Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 3, 2008
Marjorie Trusted The Arts of Spain: Iberia and Latin America, 1450–1700 University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press in association with Victoria and Albert Museum, 2007. 256 pp.; 167 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Paper $47.50 (9780271033372)

This is an excellent book. Its virtues are that it offers an overview of the painting, sculpture, architecture, and luxury arts of Iberia; furthermore, it is highly reliable. Between the footnotes and the bibliography, it contains a trustworthy list of existing publications on Spanish and Portuguese art, a list that registers the history of Iberia with depth and balanced judgment. For example, Trusted does not carelessly assert that in the sixteenth century Muslims fled Spain for the Americas, where they created Islamic-derived ceilings, tiles, leather hangings, and carpets. Instead she wisely notes that the artists who created these items may not have been Muslim at all and “some of the work in this style may have been executed by Andalucíans drawing nostalgically on traditions they knew from their own region of Spain” (123).

This text makes a serious commitment to historiography. The preface summarizes the typologies of the history of Spanish art, and throughout the subsequent discussion, the reader is always given welcome references to the state of knowledge and how that knowledge was constructed. Historical and political data consistently anchor the discussion of the art; for instance, in chapter 3 we learn that, “The Jews preceded the Christians in the Peninsula, having arrived perhaps as early as the 3rd century BCE, and certainly by the 2nd century CE” (110). Even common tags are clarified. In the introduction, a paragraph is devoted to the term siglo de oro or “Golden Age,” and Trusted explains, with appropriate bibliography, that the term began to be used in the late nineteenth century for the literary, artistic, and political production accompanying the Habsburg monarchs who ruled from ca. 1500 to 1700. She makes a refinement to the conventional dates, explaining that she is shifting the beginning to around 1450 in order to register some objects and monuments, particularly architecture, that will have an enduring impact.

In chapters 1 and 2, Trusted immediately explains one of the crucial markers of Spanish art: the centrality of religious and specifically Catholic subject matter. She makes a careful effort to downplay sensational examples of fanaticism. Instead she shows that Church members acted out their human emotions in a variety of ways, some of which modern consumers may identify with, as when a parish committee threatened a potentially tardy contractor, Bartolomé Bermejo, with excommunication if he did not finish the great retablo of Santo Domingo de Silos on time (25). Showing less sympathy for more drastic actions, she points out that Ferdinand and Isabella re-established the Inquisition in 1478 to police Jews (25), and she illustrates the blood-chilling preparations for the execution of two heretics in Pedro Berruguete’s Auto de Fé of ca. 1490–1500 (119).

From the title The Arts of Spain: Iberia and Latin America, 1450–1700 one expects that this book will deal equally with art in both peninsular Spain and its Latin American colonies. Actually the text focuses emphatically on Spain and offers a minimal discussion of the arts in Central and South America. Its point is not to discuss Latin American art for its own sake, but to describe those works as examples of Iberian art. Throughout the book Trusted is concerned to recognize Spain’s centrality as an artistic empire: “From about 1500 to 1700 Spain was a major European power . . . yet Iberian art, paradoxically, was and is still seen as being on the periphery of Europe; the purpose of this book is to examine whether such a perception is warranted” (20). Uniting a focus on historiography with attention to the fortuna of Spanish art, the book also registers a reception history that starts with travelers’ accounts, includes collectors’ choices, and continues with observations by visitors over time as they assessed the art and the nation, locating the stereotypes that still adhere to the paintings, sculptures, and architecture.

When she deals with the status of Spanish art over time, Trusted’s mission may be conditioned by her European perspective when she implies that Spanish artistry has been marginalized. From America things look a little different. On this side of the Atlantic, Spanish art has gone from being an insignificant presence in the 1950s to becoming a co-equal player with the art of Europe, and major exhibitions have been staged in North American museums not only for El Greco, Velázquez, Zurbarán, Murillo, and Goya, but also for the works surrounding a less famous patron like Philip III. His reign produced creations from painters and sculptors who were once seen as nonentities, like Juan Bautista Maíno, Francisco Ribalta, Juan Sánchez Cotán, Juan Martínez Montañés, Gregorio Fernández, and Juan van der Hamen, but who have recently been exhibited as serious talents (El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III, curated by Sarah Schroth and Ronni Baer, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, April 20–July 27, 2008 and the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, August 21–November 9, 2008 [click here for exhibition review]). This upturn in Spain’s critical fortunes has extended to Latin America, but the attention to that area is driven by a specific agenda in the United States, where changing demography has made it urgent to understand the culture of the millions of immigrants and Latinos now residing there.

As every Spanish schoolchild knows, 1492 marked three great events in Iberia: the expulsion of the Jews, the conquest of Muslim Granada, and Columbus’s discovery of America. It is that last event, the acquisition of vast territories in the Western Hemisphere, that North and South Americans may be most anxious to read about in Trusted’s survey. Yet until those readers understand the book’s stated agenda, it will confuse them to see Mexican, Brazilian, and Peruvian works used to explicate Spain, not to comment on Latin America. Trusted ends the book as she began it, by asking whether the term Hispanic has meaning, and she concludes that a sizeable number of disparate objects “have to be considered as part of the Iberian tradition” (204). Obviously foreign-born artists such as El Greco, who worked in Spain for almost a lifetime, will be called Hispanic. Yet she admits that labels can be complicated: “Oriental designs inspired Peruvian textiles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which were themselves a combination of indigenous traditions” (204). Nevertheless these textiles are discussed as Hispanic.

In choosing a European focus, Trusted is not betraying any personal bias; elsewhere she has done superb research on the arts of Latin America (see her “Exotic Devotion: Sculpture in Viceregal America and Brazil, 1520–1820,” in Joseph J. Rishel The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2006, 248–257 [click here for book review]). Given that this is a book focused on the mother country rather than the colonies, Trusted faces the challenge of assessing the characteristics of the art produced under Iberian patronage. Ultimately she argues that these objects became “part of the Iberian tradition” (204), so she includes the beautiful eighteenth-century ivory statuette of the Virgin and Child now in the Victoria and Albert, a carving that was perhaps inspired by engravings from Spain’s Flemish colonies but probably was actually carved by either an artist in the Philippines or in Zhangzhou in Fujian Province in China: “the swing of the drapery and contrapposto stance are European, recalling the work of Andalucían sculptors such as Martínez Montañés. . . . The composition reflects Chinese ivory depictions of the fertility goddess Gwan Yin with her child Zen-Zai. Interestingly, however, it was the Christian figures of the Virgin and Child that influenced those of Gwan Yin rather than the reverse” (201–2).

It is difficult to situate national identity within transnational empires, because vast imperial domains encompass regions with a variety of artistic traditions. The question invites a discussion of style, but as Trusted points out, the Spanish claimed possessions too vast for stylistic consistency: lands in Northern Europe, Italy, and the Mediterranean; in China and the Philippines; in North, Central, and South America plus the Caribbean. Similarly Portugal, which was intermittently part of Spain, conquered territories in Africa and India, and claimed the enormous South American region of Brazil.

I suspect my students will have diverse interests when they sign up to study Spain and its colonies, though I imagine they will want to study the colonies as much as Spain. Despite its European agenda, I will assign The Arts of Spain: Iberia and Latin America, 1450–1700 as a textbook. My disappointment in the somewhat misleading title is in not finding a fuller treatment of colonial art from California to the Straits of Magellan. This may only demonstrate that a huge geographical area still needs a well-illustrated, beautifully researched, up-to-date publication—a book that meets the impressive scholarly standards of the Iberian volume here under review.

Gridley McKim-Smith
Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Department of History of Art, Bryn Mawr College