Recently the Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought two little wood boxes shaped like big scallop shells. Carved around 1770 in lowland eastern Bolivia by Guarani artisans trained in Jesuit missions, they’re profusely decorated, with floral blooms, radiating ornamental motifs known as gadroons, vegetal scrolls, undulating foliage, and a menagerie of creatures real and mythical. One is supported by three winged cherubs; the other, by four female mythological creatures.
The purchases–not to mention the prominent installation of the boxes in galleries devoted to the artistic production of colonial Latin America–would have been virtually unthinkable for most major U.S. museums a few years ago. As a product of Spain’s campaign to evangelize and subjugate native cultures, the thinking went, this genre could never be considered anything more than a sad pastiche–a marginal postscript to pre-Columbian masterworks and an inferior imitation of the European art forms that were force-fed, along with Christianity, to indigenous artisans.
Today that very “impurity”–and the violent collision of cultures that produced it–has propelled the art made in Spain’s American colonies from art history’s periphery to its cutting edge. What fascinates scholars is the era after contact, when pre-Columbian cultures survived, borrowed, subverted, and evolved until, amid the unprecedented intermingling of populations, iconographies, and materials, a new society emerged with art so distinct from pre-Columbian and European modes that we need new tools to describe it.
The promise, mystery, and challenge of colonial Latin American art are luring not only a growing number of graduate students but also veteran art historians who built their careers in European art. They’re scrutinizing Baroque altarpieces, pictographic codices, and portraits of leaders guiding their new society into the future and of kings from the Aztec and Inca past. They’re poring over Brazil’s devotional sculpture, Venezuela’s upscale furniture, the Madonnas of New Mexico’s missions, and Andean textiles in which the lion cavorts with the jaguar amid figures from Roman myth and the Bible. They’re untangling dense ornament drawn from Japanese screens, Flemish prints, African ivories, Philippine mother-of-pearl, Mudejar motifs, and flora and fauna from all over the known world.
“It’s an intellectually vibrant field with a whole new set of issues, objects, problems,” says Tom Cummins, chair of Harvard’s department of the history of art and architecture and an expert in pre-Columbian and colonial art. “There are hierarchies so deeply embedded in art history that you can’t generate new questions if you continue with the old models.” Cummins’s next book is Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Alphabetic Literacy and Visuality in the Andes, 16th to 18th Centuries(cowritten with Joanne Rappaport; out this fall from Duke University Press). It examines how native cultures interpreted and reused European texts and images to reflect their own identities, a process often called “indigenous agency.”
“Colonial art is bound up in issues of peoples’ being dominated by another culture,” says Elena Phipps, former textiles conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she cocurated “The Colonial Andes,” an influential 2004 show of silver and textiles. “This is looking at a different dynamic of creativity between cultures.” To understand that dynamic, she says, it’s important to remember that South American civilizations communicated in ways other than written language. “Objects and the ways in which things are made, the materials and techniques, had a lot of meaning for the culture,” she notes. The language of pigments is one theme of Phipps’s new book, Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color (Yale University Press in association with the Met), which traces the global diffusion of the distinctive red dye derived from a South American beetle.
With museums establishing departments for modern and contemporary Latin American art, it was inevitable that curators would start to fill in what went on in the three centuries before, says Eduardo Douglas, assistant professor of art history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It’s an extension of the way people look at contemporary art in this global world,” he comments. His new book, In the Palace of Nezahualcoyotl (out this month from the University of Texas Press), examines how mid-16th-century documents used Aztec pictographs to explain pre-Hispanic history to postconquest generations.
The rise of interest in colonial Latin American art reflects the influence of fields like anthropology, archeology, and cultural studies on art history. “In the 1960s, people would say an African carving of the image of a white man in a pith helmet is polluted–the death of African art,” says Fordham University associate professor Barbara Mundy. “That is true in colonial, too, when you see these incredible feather paintings with images of Christ. The paradigm shift allows us to look at Christ or the pith helmet not as the polluted end of tradition, but as something new and oddly modern.”
“Modernity in the 16th century was the Iberian world,” says Alessandra Russo, who teaches colonial art in Columbia University’s department of Spanish and Portuguese. “It was Goa, parts of Asia, of Africa, of Europe. It was traveling in the galleons of Manila, in the luggage of the conquistadores and the missionaries.”
Jonathan Brown, an authority on Spanish art and a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, demurs on the modernist claim, though he does see Latin American colonial as the first global art form. “At the bottom of this is a major change in the way that art historians are looking at their subject,” he says. “People are starting to conceive of transnational entities that bring into play areas that have been overlooked by Western art historians. There’s a much broader understanding of how art objects are used as commerce, a means of currying favor, of reinforcing belief.”
Brown is currently preparing Painting of the Kingdoms: Shared Identities, a multivolume study being published by Mexico’s Banamex Cultural Foundation. It will serve as the catalogue for the colonial-painting blockbuster Brown is curating for the Prado (its first major show on the theme) and the Royal Palace in Madrid. “If I had another life to live,” he says, “I would settle in and work on the 18th century of Mexico. The painting just explodes in inventiveness and originality.”
A perfect storm of intellectual trends and demographic shifts has prompted the directors of so-called encyclopedic art museums to recognize that these very artworks, absent from the canon presented in their galleries, are the ancestral heritage of communities they are trying to reach.
This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston will open its first gallery devoted to colonial Latin American art, in its new Art of the Americas Wing. The objects to be on view range from Chilean silver to Andean tapestries to a portrait of an archbishop of Mexico. “It will make North Americans recognize what has been achieved in Central and South American cultures,” says director Malcolm Rogers. “And people from South and Central America will recognize achievement in their own culture.” After all, North American art was also considered provincial in the not-so-distant past, points out Elliot Davis, chair of the MFA’s department of the art of the Americas. “When the American-art wing opened at the Met, people thought American art was an oxymoron,” she comments.
Ten objects in the MFA’s new gallery will be on long-term loan from Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, a Venezuelan-born collector best known for her holdings in modern and contemporary Latin American art, and for her efforts to encourage the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where she is on the board, to exhibit more work from South and Central America. Cisneros, who employs an in-house curator, Jorge Rivas, specifically for colonial art, owns several hundred objects, mostly furniture, silver, and paintings; some of each kind will go to the MFA. She also lent 25 objects to LACMA, among them wood butacas (recliners that evolved from pre-Columbian forms). She, too, believes that the field is ripe for acceptance in this country. “It’s like Latin American modernism was ten or twelve years ago,” she says.
“The exciting thing is that it’s both undervalued and understudied,” says Michael Govan, director of LACMA, which opened its colonial-art galleries in 2008, reinstalling a whole floor to present a continuum from ancient to modern Latin American art. “We don’t presume that Latin audiences only want to see Latin American art, but it’s important to reflect the composition of the community,” says Govan. Curator Ilona Katzew, who oversees LACMA’s departments of colonial and modern Latin American art, has made a number of high-profile acquisitions. One is an elaborate biombo, an Asian-style screen. Created to satisfy European curiosity about colonial life, it shows a newlywed Indian couple emerging from a church (a sign of successful conversions) into a plaza where townspeople play Aztec games (a signal that pre-Columbian traditions endured).
Only one curator at a major museum in the United States is dedicated exclusively to colonial Latin American art–Donna Pierce, at the Denver Art Museum. The museum began to dominate the field with several significant gifts in the ’30s; more recently, collectors Jan and the late Frederick Mayer donated a wide range of important works, as well as an $11 million endowment for staff and programs. The museum is a major player in the market; one recent acquisition is Joseph Claims Benjamin as His Slave (1700–14), by the coveted Mexican Baroque master Cristóbal de Villalpando. Pierce, who curated a landmark survey of Mexican painting in 2004, is organizing a November symposium on the influence of global trade on the art of the Spanish Americas. “As our country and our culture become more global and diverse, people are more interested in learning about variety,” says Pierce. “The modern focus on diversity is stimulating new interest in Spanish colonial.”
Just over a dozen major U.S. museums have colonial-art galleries, among them the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa. Some of the biggest do not, among them the Art Institute of Chicago and Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Nor does the Brooklyn Museum, despite its excellent holdings, which were used for several groundbreaking colonial-art shows. Nor does the Met, despite some powerhouse exhibitions of its own. It “typifies one kind of area we need to address,” says director Thomas Campbell. “It’s one way to begin to draw in, to become more relevant to, a Latino audience.” However, no expert in the field works at the museum full-time. It “falls between the cracks of departmental boundaries,” Campbell acknowledges.
One reason U.S. curators lagged so far behind their Latin American colleagues in this field is straight-out race and class prejudice, says Joseph Rishel, senior curator of European painting before 1900 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When he was organizing the 2006 exhibition “Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros: The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820,” the first major survey in this country, “the bleeding-martyr business was a problem,” he recounts. “I loved doing the Monty Python thing–to leap out and say, ‘It’s the Spanish Inquisition!'”
“There’s been a certain amount of political hostility to Spanish American art,” says Johanna Hecht, the curator of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Met who co-organized “The Colonial Andes” with Phipps. “There were social associations with low-class Latinos–yet low-class Latinos were condemned for having been exploited. The problem is, it was intentionally obscure.”
U.S. demographics have changed the situation. When the Getty Villa in Malibu opened its first nonclassical show, “The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire,” in March, it proudly noted the timing: the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the centennial of the Mexican revolution. The exhibition, which examines the European reaction to the Aztecs and compares empire-building in both cultures, includes part of the Florentine Codex, a 16th-century encyclopedia of Aztec civilization composed by Friar Bernardino de Sahagíºn. The show’s cocurator, John Pohl, an expert in Aztec and Mixtec codices who worked with Getty antiquities curator Claire L. Lyons, is also co-organizing “Children of the Plumed Serpent: Art and Ritual of Mesoamerica’s Late Antiquity,” scheduled to open next year at LACMA. Spanning the years 1300–1600, the show stresses the continuity of indigenous culture after the conquest, rather than the rupture. “More and more we’re beginning to realize that this colonial period is a forge for an identity that is ultimately expressing itself now in Mexico,” Pohl says.
Colonial art was also marginalized in its countries of origin, particularly after independence, when new national narratives celebrated the pre-Columbian past and rejected the more recent Spanish influence as tainted. Although the tide turned in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 20th that systematic efforts to study, preserve, catalogue, and publish national patrimonies began. But in the United States, programs were few and far between. “In the ’70s and ’80s, those of us who did this were really pioneers,” says Marcus Burke, curator at the Hispanic Society of America in New York.
With Hispanic Society director Mitchell Codding, also an expert in the colonial era, Burke has doubled the museum’s colonial collections over the last decade, snapping up about 50 choice pieces, along with manuscripts and books. One prize is The Wedding at Cana (1693), an exquisite painting on mother-of-pearl by the Mexican artist Nicolí¡s Correa that adapts pre-Columbian techniques and Asian lacquerware styles to European imagery.
Prices in the field are relatively low, but competition is strong. National patrimony laws limit offerings to objects that were exported long ago. “There’s not that much around; you have to hunt it down,” says Cisneros. “That makes it sort of fun.” Other major private collectors include Jan Mayer; Carl and Marilynn Thoma in Chicago, who focus on Andean work; and Roberta and Richard Huber in New York, whose Upper West Side town house is filled with paintings, silver, and sculpture from South America as well as the Philippines.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s regularly offer colonial objects in their Latin American auctions, as well as in other categories, such as “exploration” and applied arts. Popular subjects include the Virgin of Guadalupe–a silver frame with her image sold for $400,000 at Sotheby’s in May 2008. Casta paintings can sell for six figures, says Valery Taylor, whose Denver gallery specializes in colonial art. New York dealer Spencer Throckmorton, who sometimes offers colonial objects, says collectors with Spanish-colonial-style homes in the Southwest are big clients. The auction record is $3.5 million, for a series of eight 17th-century paintings by an anonymous Mexican painter, set at Christie’s London in December 1999.
In museums, the quandary remains where to situate colonial Latin American art. LACMA and Denver integrate it into Latin American art. Boston is the first to group it with American art. Others place it in a European context: that was the case with the recent “Sacred Spain” show at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which made no distinction between Spanish and Latin American works. At the Philadelphia Museum, Rishel plans to install his new Villalpando, Saint Francis Confronts the Antichrist (ca. 1691–95), in the European Baroque galleries. In May, Madrid’s Reina Sofía will up the ante with “Principio Potosí,” the first major show to link colonial art with contemporary work by León Ferrari, Harun Farocki, and others.
Scholars are moving into other, relatively neglected territories. “The Art of the Missions of Northern New Spain, 1600–1821,” cocurated by Mexico-based American art historian Clara Bargellini and Michael Komarecky of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine, arrives at the Oakland Museum of California next February. Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt (who advises Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia on its growing colonial collection) is doing a study of colonial painting from Quito, Ecuador. UCLA associate professor Charlene Villaseñor Black is working on a book about images of female saints and holy personages. Russo, along with former Brooklyn Museum curator Diana Fane and Gerhard Wolf of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, is organizing “Images Take Flight: Mexican Feather Art and Europe 1300–1700,” which will open at the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City later this year. And Mundy and Dana Leibsohn of Smith College are compiling resources on art from all over the Spanish Americas for an educational project called Vistas, which has a Web site and an interactive DVD component (the University of Texas Press will release the DVD this fall).
Meanwhile, at LACMA, Katzew is organizing the first major survey of images both of and by indigenous peoples across Latin America. “It’s kind of amazing, but it hasn’t been done in a show or a book” yet, she says.
That’s the great thing about the field, she adds. “You can just sink your teeth into practically any subject you like, and you’re going to make a major contribution.”
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.