Freelance curator Alfonso Morales was poking around a warehouse on the grounds of Mexico City’s giant printing company Galas de Mexico a couple years ago when he made the find of a lifetime. Morales had been talking to Cesareo Moreno of Chicago’s Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum about mounting an exhibit on calendar art and was hoping the warehouse would yield a few pieces he could use. What he found was more than 200 paintings, including the originals of images he knew nearly as well as his own face–paintings that are national icons but had never been displayed.

“A year after our initial discussion he called us back and said, ‘You’ll never guess what I stumbled on,'” says Moreno, the museum’s director of visual arts. The neglected warehouse turned out to be a treasury of calendar art from the 1930s through the 1970s, years when chromo art calendars were a major advertising medium, a vehicle for national pride, and a fixture in nearly every home, business, and school. Chicagoans are getting the first look at the cache in a dazzling show, “La Patria Portatil: 100 Years of Mexican Chromo Art Calendars,” on view at the museum now and due to open in Mexico next year. The show includes 66 oil paintings, 70 vintage calendars, and 40 photographs.

La patria portatil, the “portable homeland” of the title, refers to the role these calendars played in 20th-century Mexican life, Moreno says. The machinery for lithographic printing arrived in Mexico in the 1920s, shortly after the revolution and just in time to help forge a new national identity. The lithographic process made it possible to mass-produce richly colored, finely detailed calendars that could be personalized for business owners, who would give them to their customers as Christmas gifts. In the tradition of the piedra del sol, the carved sun stone of the Aztecs, the calendars would convey the myth, history, and dreams of a people while mapping their days.

The Galas factory began printing lithographic calendars in the 30s and soon became the country’s largest supplier. In a model of vertical integration, every step from concept to finished product was carried out in-house. Galas employed a corps of artists and models who worked in studios on the factory’s grounds. At the other end of the process, the large Galas sales force penetrated the farthest reaches of the country. Small business owners were shown a line of stock images from which they could select art for a modest run of calendars imprinted with their name. Larger businesses–cigarette and soft-drink companies, for example–could commission their own art, buy the rights to existing images, or even tie up an artist with an exclusive contract.

The calendars had a standard three-part format: the dates, with saints’ days marked, appeared in the lower portion; the advertiser’s information sat in the middle; and the chromo, or image, ran at the top. Themes were religious and mythical, historic and patriotic, domestic and decorative. All were idealized and romantic, pictures of a lush land overflowing with fruit and flowers, peopled with droves of beautiful women (most cut from the same movie-star mold) and handsome, noble men. Many were influenced by American advertising art and illustration of the same period, including some Vargas-inspired pinups, but most were carried to another level by the cultural spirit behind their commercialism. Moreno says the calendars worked like the stained-glass windows of medieval churches, using images to tell an important story. For advertisers, they were billboards that hung in customers’ houses for a year at a time, but for the people, they were “Mexicanidad–symbols of where we came from and who we are now,” he says. Often included among the few possessions people brought with them to the States, they were “a way of bringing our homeland with us and putting it up in our new home.” For any viewer these images are a feast for the eyes; for the people who grew up with them, they are that and much more.

“La Patria Portatil: 100 Years of Mexican Chromo Art Calendars” is a joint project of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum and the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City. It continues through April 25 at the museum, 1852 E. 19th (312-738-1503). Hours are 10 to 5 Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free. –Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): misc artwork.