A couple of weeks ago I saw an Anthony Bourdain show in which he went to Romania. The most interesting place he visited was the Merry Cemetery, a sort of folk art tourist attraction that reminded me of Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens (…but with dead people).
The Merry Cemetery, in a little village called Sapanta, is an actual cemetery, but it looks more like an outdoor art installation. Each gravemarker is hand-carved and hand-painted and, in some cases, is accompanied by a short pithy poem about the deceased. Also (and I think this is extremely helpful…) each marker depicts the Dearly Departed with an image showing how they died or what they did before they died.
This is the elaborate marker for Stan Ioan Patras, the man who began carving the colorful markers in 1930.
My favorite marker above (and more are shown here) is the one with the unfortunate child and the automobile. It reminds me so much of Mexican ex-votos (or retablos) (except that if the image had appeared in an ex-voto, the child probably would have survived).
The best art I’ve ever seen in a restaurant (and, let me tell you, most original art in restaurants and coffee houses is painfully awful) is the collection of (probably commissioned) Mexican ex-votos at Chuy’s here in Dallas. Ex-votos are usually painted on tin or scrap metal by someone who managed to triumph over imminent death or some other terrible misfortune, courtesy of a Saint (frequently the Virgin of Guadalupe). The ex-voto chronicles the event in words and pictures, and finishes with thanks to the Saint who saved them and answered their prayers. I love these and I have several. The best ones at Chuy’s are the most extreme: a guy getting struck by a jagged bolt of lightning (my absolute favorite), a drunk lying in a gutter, a child falling into a river, a boy being chased by a bull toward a precipice, and one I’ve never understood which seems to depict a man who seems to have fallen under the spell of the demon Coca-Cola.
Here are a few randomly selected examples from the internet:
Chicken illness averted! Thank you, St. Francis!
Delicate operation a success!
I can’t read the writing on this, but maybe someone survived a firing squad, although that seems pretty unlikely. (I checked again after noticing there was no saint saintly floating in either corner. The title of this is Martyrdom of Five Cristeros, October 8, 1927. So not an ex-voto, I guess, but if one of those guys HAD survived the sure death of a firing squad … it would have looked like this. With a saint hovering serenely nearby.)
Not absolutely sure about this one, but it seems to involve either an extraterrestrial and a spaceship, or an extraterrestrial and a giant flying sombrero — and a man unable to talk. (To bring back Howard Finster for a second, the esteemed Reverend Finster believed that Jesus Christ and Santa Claus came to Earth from … elsewhere … via a ride in a flying saucer.)
There’s a whole industry that has cropped up in mass-produced retablos made to look authentic — friends of mine, for instance, picked up one featuring Mexican wrestlers at the Rose Bowl flea market, copies of which surely adorn walls of hundreds of people just like me. I’m guessing that UFO one is probably not authentic. Doesn’t mean it isn’t great.