Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Las Pozas

Las Pozas, The Pools, is a garden and sculpture park in the forested mountains of Mexico, built by English philanthropist Edward James (1907-1984). James was the son of wealth and privilege who became a major promoter of surrealism in the 30s.

James let Rene Magritte live in his Paris townhouse for two years, and supported Salvador Dali for a year (1938) when Dali was short of funds. That's Magritte's famous non-portrait of James above, Not to be Reproduced (1937). James tried his hand at poetry but had no real talent, so he remained a hanger of the art world rather than the artist he wished to be.

Some time in the late 30s James had a vision of a sunny glade surrounded by trees that he interpreted as a call to build a garden. He searched southern California for a suitable site but never found one. Then in 1945 he went to Mexico and was entranced by the landscape. He hired a very handsome Mexican man named Plutarco Gastelum as a guide, and together they chose a site near the town of Xilitla. Opinions differ as to whether James and Gastelum were lovers; certainly James was in love with Gastelum, but Gastelum got married and fathered a brood of children who called their father's employer Uncle Edward.

The 80-acre site (32 ha) came with cliffs, trees, and waterfalls. To this James added planting beds full of orchids -- 29,000, according to one count -- and fantastic concrete structures. "My house grows like a chambered nautilus," he once said.

James gave these suitably surreal names, like House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six, the House with a Roof like a Whale, and the Staircase to Heaven. At Las Pozas James lived as a classic eccentric, surrounded by parrots, dogs, and a large collection of boa constrictors.

James spent $5 million on his folly, a lot of money in the 1950s. To cover the cost he had to auction off his collection of surrealist paintings. James left what remained of his fortune to a charitable trust intended to promote traditional crafts, and to a school that teaches such skills. Lately the buildings at Las Pozas have been crumbling, so the local state government set up a foundation to raise money for their preservation.

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