Art of Colonial Latin America
In her essay, “Art of Colonial America,” Bailey provides a timely overview of 330-year period of Latin American colonial art to the 21st century. The first point made by Bailey is that at no time in history has Latin American art been as relevant and important as today and goes on to support these assertions with several examples to demonstrate why. Another important point made by Bailey concerns the creativity of these artworks irrespective of the artists’ origins, a point once again supported with examples from the historical record. To determine how other curators have interpreted these two primary issues through the exhibition of colonial Latin American works, this paper provides a review of Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life 1521-1821 by Pierce, Gomar and Bargellini (2004) concerning the Painting a New World exhibition sponsored by the Denver Art Museum from April 3 to July 25, 2004 and Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries by Paz (ed), concerning the exhibition, “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries” held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from October 10, 1990 through January 13, 1991. An analysis concerning how each publication addresses these issues and what they succeed at best is followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
REVIEW AND DISCUSSION
The first point made by Bailey in her essay, “Art of Colonial America,” concerns the need to acknowledge the relevance of Latin American art to the modern world. For instance, according to Bailey, “Latin American art is more relevant to the world today than at any time in its history. A new public awareness of the subject has fuelled countless exhibitions, studies and television documentaries, making Latin America’s rich and varied cultural legacies more accessible than ever before.
Moreover, Bailey emphasizes as well that Latin American art is more relevant today than ever before because these events have been internalized by all Mexican people in ways that might not be readily discernible to others. In this regard, Bailey advises, “The history of Mexico is no less intricate than its geography. Two civilizations have lived and fought not only across its territory, but in the soul of every Mexican. One is native to these lands, the other originated outside but is now so deeply rooted that is part of the Mexican people’s very being.”
This timely acknowledgement concerning the significance of the colonialization process by the Spanish to all modern Mexicans is also related to the fundamental tools of empire-building used to conquer them: violence, disease and superior weaponry. Recognizing the impact of its turbulent and frequently violent history on the internalization of these events on the people of Mexico throughout the country’s history, Paz also emphasizes that, “Two civilizations and, within each of them, distinct societies frequently divided by differences of culture and concerns internal sunderings, external confrontations, ruptures and revolutions. Violent leaps from one historical period to another from polytheism to Christianity, from absolute monarchy to republic, from traditional to modern society.”
For Bailey, though, the implication of these events as depicted in works of Latin American art for modern Mexicans is profound and compelling. As Bailey emphasizes, “It is important that we acknowledge how deeply works of art were woven into the fabric of people’s daily lives.”
In support of this assertion, Bailey cites one of the most well-known paintings from the colonial Latin American era to demonstrate its relevance to 21st century Mexicans. In this regard, Bailey notes that, “Perhaps the best illustration of colonial art’s continuing relevance is the sixteenth-century Mexican painting The Virgin of Guadalupe, a late Renaissance image of the Virgin of the Apocalypse, whose grey-lavender color has inspired generation of Mexicans to accept her as a member of their own ethic group, whether Indian, mestizo, or criollo.”
Known to billions of people today, this iconic painting is depicted in Figure 1 below.
Figure. 1. The Virgin of Guadalupe (artist unknown), 1500s, tempera and oil on cloth
According to Pierce and her colleagues, The Virgin of Guadalupe was painted during a period in Mexico’s history when such tangible representations of the divine were important because of the spiritual power these works possessed. For instance, Pierce et al. emphasize that, “The Virgin of Guadalupe . . . belongs to a time and culture that was totally convinced that representations of sacred personages were in no way superfluous or merely decorative; their presence produced miracles and was necessary for the practice of religion, and religion was the justification for the conquest and foundation of social and individual life.”
It is reasonable to suggest that some modern observers might have a great deal of trouble understanding this level of significance for colonial Latin American works of art during this early period in Mexico’s history, but the same theme is echoed time and again by The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art’s catalog. In their discussion concerning the cult of the Virgin, the editors cite The Virgin of Guadalupe as a prime example of how artwork was used to evangelize at the time, Paz explains that in this painting, “The attributes of the ancient goddesses are fused with those of Christian virgins” and “It is natural that Indians should still call the Virgin by one of the names of earth goddesses: Tonantzin, Our Mother.”
This painting and its genre were formative in reshaping the indigenous polytheism belief systems that were firmly in place throughout Latin American during its colonial period, but Paz cautions that the Mexican people were not completely forced to adopt their newfound religion, but were rather coerced in ways that built on their fundamental need for spirituality following the destruction of their own pantheon of gods. For example, Paz reports that, “Above all else, it is imperative that we understand the reasons for the Indians’ conversion to Christianity. . . . The defeat of their gods left the Indians in a spiritual orphanhood that we moderns can scarcely imagine.”
Indeed, Bailey argues that The Virgin of Guadalupe stands alone amongst its countless replicas because it is firmly believed by the faithful that it was created by supernatural hands and the image was created by physical contact with the Virgin herself. For instance, according to Pierce and her associates, “Among paintings of the Virgin, the Guadalupe is the only one for which this same status is consistently claimed.”
The second point made by Bailey concerns the need to look beyond the specific origins of colonial Latin American art to fully understand and appreciate its creativity. In this regard, Bailey reports that, “Most importantly, colonial Latin American art is a testament to human creativity irrespective of race, ethnicity or birthplace.”
This point is not as obvious as the first point advanced by Bailey concerning the relevance of colonial Latin American art today, but she does support this assertion by explaining the dangers inherent in pigeonholing artwork. For instance, according to Bailey, “While there is no denying that certain motifs, symbols or techniques in colonial Latin American art can be traced to Amerindian, African, or European forms, too much attention has been paid to linking these traits with the specific ethnic or racial background of the artist, with the result being that artists’ work is reduced to the level of an anthropological artifact.”
A causal observer might question why such attention and categorization is inherently dangerous, and Bailey explains this question away as well with the observation that, “This idea of a racially or culturally defined artistic culture comes from nineteenth-century beliefs that an entire people share an artistic ‘will’ and that different races had different inherent capacities, theories that were to have dire consequences with the rise of twentieth-century nationalism.”
By avoiding this type of categorization, Bailey maintains that it is possible to more fully appreciate the artwork that was created during the colonial Latin American period. For instance, Bailey concludes that “This blending of styles, techniques, and iconographies is precisely what makes Latin American art unique and fascinating, and it should serve as a warning against trying too hard to categorize on the basis of race or ancestry.”
As examples of such Renaissance and Baroque artistic fusions, Bailey cites 18th century African-Brazilian sculptor and architect Aleijadinho, described by the author as “the last great sculptor of the International Rococo, whose works’ rough anguish express a visceral yet human kind of pathos.”
An example of Aleijadinho’s architectural style is exemplified in the facade of the Church of the Third Order of St. Francis in Ouro Preto depicted in Figure 2 below.
Figure 2. Facade of the Church of the Third Order of St. Francis in Ouro Preto.
Likewise, Bailey reports that Diego Quispe Tito, an Andean Indian artist, “created ethereal landscapes, combining shimmering colors redolent of the supernatural with occasional glimpses of a world of Inca symbolism.”
The picture shown in Figure 2 below is representative of Tito’s work.
Figure 2. Virgin of Carmel (Brooklyn Museum)
Despite the dangers that Bailey associates with pigeonholing artists by race, the compilers of the materials for the two catalogs reviewed herein unfortunately proceed to do just that. Admittedly, these two teams were faced with a daunting challenge in acquiring and interpreting those works of art that were most appropriate for their exhibition goals, and interpretive efforts must use some framework in which to present the resources in a fashion that can be understood and appreciated by the targeted audiences.
Nevertheless, there is little or no discussion concerning the fusion of artistic styles in the two catalogs, with a preference for a neat and orderly, date by date, presentation of representative works that typify the points being made by the exhibition. Despite these shortcomings, both catalogs were shown to be authoritative references that were supported by relevant citations and imagery. Likewise, both catalogs provide useful overviews of the materials that are being presented preparatory to their interpretation, helping place the information in its historical context.
The research showed that interest and appreciation in colonial Latin American art has experienced a resurgence in recent years, due in large part to comprehensive exhibitions of period art sponsored by organizations such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Denver Art Museum. The research also showed that authorities such as Gauvin Alexander Bailey maintain that colonial Latin American art is more relevant today than ever before, and that the artwork that emerged during this turbulent and frequently violent period in Mexico’s history should be appreciated for its creativity rather than attempting to associate specific styles and motifs with their individual artists. Rather, Bailey believes that a more holistic view of the art from this period is in order to help avoid the same type of social engineering mentality that pervaded the first half of the 20th century and which may continue to adversely affect the human condition. In the final analysis, an exhibition of any type can only accomplish so much, and the more aligned the representative works of art are with the goals of the exhibition, the more likely the curators will have accomplished what they set out to do.
Bailey, Gauvin Alexander. Introduction in Art of Colonial Latin America. New York: Phaidon
Paz, Octavio. Metropolitan Museum of Art: Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries. Los Angeles: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Pierce, Donna, Gomar, Rogelio R. And Bargellini, Clara. Painting a New World: Mexican Art
and Life 1521-1821. Denver: Denver Art Musuem.
Bailey, Gauvin Alexander. Introduction in Art of Colonial Latin America. New York: Phaidon Press, 2005, 4.
Pierce et al. 85.
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