Paper Mache in Mexico

A Brief History

(This article was written for Vallarta Tribune, edition # 1163.)

Despite being widely known by its French name, papier-mâché (meaning, ‘chewed paper’), the art form can be traced back to the Han Dynasty in China (202 BC – 220 AD), where paper mache was used to make helmets using a variety of materials and then toughened with lacquer. From the land where paper itself was originally invented, paper mache spread to Japan and Persia and subsequently Western Europe, where France and England began making their own wares around the 1670s. It is believed that it got its name from French workers in London, and not in France.

Paper mache became popular in Europe as a low-cost alternative to plaster molding and carved wood in architecture. It was brought to Mexico by the Spaniards and introduced to the native population by the Jesuits around the 17th Century. Once in the New World, it thrived more as an art rather than a manufacturing material. Sometimes referred to as cartonería (related to, or made with cardboard), we can see examples of the traditional paper mache styles around many national holidays, such as Day of the Dead and around Christmas.

Mexican-based paper mache received an unexpected popularity boost when New York-based Italian artist Gemma Taccogna moved to Mexico with her husband and two-year-old daughter in 1954. She had previously worked with paper sculptures, making creations for stores like Sak’s 5th Avenue and Nina Ricci. Influenced by Mexican paper mache, she opened a studio to produce her own unique designs. The late American art collector, bohemian and socialite Peggy Guggenheim discovered her work and collected it, which led to front cover features in many European magazines. Her dolls have a unique porcelain-like finish and are still sought after by art collectors worldwide.

Two main methods are used in paper mache: The first makes use of paper strips glued together with adhesive, and the other uses paper pulp obtained by soaking or boiling paper to which glue is then added. This pulp is then molded or applied to a cast. Aside from an inexpensive and versatile art and craft form, paper mache is commonly used today in carnival floats and as a building material for theatrical use in sets, costumes and puppetry.

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