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Spanish Colonial Art: The New World’s Old Masters

Spanish colonial art, long dismissed as derivative or politically incorrect, is receiving a major reappraisal in Latin America and drawing new attention in the U.S.

Gaspar Miguel de Berrío, Our Lady of Mount Carmel with Bishop Saints, 1764, oil on canvas.

Gaspar Miguel de Berrío, Our Lady of Mount Carmel with Bishop Saints, 1764, oil on canvas.

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As a schoolchild in Mexico more than 50 years ago, I was taught that the Spanish colonial era was a cultural wasteland—three repressive centuries sandwiched between the 1521 conquest of a glorious pre-Columbian civilization and a heroic struggle leading to independence in 1821. We had to memorize the names of all 11 Aztec emperors. Moctezuma, Cuitlahuac and Cuauhtemoc still trip off my tongue. But I don’t recall learning the identity of a single Spanish viceroy. The pyramids and figurines of pre-Hispanic cultures, along with the post-Revolutionary murals of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, were hailed as true Mexican masterpieces. Colonial art was dismissed as religious propaganda and a mediocre derivative of European painting and sculpture.

That was then. In recent decades, Spanish colonial art has undergone a spectacular reappraisal, both aesthetically and politically. “The colonial period was viewed as a kind of Dark Ages,” says Ilona Katzew, head of the Latin American art department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and author of Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World. “In the last 20 years or so, there has been a much more concerted effort to revive interest in colonial art.”

One of the impressive recent efforts to stoke that interest in the United States is the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s current exhibition of colonial art from Brazil and the vast territory encompassed by the Peruvian viceroyalty. Drawn mostly from the collection of Roberta and Richard Huber, former longtime residents of South America, the show, titled “Journeys to New Worlds,” is on view through May 19.

Nowadays, in Mexico and South America, the term “viceregal art” is replacing “colonial art” to subtly suggest that there was less cultural subordination to the mother country. “Viceregal art wasn’t a mere copy of Spanish art,” says Alfonso Miranda Márquez, director of the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City, who then proceeds to guide me through a 90-minute tour of the highlights in the museum’s Mexican art collection from the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Soumaya was built and endowed by the world’s richest person, Carlos Slim, and named after his late wife. It displays a sizable portion of Slim’s 66,000-piece art hoard, including Old Masters, 19th-century European paintings and Modern Art, and one of the world’s largest collections of Auguste Rodin sculptures, along with impressive works from the viceregal period. The Soumaya has been criticized for its unoriginal internal architecture—it has a spiraling ramp like New York’s Guggenheim and an unattractive, mushroom-shaped exterior encased in gleaming aluminum. But the museum’s popularity is beyond dispute: Open every day of the week and free of charge, it has drawn 1.7 million visitors since its inauguration in March 2011.

Miranda begins the tour with one of the earliest landscapes done in the Americas, Paseo de la Viga con la Iglesia Iztacalco, a 1706 oil-on-canvas view of Mexico City’s great canal by Pedro Villegas. “We have here the viceroy and his wife showing off Mexico City as a New World Venice,” says Miranda. The snow-capped volcanoes and the Valley of Mexico rise in the background. Ancient forests invade the growing capital. As evidence that viceregal art need not cede pride of place to paintings from the mother country, the Villegas work is placed side by side with an anonymous 1670 landscape, View of the Royal Alcazar and the Segovia Bridge, that makes Madrid look like an open-pit mine.

One of the truly arresting works in the collection is a mixed-media sculpture of La Dolorosa, the Virgin of Sorrows, created by an anonymous 18th-century Guatemalan artist and his assistants. The Virgin’s body is carved of wood and covered in alternate layers of gold leaf and paint. Her face has been sculpted from alabaster. The lips and cheeks are painted. Her eyes are made of glass, and the lashes, taken from an animal—probably a calf—have been individually inserted. Silver teardrops glisten on her cheeks. The genre is known as estofado (Spanish for “quilted”). “It is probably the most complex artistic process of the viceregal era,” says Miranda.

Another masterpiece in the collection is Francisco Antonio Vallejo’s 1771 oil-on-copper plate Visión de San Juan en Patmos-Tenochtitlán. Saint John’s vision of the Virgin on the Greek island is transferred to the Aztec capital before it was conquered and renamed Mexico City. Mary is transmuted into the darker-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, the apparition embraced by Mexico’s native population. And the Holy Trinity is depicted by actual figures, something that was forbidden to painters in Europe as sacrilegious. The Church allowed New World artists to paint the Trinity in human shapes because the concept of God existing simultaneously as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was thought to be too confusing for the newly converted native Mexicans.

Some viceregal works blend pre-Columbian influences with the art of Spain. A startling example is a 15th-century obsidian mirror, honoring Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec god of darkness. The piece was painted over in oil in the 17th century with a scene from the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus and his disciples retreated for prayer the night before his arrest. “That’s what we Latin Americans are all about culturally—the foundation is pre-Hispanic and the overlay is European,” says Miranda.

Yet another superb example of this mestizo culture is a late 18th-century work by Francisco Javier Clavijero, San Isidro Labrador, in which the cape of Saint Isidore the Laborer is made by the Aztec featherwork technique, using the plumes of hummingbirds, swallows, ducks and the now extinct royal bluebird.

An artistic genre unique to the Mexican colonial era is the so-called nun’s shield or escudo de monja. These 18th-century zinc or copper plates, worn by a nun over the solar plexus to protect her from evil, were painted in oil with various invocations to the Virgin Mary and signed by some of the finest colonial artists, including Miguel Cabrera, Francisco Vallejo and José de Páez. Nuns were often buried with these shields, as well.

The Museo Nacional de Arte in the historic center of Mexico City is the empress dowager of colonial art museums. Housed since 1982 in a century-old neoclassical edifice that was originally built as the Ministry of Communications, the Museo Nacional de Arte lacks the deep pockets of the Slim-funded Museo Soumaya. To compensate, it charges a reasonable 37-peso ($3) admission and has sought to expand its audience with contemporary art exhibitions that sometimes take up space used by the permanent collection.

Nonetheless, there was an abundance of fine colonial art on view during a recent visit to the museum. One of the jewels in the collection is a 17th-century oil painting, Los Ermitaños San Pablo and San Antonio by Baltasar de Echave Ibía, depicting the two gaunt saints as cave-dwelling hermits, with an eerie blue-gray mountainous landscape in the background.

Even more impressive is the Virgen del Apocalipsis, a circa-1760 oil painting roughly 12 by 12 feet by Miguel Cabrera, perhaps the best-known Mexican colonial artist. In this work, the Virgin is besieged by demons and monsters. She is defended by angels led by the Archangel Michael who steps on a seven-headed dragon and is about to thrust his sword through the beast. The Virgin, with the Infant Jesus in her arms, rises toward God in heaven and looks down with a hint of contempt at her would-be tormentors.

The museum has a series of paintings under the rubric of “castas,” or castes, that illustrated the phenomenon of race mixing. The Spaniards began their colonial regime with the simplistic notion that they could preside over two separate peoples – Spanish and Indian. The importation of African slaves added a third distinct racial element. And the inevitable sexual mingling of the three groups created a kaleidoscopic caste system.

An 18th century “casta” painting by Francisco Clapera, De Indias Salen Mestizos (From Indians Come Mestizos), portrays an Indian woman and her extended family, her mestizo children and their Spanish father. The canvas also shows the professions, including farming, artisanry and simple commerce, that Indians and mestizos were allowed to pursue. The Spanish father is mounted on his horse—something not permitted to Indians—and is about to ride off, an indication that he is only an occasional visitor to the household.

The Philadelphia Museum’s exhibition, by focusing on South American colonial art, offers a difference perspective on Spanish colonial art than that provided by Mexico City’s museums. In an interview printed in the show’s catalogue, Roberta Huber remarks that South American colonial paintings “lack some of the polish of the works made in Mexico.” She goes on to suggest that the greater distance between the Peruvian viceroyalty and Spain somewhat lessened the mother country’s more overbearing influence on Mexican colonial painting.

This was especially true of the so-called Cuzco School of Peru, based in the former Inca capital and strongly influenced by the Quechua painter Diego Quispe Tito (1611–81). Like his works, the paintings of the Cuzco School focused almost exclusively on religious subjects, using predominantly reds, yellows and browns, with abundant gold leaf, and were marked by a lack of perspective.

Although there are no Quispe Titos in the Philadelphia Museum show, it does include several notable, anonymous 18th-century Cuzco paintings from the Hubers’ collection. Saint Michael the Archangel depicts the calmly determined archangel, dressed in rich blue, gold, red and green fabric, plunging his lance into a horned, beaked and furious-faced dragon writhing at his feet. A smaller oil painting, Guardian Angel, shows a large angel, elaborately robed in red, blue and gold, resting a hand on the head of a child, dressed in simple white. The flat landscape behind them is a lush green with pale-blue mountains.

Some of the more arresting works in the Philadelphia exhibition don’t quite fit into any category. Christ Child, an 18th-century polychrome wood carving that may or may not be Brazilian, shows a pudgy, curly blonde Infant Jesus with head inclined downwards, eyes closed in prayer, hands pressed together and a cloth draped across his lap. It was purchased by the Hubers in Buenos Aires in 1987.

Even more intriguing is a loan from the Brooklyn Museum of an 18th-century Bolivian Festival Hat, from the silver-boom city of Potosí. It is made of silver animals and religious symbols hammered in relief and set on velvet with glass beads and wire. Truly, a work of art unique to the colonies, with only the slightest nod towards the mother country.


By Jonathan Kandell

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: April 2013

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