Walk along Surreal Fantasy in Las Pozas, Mexico
The surreal fantasy-scape of Las Pozas is a breath-taking and staggering interpretation of a garden situated in a Mexican rainforest near Xilitla and envisioned by the equally eccentric patron, Edward James. This Brit, a supporter of the Surrealist movement endeavoured to make tangible his inner imaginarium in a setting that is characterized by abundant flora and baffling sculptures, a veritable wonderland of nature and man-made creations.
Truly, La Pozas as one of the beautifully unusual (albeit under-appreciated) art historical monuments of the twentieth century had to be conceived by a man with a past that is too almost stranger than fiction.
Edward James was born to immense wealth and privilege in 1907 in a family mansion that boasted 300 rooms and 6,000 acres of land. Remarkably, James turned his back on this overwhelming affluence to pursue a bohemian lifestyle as a poet and a friend to the arts. The art in question here is the still engaging and once intensely controversial movement of surrealism. To engage with a much overlooked area of artistic interest and centre of curiosity, I can’t suggest anywhere other than La Pozas. The array of temples, palaces and pagodas interspersed within the garden almost appear as a precursor to the works by Lewis Carroll, Tolkien and Dr. Seuss.
Simply the fantastical nature of the structures that sit in the heart of the Mexican rainforest continue to be ahead of its time, bringing the aesthetic of surrealism to the third dimension and offering the chance to engage with an art movement that is often misunderstood.
The fact that surrealist art is traditionally considered to be a reaction to the studies of dreams and the unconscious by Sigmund Freud yet serve as a response to the sense of chaos and loss that penetrated the reality of the inter-war period it manifested in; adds a new dimension of interest when visiting James’ La Pozas. Furthermore, James is famously reported to have said he “wanted a Garden of Eden set up”. On some level, it may be possible that his creation was a haven away from the wartime tragedies that Surrealism as an art movement very much lamented. Not only is a visit to La Pozas bewitching on a purely visual level but grants an experience that very well be touchingly insightful.
Edward James’ inner-sanctum was tellingly occupied by seminal figures such as Rene Magritte (whom he gave a place to live and work), the volatile Picasso and the much documented Dali. With pioneers of the avant-garde permeating his closest friendship circles, it is no surprise that when James took a turn from writing to art he gave life to the complex La Pozas. Interestingly, La Pozas did not begin its life as a sanctuary of surrealist form. After a failed marriage and a failed stint as a diplomat in Rome (after mistranslating an important message from Italian) James migrated to what he considered to be the infinitely ‘romantic’ country of Mexico. He soon acquired a coffee plantation near Xilitla and registered it in the name of his friend and guide of the region, Plutarco Gastletum (whom later would be the foreman when James would construct his surreal masterpiece). The coffee plantation however, was at that time used as James’ orchid garden and reserve for exotic animals, a world away from the creation it would become. In fact, it was only after an unexpected frost in 1962 arose, killing many of his plants that James sought to reinvigorate the land with a new venture – the setting of the sculpture garden we see today. However, a vestige of the orchid garden lingers on as James is reported to have based some of the sculptures on the arabesque forms that once existed there – an homage to its past usage and a simultaneous step forward.
It was in the 1960 and 70s that the surreal masterpiece really came into actualization when Edward funnelled increasing amounts of capital into his surrealist project. In fact record show that he employed hundreds of masons, artisans and craftsmen culminating in the genesis of 36 sculptures spread over 20 acres of verdant tropical jungle by his death in 1984. As La Pozas become such a tribute to the surrealist movement it soon became a siren call to a multitude of artists, writers and aficionados connected to the movement.
An important event in the ever-going story of La Pozas’ is its acquisition by ‘Fondo Xilitla’ in 2007. Fondo Xilitla was an organisation centred on the conservation of La Pozas and was established as a result of the efforts of the ‘Pedro and Elena Hernandez foundation’, one of Mexico’s most prolific charitable organizations. It is due to the efforts of Fondo Xilitla that Las Pozas is maintained as somewhere that can even be visited today, no doubt to the extensive re-launch campaign that took place in 2008.
Even if a holiday spent absorbing the wonders of art and architecture is not at the top of your list of priorities, you’ll enjoy a trip to La Pozas. That is because a visit to Las Pozas is completely unlike anything you would have visited before, banish ideas of pounding the concrete streets to look up at architectural an Goliath but imagine an adventure wherein wonderment and surprise are paramount.
Picture an exposition through a fantasy land where nothing seems logical and everything is in contrast to the accepted norm. Imagine a pilgrimage through inverted staircases and across giant sculptures of human hands as you are cascaded with the sight of abundant jungle fauna and you’ll be on the right track.
Exceptional highlights in the milieu of surreal forms include the ‘bamboo palace’ a three-storey building with concrete walls made to resemble ascending shoots of bamboo. There is the unnerving ‘Stairway to the Sky’ which is comprised of a grand staircase that climbs into the air and crescendos to a complete halt akin to the mesmerising etchings of M.C. Escher. However, the sculptures aren’t exclusively inspired from nature but echo some forms that are ubiquitous in the art historical canon, for instance there is a structure that is completely comprised of a series of Gothic arches, borrowed from Cathedral architecture. Perhaps the most iconic of James’ sculptures is the ‘Columna Gigante’ which as you’d expect is an imposing giant column, albeit one that is a staple of otherworldly surrealist design. With giant snakes and yes, giant planes, there really is no end to what can be discovered in Edward James’ masterpiece.
Although La Pozas is a 7 hour drive from Mexico City, I wouldn’t want it any other way. What makes the garden so special is the fact that it is so far removed from reality. To have La Pozas on the outskirts of a City or in a publicly owned nature reserve would dispel the illusion of an immersion in fantasy that it does so well. The sculpture garden may be remote, but as the journey through Mexican forestland intensifies, so does the sense of escapism that coincides with it.
By the time you have reached La Pozas, you feel far removed from the monotony of everyday life and very much anchored in the undeniable wonderland of Edward James’ creation.