Americans have been coming to Cuernavaca for decades, living in splendid seclusion behind high walls where the weather is just about perfect every day from December to February. It’s just 80 km (50 miles) from Mexico City so easy enough to get to. There is one private house that visitors flock to see. It belonged to Robert Brady (1928-1986), who has been described as being “an artist, designer, world traveller, art collector, and all-around genuine bon vivant”. This place is so visually stunning that I would make the trip to Cuernavaca if only to see just that.
Brady was born into an affluent family in Iowa, USA. His journey as an artist/collector started with his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, Temple University in Philadelphia and the legendary Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. He then travelled around Europe and lived in Venice, Italy for several years before settling in Cuernavaca in 1962.
There he purchased part of a 16th century monastery called Casa de la Torre, which he restored and turned into a gorgeous space filled with collections he acquired as he travelled throughout Mexico and around the world. The objects on display range from inexpensive to fine works of art and include important pieces by Rufino Tamayo, Frida Kahlo, Miguel Covarrubias, Maria Izquierdo, Maurice Prendergast, Marsden Hartley and Graham Sutherland, among others.
Upon his death, the home was converted into the Museo Robert Brady with 14 rooms open to the public containing more than 1300 objects. A listing of what is in each room is on display in Spanish and English.
If you ever wondered what to do with the too many masks, keys, crosses, pillows that you dragged home from your various excursions then come here! It doesn’t feel like a museum, more like an intimate view of an exotic life.
When you enter the property, the colour of the walls and the pots of cacti and succulents are the first indication that this property is special.
The first room is the print gallery and it is easy to spot the two Diego Rivera works, a self-portrait and a lithograph of Frida Kahlo. Mixed in is Rufino Tamayo’s Women with Watermelon and two lithographs of Sioux Indian Chiefs. Front-and-centre is a doll of Brady himself. Do you see the cushion shaped like a cat?
The Cantina is the bar and a place to relax. Brady’s cantina could be called ‘the Mexican room’: just look at the masks, the cardboard dolls from Guanajuato, art nouveau pottery from Puebla, standing clay figurines from Guerrero, paper mâché folk art, the collection of cast iron keys, and on and on.
On the walls of the Yellow Bathroom is a collection of Haitian popular art that Brady acquired on numerous trips to the country. This is the visitor’s introduction to Talavera tile that Brady used throughout the house. The tiles are from Puebla where they were first used to decorate churches and monasteries. The demand for Talavera ceramics expanded beyond tiles to include dishware, vases and decorative figures, and examples of these are found throughout the house.
The covered Loggia is open on one side to the courtyard. It could be called the mask room for there are many here including a Bobo dance mask from Upper Volta. There is also an Eskimo sculpture soapstone from Greenland, a wood Male Ancestor Figure from New Guinea, a wooden figure of the Igorot tribe in the Philippines, and a Haida Rattle from North America.
The dining room table is set with Mexican pottery, mostly from Puebla, European tableware and French Art Nouveau glassware.
Although the kitchen is brightly tiled from floor to ceiling, Brady’s painting of his cook dominates the space.
There is a collection of paintings of San Pascual Bailon, a 16th century Spanish shepherd who became known as the Patron Saint of cooks. Here he is depicted surrounded by food and kneeling before the stove.
We are introduced to Josephine Baker in the Green Bathroom: lithographs by Miguel Covarrubias and Paul Colin, a silkscreen by Robert Brady, and an engraving by Al Hirshfeld. Josephine Baker was an African-American dancer who escaped racism in her home country by living and working in France. Her beauty was said to be exotic, earning her the nicknames ‘Black Venus’ and ‘Black Pearl’. She and Brady were close friends and she often visited his home. According to her website, they exchanged wedding vows but without clergy present, but in fact their relationship was platonic.
The rather interesting-looking man above the tub is Robert Gordy’s Homage to Marsden Hartley. There is also a lithograph by Diego Rivera in this room.
Master Sitting Room
I was struck by the religious art in the sitting room, the nude men in The Last Supper carving, the crucifixes, Christ on a cross, the iron Haitian crosses. I asked the docent if Brady was a religious man and he said no, that he collected these items because he considered them to be works of art.
There are several paintings by Maurice Prendergast here, including Hindu Women, Five Nude Women, and Birch Trees in Maine, as well as Miguel Covarrubias’ Chinese Girls Dancing.
Brady’s bedroom is surprisingly somber although the pink chest baring his name is whimsical, as is the collection of silver and turquoise belts, from America, Africa and Afghanistan. Once again, a wonderful mix of artifacts: a Maasai necklace, Navajo jewelry, image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, porcelain jars from China, two trees of life, and tin candlesticks.
Yellow Room and Hall
Who would not love the Yellow Room for there is so much of interest here, starting with Brady’s painting of Peggy Guggenheim, the wealthy American art collector and socialite who they say slept with 1,000 men. When Brady lived in Venice, Italy, he met her and she not only included him in her rather elite circle of friends but also greatly influenced him as a collector. Guggenheim was buried in the garden of her Italian palazzo and Brady followed her example by being buried in the garden at Casa de la Torre, along with his dogs.
The art arrangement around the yellow sofa is stunning. The large oil painting to the right of the sofa is Still Life by Rufino Tamayo. To the left of the sofa is Frieda Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Monkey.
The wooden doll of Josephine Baker dancing naked behind bananas is placed beside a Fanti Fertility Goddess from Ghana.
At the end of the Yellow Hall is the carving God the Father and on its right is a temple curtain from Rajasthan, India.
Placed around the room are a Haida totem pole from Vancouver Island, wood figures from various African countries, Buddha images in bronze and wood, among others.
The Oriental Room was decorated for Josephine Baker, who stayed there when she visited, which is said to be frequent.
Above the painted chest is a religious curtain from India and in front of the fireplace is a Blackamoor from Venice, Italy.
Robert Brady’s home is in the shadow of the Cathedral of Cuernavaca, which makes for a spectacular backdrop. Several of the themes found within the house are reflected in the garden. The walls are bright – a terracotta colour – and crosses adorn them. On one of the two patios is a yellow seat made of Talavera tile.
The green foliage holds the courtyard peacefully together. The swimming pool seems tucked away and does not dominate the space.
While the courtyard design is simple and uncluttered, it has its bold moments. The water fountain and the black cross high up on a garden wall are two of the dominant features. You climb an exterior stone staircase, draped in ivy, to reach the second level and can’t help but wonder what lies beyond.
This eclectic collection is found at Calle Netzahualcoyotl 4. When I was there it was open Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 6pm and Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Guided tours in English are available by appointment (firstname.lastname@example.org).
See also: Why Cuernavaca, Mexico, disappoints
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2014