Breaking the circle of solitude: Mexican church art

Mexican Churches, by Eliot Porter and Ellen Auerbach. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 20 pp. introductory material; 80 pp. of full-color plates. $24.95. In ``The Labyrinth of Solitude,'' Octavio Paz recalls his discovery of ``the other man'' during a visit to the front in the Spanish Civil War. ``No doubt the nearness of death and the brotherhood of men-at-arms, at whatever time and in whatever country, always produce an atmosphere favorable ... to all that rises above the human condition and breaks the circle of solitude that surrounds each one of us.''

What he came to call the ``other man'' is ``an embodied dream with wide, astonished eyes''; ``open to the transcendent,'' it stayed with him, though he says he never saw ``the same expression on any face.''

But we see it in the gaze of an angel caryatid from the church of Santa Maria Tonanzintla in Puebla. A caryatid's office is to support; an angel's, to announce. Her gaze is pure of doubt and fear. She does not look behind nor ahead. Neither inward nor outward, her gaze is that of the ``other man'' ``open to the transcendent.''

This caryatid appears among the fa,cades, saints, crucifixes, and niches portrayed in ``Mexican Churches,'' by Eliot Porter and Ellen Auerbach. In 1955, they traveled through Mexico photographing them. From some 3,000 pictures, all in natural light, they have chosen 80 for this book.

Of the Mexican religion, Paz has said, ``It isn't the result of the theories of a handful of theologians; it is the spontaneous expression of a people who, in order to face their misfortunes, had to believe.''

``Mexican Churches'' will appeal not just to lovers of Octavio Paz, but to all those who wander in the great ``museum without walls.'' For some, it could provide a facsimile perhaps of the moment of insight into the ``other man'' granted to Paz when, as a noncombatant with a head full of Surrealism, he spent a few months on the Spanish front in 1937.

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