History of Mexican Papier Mache Sculpture

The course that inspired me to start this sculptural form of Papier Mache was based on an original sculptural Mexican style started earlier this century and now world famous with exhibits found in major museums and art galleries worldwide.

Pedro Linares (1906-1992) was the original creator of a bestiary of mythical, dragon-like beasts made from reeds or wire, paper, paint and an inspired imagination.  It is said that Pedro Linares had an amazing dream whilst recovering from an illness in which these fantastical creatures appeared. 

They called these creatures "Alebrijes".   

Popular artists such as the Linares in Mexico are known as " cartoneros "   Pedro Linares created and subsequent generations now create alebrijes which include fantastical dragons, beasts and winged fish on legs, floral decorated skulls, devils and skeleton figures.

Although many other Mexican craft shops sell items described as "Alebrijes" it is the Linares families and further generations thereof who produce the true "alebrijes". Pedro's  sons and grandsons now continue the tradition and their works are widely collected. 

The "alebrijes" are still made with the same method to this day. All alebrijes are basically created in this manner. However,  the most important factor is the imaginative vision of the artists to produce such original fantastical creatures.

The process is quite simple : an armature is made from reed or wire in the shape of the final body.  To build up certain areas newspaper can be taped on when dry before adding the glued layers.  A home made paste is produced using flour heated up in boiling water.  Sheets of plain brown paper or newspaper are added in layers to cover the frame until it is firm.  This may take some time as some of these creatures are extremely large.  The figure then has to dry thoroughly.

In Mexico, the sunny weather speeds up this process.  All sorts of wondrous extremities are then added including  wings, horns, tails, fierce teeth, bulgy eyes and a whole host of other creative additions.  The final figure is painted white. Then is the time for the colourful painting.  The Linares use brushes of cat hair
to achieve the fine lines.

Colours which would normally clash are painted side by side in intricate patterns and produce stunning results.  The attention to detail is quite amazing with a series of repeated scales, and intricate patterns including  tear drops wiggly lines and series of dots.  A steady hand and eye is a must to produce such a carefully detailed
vision of colour. 

These "alebrijes" are now transported all over the world and the bigger ones may be made in sections that fit together to aid transport.   In 1990 the Mexican Government awarded Pedro Linares the National Prize for Popular Arts and Traditions (Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes en la Rama VI,  Artes y Tradiciones Populares). The work of the Linares is now being avidly collected by European and American  museums and collectors.

In London, at the Museum of Mankind,  papier mâché figures by Felipe and Leonardo were included in the exhibition "The Skeleton and the Feast: the Day of the Dead in Mexico" (1991-1993).  This included a huge installation entitled  "The Atomic Apocalypse: Will Death Die?" showing  the figures of Famine, War, Pestilence and Death presiding  over a selection of scenes depicting the evils of the modern world. There are also examples of their art at the Gallery of Modern Art (Glasgow),  St Mungo's Museum of Religion Glasgow and  The Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

In 1992 Felipe and Leonardo were artists in residence at the Museum of Mankind, during which they created a giant "alebrije" and a 3 metre high "Judas"  figure complete with skull masks for the Museum's permanent collection.

In 1996  Felipe Linares Mendoza and his sons Felipe and Leonardo created a large installation entitled "The Seven Deadly Sins" for the new Museum of Art in Glasgow. Each scene was represented by a flying "alebrije" and by a group of skeleton figures.  Part of the "The Atomic Apocalypse: Will Death Die?" sculpture was on display at the British Museum this year in an exhibition called  "Living and Dying "where I  took these photos. The exhibition explored festivals for the dead, the spirit world, the earth and how people deal with death through burial and mourning, how they provide for the dead in their afterlife and how in some places people
draw on ancestors to assist them in the world of the living.  

These pictures show a section of   "The Atomic Apocalypse:  Will Death Die?"and a close up of "Famine"


For further information on the Linares Family:

The Exhibition Catalogue from the  "En Calavera"  Exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History is a very good source book for  information about the family and colour pictures of the Linares art. "En Calavera"  The Papier Mache Art of the Linares Family  Susan Masuoka  (1994) is available from UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

I managed to pick up a copy of the "En Calavera" Catalogue on the US Ebay for about £35.00

Another brilliant book which has Linares photos is "The Skeleton at the Feast" The Day of the Dead in Mexico by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloe Sayer. This was published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Press in 1991 and is still sold at the British Museum and is quite pricey. I also got my copy through US eBay so you can try that.

The British Museum also has a 15 minute film entitled "Paper Magic" of the artists Felipe and Leonardo Linares working at the Museum of Mankind in 1992. This can be purchased.

Check out these two websitetop Mexican Museum and top La Presna San Diago

You will find further links to other websites which have details on Alebrijes on ourtop Links page.

Have a look at my own interpretation of the Mexican top Alebrijes on this site.


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