Orderly Societies

An old favorite is reintroduced to Tucsonans at the Arizona State Museum

At the old Mountain Oyster Club building, at Stone Avenue and Franklin Street, a mural painted above the door conjures up old-time Mexican hospitality.

Refined ladies in Colonial Mexican dress, complete with full skirts, fans and frilly hats, pose prettily under a painted tree laden with fruit. Well-dressed, well-behaved children sit at their feet. Above the gathering, birds cling to the tree's leafy branches.

Below, a painted sign issues an invitation: Siéntese, it reads. Sit down. Make yourself at home.

The painter of this nostalgic mural, a Mexican bullfighter turned artist named Salvador Corona, lived in Tucson from 1945 until his death at age 89 in 1984. An exhibition at the Arizona State Museum, Salvador Corona: Matador to Muralist, does an excellent job of restoring this self-taught painter to Tucson's history.

Now nearly forgotten, Corona was a favorite of the town's midcentury movers and shakers. Wherever he could find a hospitable wall around town, he painted his vision of a lost and lovely Mexican world.

He graced the cupola of Levi Howell Manning's mansion in Snob Hollow with his painted ladies and gentlemen. They're still there, though the Mannings have long since departed. Likewise, Corona decorated the walls of Jacomé's department store, once the toast of downtown. He made gorgeous full-scale murals on the Guevavi ranch house north of Nogales (now renamed the Hacienda Corona de Guevavi in his honor), mostly of idealized Mexican campesinos in picturesque traditional dress.

Noted silversmith Frank Patania used to carry Corona's paintings in his downtown Thunderbird Shop. But Corona hardly confined himself to canvas and boards.

"Corona would paint anything that wasn't moving," Frank Patania Jr. once said.

Indeed. The exhibition includes everything from painted wooden boxes and a painted guitar to trays, tables, chairs and a painted bed. Hunters with rifles are painted on the bed's headboard, and ducks tumble down from the sky.

All of these functional artworks are painted in Corona's trademark style. Corona was a naïve painter, but his figures were carefully drawn and highly detailed, with the delicate lace of a Spanish-style fan meticulously traced, the petals of a rose exquisitely outlined. Corona used tiny brushes to paint these works in bright colors and sometimes inlaid them with gold leaf, while mostly keeping his backgrounds all-white.

One typical box, made sometime between 1950 and 1970, features more of those colonial ladies in their big skirts and a gentleman on a horse. Bluebirds are flying overhead, and green grass is growing underneath the trees.

Corona was especially interested in costume, and the show exhibits his drawings for a 1970s production of The Magic Flute, set by the Tucson Opera Company in Pre-Columbian Mexico. His costumes favored feathered Aztec headdresses and masks.

In his paintings, he depicted clothing from the Spanish Mexican period, which ended with Mexican independence in 1821, and the Mexican period, which ended in Tucson with the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. Corona reveled in painting old-time clothes, from ladies' overskirts and ruffles to laborers' embroidered white cottons, though the depictions are not always historically accurate, especially when it comes to Indian dress, according to curator Diane Dittemore.

Ironically, at a time when Tucson was hell-bent on erasing its real Mexican past—the government leveled the city's historic Hispanic heart in a spasm of urban renewal in the late 1960s—Tucsonans loved Corona's romanticized Mexican past.

He painted orderly worlds, with a place for every social class, and every class in its place. Charming peasants diligently perform their picturesque labors, happily serving a benevolent and attractive upper class.

One untitled painted tray, on which Corona literally places the rich above the poor, is typical. Two women in lace and mantillas smile at a gentleman who rides a fine horse. Below, two Indian men in straw hats and serapes offer up a gift of fowl to their social betters. Delicate flowers and birds surround them, sealing the picture of pastoral bliss.

In fact, Corona was born into a wealthy and well-connected family in Chihuahua, in 1895, but he took the unlikely path of turning toreador. He turns up as a dashing young bullfighter in photos, displayed alongside two of his bullfighting swords. The year 1915 is etched into one blade. Later in life, he told his biographer, Corinne Holm Milton, that 1915 was the year when he "entered the ring 70 times."

This career came to an end when a bull gored him in the leg, and he is said to have walked with a limp the rest of his life.

He traded in his swords for a paintbrush. Corona was mostly self-taught, but in the 1920s, he did go to Michoacán to study the traditional craft of lacquer on wood. Bullfighting always remained a favorite subject. "Finishing the Past," circa 1960, a sun-splashed oil on masonite, pictures an arena where no fewer than six splendidly arrayed matadors awaiting their turn in the ring.

The artist apparently first glimpsed the United States when he was invited to exhibit in the Mexican pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1939. A fanciful painting made many years later recalls his visit to the Big Apple, which in his imagination features such Tucson stores as Jacomé's and the Thunderbird Shop, along with throngs of well-dressed Mexicans straight out of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1944, he moved to Nogales, Ariz., where he won a commission to make three mural-size canvas paintings grandly recounting the history of Mexico for the now-defunct Border Café. One of these faded paintings, now in the collection of the Pimería Alta Historical Society Museum, is in the show. It's a bucolic vision of Mexico in the 1860s, with a peasant working every field and a church occupying every hill.

Corona came to Tucson the next year, to make some murals for Manning, and he never left. His paintings always betrayed a nostalgic longing for a Mexico that never was, but he also delighted in painting his adopted hometown.

He was especially attracted to the region's authentic Spanish Colonial churches. A wonderful "Tumacácori Mission," an oil on board painted around 1980, when Corona was in his 80s, has the lovely outlines of the old mission church set against a backdrop of mountains. Out front, pioneers are riding in a covered wagon, and a padre gives a blessing to a kneeling woman. A couple of Hopi kachinas incongruously have come to call.

Corona never did get his American Indians straight. Dittemore speculates that he saw assorted tribal dress in artwork at the Thunderbird Shop and proceeded to depict it in a strange and colorful mishmash.

This is especially true in his six utterly charming paintings of San Xavier. Corona depicted the church in every light—in the brightness of noon, in the deepening shadows of late afternoon, at sunset. He didn't always get the church's diagonals right, but he always captured its essence: its white skin, its single completed tower, its clay-colored carvings out front.

The church either overshadows the mountains or towers over them, but it always presides over Corona's orderly society. In the "Mission San Xavier" of the bright noon light, his colonial ladies and gentlemen are in place, in between tidy saguaros and prickly pears, and so are some 1950s American cowgirls. Then there are women in Hopi hairdos wearing Navajo velvet blouses and a woman with an Apache baby board (and baby) strapped to her back. A couple of Aztecs turn up for good measure.

And as in each of the San Xavier paintings, this disparate society is peacefully assembled on the church plaza, its members harmoniously arrayed in heavenly, multicultural, Technicolor splendor.

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