Installed amid the ornate rooms of the Palacio Real here was the remarkable Escenas de la conquista de México (Scenes from the Conquest of Mexico), an 18-foot-long folding screen painted by an anonymous artist sometime around 1690. One side of the screen depicts the capture and destruction of the indigenous capital by the Spanish conquistadores, and on the other is an isometric plan of the recently established capital of New Spain. The symbolism of the object itself could hardly have been more apt in embodying the complexity of the transatlantic encounter: seen from one side, a brutal, self-glorifying tale of rape and pillage, while seen from the other a document of Renaissance Europe’s development of classically oriented, enlightened, grid-based city planning in the New World. At the same time, according to the excellent catalogue accompanying this extraordinary show, the presence of the folding screen itself illustrates yet another cultural transfer: such screens had originated in Japan, were later brought to the Philippines (at the time part of the Spanish empire), and ultimately spread to the Americas.
Divided between the Palacio Real and the Prado Museum, this exhibition, subtitled “Shared Identities in the Hispanic World,” abounded in such moments of kaleidoscopic history, evidenced, for instance, by a jarring representation of an archangel skillfully brandishing a European-style firearm of the period. At the same time it built a compelling art historical explanation for the role of art in the processes of transfer and transformation of culture in the Spanish sphere. Curated by Jonathan Brown, a professor at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, the show charted developments in painting from 1550 to 1720 in the Spanish New World holdings (known as viceroyalties), and placed those developments into the context of the artistic currents that flowed freely throughout Europe at the time. The overarching argument is thorough and rigorous: that Europe’s dynamic structure of artistic exchange was channeled via Spain to the New World, where the same dynamic continued but under different conditions and with different ingredients. This ultimately gave rise to a common visual language that was key to the implementation of Catholic culture throughout the Americas.
For example, in a small curatorial tour de force, the exhibition presented a sequence of works on a single compositional theme, the Archangel Michael. There was a 1581 print by Hieronymus Wierix after a painting by Flemish Mannerist Martin de Vos; a 1631 version in oil on canvas, derived more or less faithfully from Wierix’s print, by Cristóbal Vela Cobo and painted in New Spain; and a slightly later version, painted for a church in Peru by an anonymous artist, that included the startling addition, tucked into one of the earlier composition’s shadows, of an indigenous woman in native dress praying to the luminescent archangel. The individual works were nothing less than first-rate, each in its own way, while the brief sequence served as a microcosm of the exhibition as a whole.