Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 31, 2007
Joseph J. Rishel The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820 Exh. cat. Philadelphia and New Haven: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2006. 592 pp.; 431 color ills.; 45 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0300120036)
Exhibition schedule: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820, banner-titled “Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros,” September 20–December 31, 2006; Colegio de San Ildefonso, Mexico City, Revelaciones, subtitled Las Artes in América Latina, 1492–1820, February 6–June 30, 2007; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820, August 1–October 28, 2007

In her essay for the monumental catalogue accompanying the exhibition The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820, Clara Bargellini writes, “The mere thought of attempting to comprehend in some sort of unified way all of the art, or even only the painting of colonial Latin America, provokes a sense of exhaustion” (322). Whereas most recent exhibitions of colonial art have taken what curator Joseph Rishel calls a “vertical” approach by focusing on a single nation, this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue aim for horizontal coverage, addressing the Spanish viceroyalties and the Portuguese colony of Brazil. The material likewise transcends boundaries between high art and craft, presenting the broad viceregal visual culture. The results are an exhibition—or better said, exhibitions, as the pieces at each venue varied—assembled from works housed today in sixteen nations in Europe and the Americas, and a catalogue contributed to by fifty-five authors similarly spread throughout three continents.

In his preface, Rishel calls the exhibition and its catalogue a “completely synthetic experiment, an attempt to step back and view three hundred years of art-making over a vast geographic area.” The show aimed for a “different perspective” that permitted “reflections on the importance of the works of art on view in relationship to one another and their implications (in this context) well beyond the immediate concerns of art history” (xviii–xix). The catalogue’s forward by the directors of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art additionally identifies the exhibition’s goal to offer a panorama of the “rich interaction and creativity” of colonial Latin American art (xii). These prefatory materials make clear that the organizers and sponsoring institutions wanted first to put the array of works before the viewer, then see how the resulting juxtapositions spoke to each other and how they raised questions. While this approach paid great benefits at the exhibition venues, it left the catalogue with a somewhat undefined purpose.

The first section of the catalogue contains seven essays that set the stage for the objects to follow. Rishel’s chapter examines the critical history of colonial Latin American art, summarizing the scholarship on the topic through the 1960s. The chapter also briefly addresses the history of collecting and exhibiting viceregal work in Spain and the Americas. The next essay considers the early contact era in the Spanish viceroyalties, and its authors Elizabeth Hill Boone and Thomas B.F. Cummins embrace the museum directors’ desire to show interaction and creativity. They offer examples of Amerindian artists and mendicant clergy negotiating emergent colonial contexts in New Spain and Peru to produce art synthesizing native and Christian iconographies in local idioms. The third chapter, by Alfonso Ortiz Crespo, addresses the formation of Spanish colonial cities. Ortiz reviews the breadth of urban plans found in the Americas and summarizes the practices of their foundation and construction. The essay provides occasional glimpses of the life of viceregal cities—how the spaces permitted the performance of identity or the exercise of state authority, for example—an approach that has much to recommend it in the scholarship of Magali Carrera and Linda Curcio-Nagy.

With the fourth chapter, the catalogue starts a sequence of essays on the African, Asian, and Spanish influences on and relationships with colonial artistic production (indigenous participation having been addressed earlier by Boone and Cummins). Edward Sullivan begins the series with a review of the representation of Africans in Brazilian and Caribbean art. He also addresses the participation of Africans in artistic production, and the idea of the African as manifested in colonial culture. Sullivan deftly avoids essentializing discussions of an ill-defined “African influence” and instead offers a thoughtful overview of issues involving African artists and images.

Gauvin Alexander Bailey’s essay follows a similar approach, summarizing the presence of Asian goods and peoples in Spanish America. It also examines colonial perceptions of Asia and the cultural convergence of Eastern, Amerindian, and Western forms and materials. His essay includes an excellent example of the interaction and creativity the catalogue seeks to promote. Bailey uses a small sculpture of St. Anne to illustrate his discussion of Asian art created for an export market. Its ivory head and hands were sculpted in Goa and its wooden body was made by a Brazilian sculptor. The object consequently references colonization in Asia and the Americas, trans-Pacific trade in luxury goods and possibly trans-Atlantic trade in people, artistic negotiation on two continents, and the work’s reception by Brazil’s elite patrons and multi-ethnic society (not to mention the post-colonial history of the object, which now resides in Argentina). This small sculpture represents the complexity inherent in Latin American colonial art, and the interactions and creativity that went into its making and use.

Although it would have been a rewarding addition to the catalogue to include an analysis of images of Europeans, as well as an examination of the idea of Europeans and European imports from the colonial perspective (the latter a topic that Luisa Elena Alcalá continues to address through her research of the procuradores charged with gathering material support for Latin American Jesuits), Marcus Burke’s essay on the formation of urban schools departs from Sullivan’s and Bailey’s model. Following a brief, critical historiographic review, Burke argues that the formation of European-style art schools in viceregal cities “must be understood as paralleling developments within the European cultural sphere, analogous to provincial schools within Europe itself (for example, Bohemia or Poland)—neither an alien phenomenon nor a merely derivative imitation of Spanish art” (73). Some colonial art historians will object to this characterization and find little that sixteenth-century New Spain had in common with Bohemia. Burke himself acknowledges substantial differences between the experiences in central New Spain and the Andean highlands. The essay nevertheless makes the valuable point that urban schools departed very early from European models and responded instead to the tastes of local patrons.

Following María Concepción García Sáiz’s thorough summary of artists’ practices, the detailing of objects begins with decorative arts. Like the catalogue’s other six parts (textiles, Hispanic silver, Brazilian silver, sculpture, painting, and furniture), this section addressing ceramics, laquerware, kero cups, painted shell-inlay images known as enconchados, and other small wares is preceded by an essay on their histories and techniques. Mitchell Codding handily introduces readers to the diversity of wares and manufacturing processes practiced in the Spanish colonies. Individual objects within this cluster are then discussed either in separate entries or in groups, such as in Margaret Connors McQuade’s two strong mini-essays on ceramics.

Other parts of the catalogue follow a similar model. The section on textiles presents a particularly strong pairing of Dilys Blum’s highly informative chapter on materials and processes and Gridley McKim-Smith’s social history of dress in colonial Spanish America. Silver is separated into Spanish colonial and Brazilian sections with corresponding essays and entries. Marjorie Trustead’s essay on sculpture expertly synthesizes a huge topic, but cries out for a companion chapter on Brazil’s talented and fascinating sculptor O Aleijandinho. Adrian Locke’s interesting historical study of sacred landscapes and pilgrimage sites accompanying Trusted’s essay lacks the emphasis on visual culture that would link it to the object entries that follow. The section addressing painting is the most ample, with excellent essays by Clara Bargellini and Ilona Katzew on, respectively, the history of colonial painting and the representation of Amerindians in New Spanish art. The final section on furniture, containing one short essay and twenty-six object entries, is tucked into the back of the catalogue and precedes a thorough chronology of Latin American colonial history and the biographies of selected artists.

Although beautiful and filled with scholarship by established and younger experts in the field, the catalogue would benefit from editorial attention. Organization, for example, is frequently hard to discern. In some sections, such as the one on decorative arts, objects are grouped chronologically by country whereas in other areas there seems to be no organizational strategy. By the same token, the essays, mini-essays, and entries frequently cover the same ground; the estofado technique of simulating brocade fabric with gold leaf and paint, for example, is explained repeatedly. While contributing authors should not be expected to know what has already been covered adequately, editorial review should eliminate this repetition. Likewise, it is unclear why the groupings of entries into highly successful mini-essays happen in some places and not in others, particularly when the entries on individual objects reprise the same information.

Other aspects of the catalogue that go unacknowledged and unexplained are more substantial. Although there are many Brazilian items within the corpus of objects, Brazil is only sporadically discussed in the text. Beyond Nuno Senos’s and Edward Sullivan’s good work, the remainder of the essays and mini-essays offer little more than a sentence or two on Brazil; the object entries for Brazilian pieces are usually the shortest in the catalogue. This is of course not the fault of the authors whose expertise lie in the Spanish viceroyalties of New Spain, Peru, La Plata, or Nueva Granada. Nevertheless, with more than one quarter of the catalogue’s examples of sculpture from Brazil, the relative paucity of writing about Brazilian issues stands out. Likewise, five out of twenty-six pieces of furniture in the catalogue are Brazilian, yet the essay on furniture draws all of its primary resources from Spanish colonies: Pre-Columbian seats from Peru and Venezuela, Guaman Poma de Ayala’s and Tovar’s illustrations, and “El Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega’s descriptions. After the preface’s declaration that the exhibition and catalogue offered “a completely pan-American colonial survey” (xvii), the reader is left to wonder why the book has so little to say about Brazil.

Another unacknowledged aspect of the book is the rich methodological and theoretical diversity of its essays; several authors used the opportunity to reflect upon the nature of cultural interaction and how to write about it. Sullivan, for example, recommends that the material culture of Africans in the Americas be approached through objects as well as via transplanted persons’ memories of how objects functioned in Africa, their materials, and their purpose. Burke identifies distinctions between the approaches to colonial art as practiced by scholars trained in Pre-Columbian art and by specialists more focused on European or Latin American urban schools. Cristina Esteras Martín advocates a pluralistic approach to the confrontation and interaction of cultures, as colonization occurred by degrees and in distinct ways from place to place. The catalogue would have benefited from bringing this critical role to the reader’s attention, explaining that exhibitions such as The Arts in Latin America reveal the diverse working methods and theoretical approaches practiced in colonial art history.

With a purpose no more specific than a “synthetic experiment,” the catalogue leaves the reader to discern what the text is (versus the exhibition) and what it accomplishes. Had the organizers taken the time to look at their catalogue as a book, they would undoubtedly have seen its strengths and weaknesses. Fortunately, Bargellini took the opportunity provided by her essay on painting to reflect on the exhibition’s and catalogue’s endeavor, writing: “With so many inviting problems and questions [in the field of colonial art history], whether we will ever make sense of it all as a whole is cause for celebration rather than concern” (333). Despite specific criticisms of aspects of the catalogue, the book and its component essays and entries are worth celebrating.

Kelly Donahue-Wallace
Professor, Department of Art History, University of North Texas