Along with making emotional demands, the show puts you on

‘Painted in Mexico’: When a New Art Flourished Far From Mother Spain


Along with making emotional demands, the show puts you on unfamiliar historical ground. Only within the past few decades has Spanish colonial art, now usually referred to as Spanish American or Viceregal art, been awarded anything like center-stage status in North American museums. The last major survey in New York City was the Brooklyn Museum’s “Converging Cultures: Art & Identity in Spanish America” in 1996, a display of paintings, furniture and textiles — much of it long in storage — culled from the permanent collection. That show traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which, more than two decades later, in collaboration with Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., in Mexico City, organized the show now at the Met.

There have been other exhibitions between 1996 and the present, but few and far between on the scale this soul-stirring art deserves. Institutionally, the attitude seems to have been that Spanish American art was problematic, not quite good enough to be high art, but not low enough to qualify as ”folk.” Much of it was assumed to be derivative of the old master European work deemed the proper subject for exhibition.
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But over time, gradually, some attention began to be paid. Museums were feeling pressure to expand their demographics. Young art historians were looking for untapped material. And thanks to multiculturalism, hybridity, as a political concept, became cool. So people began to look at Spanish American art and see it for what it is: deeply fabulous, as the Met exhibition confirms.

A lot of what’s here is religious, and specifically Roman Catholic, though you don’t have to be a believer to respond to a picture like the “Apotheosis of the Eucharist” of 1723, another Rodríguez Juárez tour de force which, like an organ chord, opens the show. Commissioned for the convent of Corpus Christi in Mexico City, the work’s inspiration was as much political as devotional. (The convent was founded for Indian women of noble birth, at a time when “noble” and “Indian” were mutually exclusive concepts in much of Europe.) But what matters about it now — and surely did when it was new — is its visionary imagery: its swirling clouds, its rapturous saints, the angel-borne host that beams like a high-power flashlight.
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No question, that this artist and Mexican-born contemporaries like Miguel Cabrera and José de Ibarra, kept a close eye, through imported prints, on art trends in Europe. But by 1700 Mexico, also called New Spain, had its own fully developed art industry, replete with guilds and academies, family dynasties and professional rivalries. And it had an international reputation. Shipments of fresh-from-the-easel pictures were regularly leaving the New World for Spain, many carrying the phrase “Pinxit Mexici” — “Painted in Mexico” — as a gauge of value and a point of pride.

And value lay in the fact that work from New Spain was recognized as distinctive: not a European knockoff, but a different product with its own styles, stories and symbols. Counter-Reformation stridency never really took hold in New Spain. By the 18th century, a seductive gentleness had settled into Mexican church art, as seen in Miguel Cabrera’s allegorical picture “The Divine Spouse” from around 1750. A much copied image, thought suitable for contemplation by cloistered nuns, it presents Jesus as a pink-cheeked man-child reclining, as soft and plump as a piece of tropical fruit, on a bed of flowers.
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If overt eroticism tended to be downplayed in Mexican painting, exoticism was a selling point. It lent fascination to culturally specific icons like the miracle-working Virgin of Guadalupe, with her Byzantine splendor and indigenous roots. And to European eyes certain types of Mexican portraits — of nuns wearing hand-painted badges like breastplates, and arriviste urban matrons showing off their wealth — must have had a picaresque appeal. One such matron, Doña Juana María Romero, seen in a 1794 likeness by Ignacio María Barreda, wears two of almost everything — two corsages, two watches, two strands of pearls — along with a prideful smirk, not unearned considering she had survived the birth of 13 children.

Maybe the most intriguing of all Spanish American portraits are those that come under the label of “Casta Painting.” This genre, devoted to pictures of racially mixed couples and families, was both documentary and promotional. On the one hand, it provided a kind of DNA profile of a colonial society built on the intermingling of ethnic bloodlines, European, Indian and African. And it suggested how, through socio-economic ranking by race, European power could be maintained. By colonial law, for example, a woman with ‘‘black blood” was banned from wearing European-style clothing.
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Of course, prohibition produced alternative power of its own, such as marvelously inventive clothing styles — power-couture, for sure — which artists delighted in detailing. While we may now read Casta Painting negatively, as a record of programed exclusion, it was intended to convey what was then considered a positive message, to advertise New Spain as a good place to be: racially mixed but, thanks to thorough policing, well-ordered and danger free.

In 1996, the year of the Brooklyn Museum survey, a young scholar named Ilona Katzew organized a memorable exhibition of Casta Painting — at the time little-known outside the field — at the Americas Society Art Gallery in Manhattan. And as present chairwoman of the Latin American department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she has led the team that put “Painted in Mexico” together: Ronda Kasl of the Met; Jaime Cuadriello of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City; Paula Mues Orts of the Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía; and Luisa Elena Alcalá, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain.
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Despite the size and scope of the show, the curators modestly assert in their information-rich catalog that it marks the beginning, not the end, of a scholarly project. They have also taken the opportunity to somewhat revise what “Spanish Colonial Art” means by, overall, downplaying gilt, ornamentation and spectacle in favor of complex cultural narratives and subtler visual drama.

A 1793 painting called “The Discovery of the Body of Saint John of Nepomuk” by the Puebla-based artist Miguel Jerónimo is an example. The story of this 14th-century Bohemian martyr followed a familiar pattern: pious life, terrible death. After refusing to reveal the secrets of the confessional to a nosy king, the saint was subjected to brutal torture before being drowned in the Moldova River.

His end, in short, offered all the ingredients for a horror show image, but that’s not what we get. Unusually, it’s a nighttime scene. The saint, wrapped in a black cloak or shroud, floats on the river’s surface, his body lapped by little feathery waves. There are traces of his ordeal — ropes dangle from his wrists — but no sign of pain. His figure is framed — and buoyed up, it seems — by flaming stars; they look like runway lights in an airport, guiding him toward takeoff. People shout from the riverbank; he doesn’t hear. Angels descend with gifts; he doesn’t see. He’s dead, or asleep, or concentrating deeply before making his entry in the grand silent opera of Beyond.

Source: nytimes.com