Mexico’s Calendar Girls
From the time of the sacred ceremonial timekeeping stones of the Aztecs, calendars have long held special meaning to the lives of the Mexican people.
By the 1930s Mexican calendars underwent a cultural upheaval representative of the rural populations that began to shift and cities like Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexico City began to swell. A new consumer class was created, and the vivid advertisements in calendars enticed people to buy domestic products like chocolates, cigarettes, beer and tequila as well as imported items such a radios, tires and coco-cola from the United States. Calendar art reflected the people’s optimism about modernization and supported the popular nationalistic campaign to redefine Mexico according to her pre-conquest roots and ethnic traditions.
The adored calendar girl images from 1930 to 1960 are part of the Mexican memory. Their beauty reminds us of a time when Mexico was more isolated and each region had its own unique identity and traditions. Calendar advertising encouraged Mexicans in all regions to believe that they too could obtain a higher standard of living and afford many of the amenities of the upper class. Often dismissed by academics as mere advertising, to the Mexican public, the images of the calendar girls between 1930 and 1960 were embraced as the nostalgic emblems of Mexican culture and pride.
The calendars are painted snapshots of a distinctly Mexican world: a world that is gorgeous, romantic, sexy, patriotic and ever ready for a fiesta!
The graphic design of the calendars depicted familiar traditional themes and glorified them in an artistic manner, in order to persuade future consumers to buy items they had not previously thought of as necessities. Wall calendars faithfully marked births, deaths, religious festivals and phases of the moon, but they were also the vehicle that brought this new advertising art form into every corner of Mexico.
Calendar art after the Mexican Revolution reflected the changing image Mexicans had about themselves as well as the image of women. Women in calendar art were glorified as soldiers in the Mexican Revolution and painted as the sexy, confident, equals of men serving on the battlefields in their best dresses and nary a hair out of place.
The calendar girl artists of the time rewrote Mexican history, returning power to the pre-Spanish, pre-Conquest times with strong, glamorous Aztec and Mayan women. Calendar painters painted Mexico symbolized in the body of youthful, beautiful indigenous women, frequently holding over-flowing baskets of fruit and flowers which represented a resource laden country ready for the world stage.
While calendar artists painted popular themes, their styles were greatly influenced by companies that wanted to link their products to the high-class European look. This usually meant more fair-featured women were painted. The painters of the advertising calendars were instructed to paint their calendar girls with faces that resembled famous film actresses of the day. Maria Felix, Dolores del Rio, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor’s likenesses can be found under many a cowgirl’s sombrero or an indigenous woman’s shawl.
Seeing Bette Davis’ face on a Mexican body is visually odd, but I figured since she portrayed Empress Carlota in a film, she had some ties to Mexico. I found it more off-putting to ponder why Anna May Wong, an actress of Chinese descent, appeared on a calendar as a pre-conquest indigenous woman. Or how Dominican Maria Montez was plucked from one of her Technicolor Arabian nights movies and placed in a fiesta hitting a piñata.
The calendars were a favorite gift from businesses to their customers and were overprinted with company names, advertising slogans and contact details. Some calendars, known as exclusives, placed featured products in the picture.
By creating calendar art, the artists knew their work would not be valued. However, their paintings would be seen daily and viewed with admiration by the tens or hundreds or, perhaps, thousands of people who passed by the mechanic’s shops, cantinas or bakeries. The calendar was the most ubiquitous form of advertising.
Calendar art is undoubtedly the most noticed and least recognized of the visual arts and most influenced by women as models, consumers and collectors of mid-century art.