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One Legacy Revived, Another Begun

The new Museum of History and Art in the seaside resort of Coronado opens with a showcaserevisiting the works of Alfredo Ramos Martinez.

October 01, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

CORONADO — It takes a little effort to reach this community of picture-perfect bungalows, exotic gardens and broad beaches. Approaching from San Diego, one must cross the 2-mile toll bridge, take the pedestrian ferry or follow the peninsula via Imperial Beach. That makes commuting a challenge, but it doesn't stop 2 million people from visiting every year.

"People love a good excuse to come to Coronado," says Cynthia B. Malinick, executive director of the Coronado Historical Assn. And the association is about to give eager visitors a new reason to make the trek: the Museum of History and Art, which will open next Sunday.

Housed in the historic Bank of Commerce and Trust building, at the heart of downtown Coronado, the new museum will provide the 31-year-old association with a prominent showcase and much-needed space for its operations and public programs. The organization has been making do in a Victorian house, but exhibitions had to be stuffed into spaces designed as living quarters, and much of the collection was stored off-site. The new facility will provide three small galleries for exhibitions of art and local history, a room for lectures and other educational programs, compact storage for archives, a research library, offices, a shop and a cafe.

Exhibitions and related programs will pertain to Coronado history, Malinick says, but the subject encompasses a broader range of possibilities than might be imagined. The story of the Hotel del Coronado--the city's best-known establishment--is an obvious topic, as is the U.S. Navy's place in the community.

Artists and their work are also part of the mix. "A lot of history is art, and vice versa," Malinick says.

She is particularly pleased with the inaugural art show, "Obras del Corazon: Works From the Heart of Alfredo Ramos Martinez, 1934-1944," a display of 17 paintings and works on paper by a Mexican artist who spent many productive years in Southern California.

Ramos Martinez's work hasn't had a public presence in the city for several years, but he is remembered fondly as the painter of three murals at La Avenida, a popular restaurant across the street from the Hotel del Coronado. Painted in 1937, the artworks were removed before the demolition of the building, in 1995. One mural was donated to the city and will be installed in a public facility yet to be designated; the other two have gone into private collections.

The show will present works from several private collections, including that of Maria and Charles Bolster, the artist's daughter and her husband, who live in Los Angeles. A painting of Maria, at age 11, and the artist's self-portrait will appear alongside his typical depictions of Mexican peasants, family groups, tropical flowers and a mountainous landscape. Executed in tempera, oil, pastel and charcoal, they are gentle images portrayed in a bold style that emphasizes contours and volumes.

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Ramos Martinez, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, in 1872, studied art in Mexico City and worked in Paris from 1897 to 1910. Like many of his colleagues, he followed the lead of European artists during his early years. But when he returned to Mexico, he became a leading proponent of indigenous Mexican art and an influential teacher. He was uprooted in 1929, when he and his wife moved to the United States in search of medical treatment for their infant daughter, Maria, who had a disabling bone disease. They settled in Los Angeles, where the artist found favor with the Hollywood elite and was commissioned to paint several murals. He died in 1946, just before his 74th birthday.

He never achieved anything close to the fame of his fellow Mexican muralists, Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), probably because he left his native land and his work does not throb with the revolutionary zeal that characterizes the best-known Mexican art of the period. Nonetheless, Ramos Martinez left a legacy in Southern California--including multi-panel murals at Scripps College in Claremont and the chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery.

The upcoming Coronado show is only the latest example of a revival of interest in his work. It began in 1991 with an exhibition organized by Los Angeles dealer Louis Stern, which was accompanied by a scholarly catalog and traveled to Mexico. Since then, several other local exhibitions have featured Ramos Martinez's work. He is also in the pantheon of artists whose work will appear in "Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000," a huge exhibition that will open Oct. 22 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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