but was mirrored in the adoption of cochineal in Europe and elsewhere. Red had long been about power and glory and found its way onto the robes of kings and cardinals – and cochineal made a red better than all others – it was brighter, richer, and more stable than its many alternatives.

The Spanish exploited the resource and increased their export to Europe of cochineal from 175,000 pounds in 1570 c.e. to 1,400,000 pounds by 1774 c.e. (note – it takes about 80,000 to 100,000 insects to make one kilogram of cochineal dye). As a dye of richness and colour durability, cochineal proved superior over all other forms of red dyestuffs, and consequently became a highly prized commodity.

It was used on a variety of surfaces such as paper, textiles and furnishings………7A9D86C2-C1D1-4D57-938F-9AAA39BC1CD5……….and contributed to the importance of the textile industry’s role in the development of the European economy.

The painters of the early Renaissance used two traditional lake pigments, made from mixing dye with either chalk or alum.  Kermes lake, was made from kermes insects, and madder lake, was made from the rubia tinctorum plant. With the arrival of cochineal, they had a third, carmine, which made a very fine crimson and was used by almost all the great painters of the 15th and 16th centuries – including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Diego Velázquez and Tintoretto. Later it was used by Thomas Gainsborough, Seurat and J.M.W. Turner.

The gallery walls at the Palacio de Bellas Artes where Mexican Red was shown were, fittingly, painted red which showed off the collection of paintings that featured the bug, to great effect – many of which had come from major collections around the world.EFAC8C2B-C175-45E9-8A1A-F2FB413251A7 Such as Tiziano Vecellio’s ‘Portrait of a Man in Armor’ circa 1530, from Los Angeles and ‘The Musicians’, circa 1595 by Caravaggio.C0419F4A-1AF1-4507-B769-E414A31BA53BThe use of the cochineal red became increasingly associated with the projection of power in the 17th and 18th centuries – such as in the grim faced portrait of Archbishop Fernando de Valdés by Diego Valázquez, painted in 1645……..06A98B12-1648-4D9B-88A5-276AA4C7D980……….but cochineal was to fall into decline in the 19th century as synthetic dyes were introduced.

The most popular piece in the show for the general public was clearly Van Gogh’s ‘The Bedroom’; 1888 on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago.31A53D02-4D0B-4CF4-A43A-0067F315F831Van Gogh was in awe of his pigments, noting his use of them in great detail in his letters to his brother, Theo, which became a valuable source of information for analysing his work centuries later. He applied his paint liberally in the hope that the vibrancy and vitality of his colours would remain. In ‘The Bedroom’ his use of cochineal occurs in the purple walls, but as analysts have now discovered, the richness of red can fade over time.

That such a little bug can tell such a big story and still remain so illusive……..