Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 3, 2014
Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions 2014.
Exhibition schedule: Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, August 17, 2013–January 6, 2014
Juana Basilia Sitmelelene. Chumash presentation basket with Spanish colonial coin designs (1815–22). Deer grass, Indian rush, sumac. 24 1/2 in. diameter, 4 in. height. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

This international loan exhibition presents a nuanced understanding of Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra’s life and work in California, contextualizing it within a broader discussion of the Spanish colonial enterprise in New Spain (the formal name of Spanish colonial North America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines, including parts of what is today California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Florida until Mexican independence in 1821). Born in Petra, Mallorca, in 1713, Serra took vows as a Franciscan priest as a young man. Adept at scholarly teaching and writing, he became a professor of philosophy and religion prior to his calling to evangelize in New Spain. Serra arrived in Mexico in 1749 and in 1769 was assigned to California, where he and his successors founded twenty-one Catholic missions from San Diego to Sonoma. Biographers have noted his physical and psychological perseverance, administrative skills, and devout Catholicism, all of which contributed to his central role in the establishment of Spanish colonial rule along California’s coast. Serra was virtually deified by the first of these biographers, fellow missionary Francisco Palóu, an adulation that continued in a subtler fashion with early scholars of mission-era history, including Franciscan historian Maynard Geiger. Exhibition curators Stephen W. Hackel and Catherine Gudis present evidence that challenges these early approaches, allowing visitors to thoughtfully reflect upon Serra’s life and to develop their own conclusions concerning his legacies.

Through paintings, sculptures, documents, maps, ceramics, video, and other media, the exhibition addresses the early cultural and religious influences on Serra’s life and thought, the rich diversity of indigenous cultures that Serra encountered in California, the establishment and eventual secularization of the missions, the romanticization of the mission era and its contribution to the creation and sustaining of the myths of California, and contemporary artistic responses to the mission enterprise. The exhibition is intended for a general audience, and consists of 250 objects borrowed from 60 public and private collections in Spain, Mexico, and the United States, many of them on loan for the first time. Both the quantity and variety of objects attest to the enormity of the mission enterprise. Recent scholarship has addressed portions of this compelling story. Hackel’s Children of Coyote, Missionaries of St. Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769–1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005) is one of the first scholarly works to examine carefully the relationship between the missions, the presidios, and the indigenous peoples the Spaniards encountered during their exploration and settlement of the California coast. Craig H. Russell’s From Serra to Sancho: Music and Pageantry in the California Missions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) documents and analyzes the role of music and liturgical ceremony in the missions. The Arts of the Missions of Northern New Spain, 1600–1821 (Mexico City: Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, 2009), an exhibition catalogue edited by Clara Bargellini and Michael K. Komanecky, contextualizes California mission paintings and sculpture within a larger discussion of mission art in northern Mexico and the American Southwest. However, no recent scholarship or exhibition has attempted what the curators propose here: to give an overview of Serra’s biography, with particular attention to the founding of the California missions; to give voice, through artifacts, to the indigenous people that the missionaries encountered and attempted to convert; and to display the broad range of material culture that appropriated the mission history, mythologized it, and used it to promote a romanticized notion of California that continues through today. Although the range and quantity of the material can be overwhelming to the casual visitor, the exhibition does successfully present and interpret these themes.

The objects are organized both chronologically and geographically in eight galleries. In the introductory gallery, period maps, paintings, and decorative objects highlight the intermingling of Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic Mediterranean cultures in Mallorca, drawing a connection between these cultural encounters, the maritime economy of the island, and the spirit of adventure and exploration that inspired Serra to travel to New Spain. Two blue-glazed ceramic vessels loaned by the Museu de Mallorca emphasize these economies of exchange. A thirteenth-century bowl, ornamented with Arabic calligraphy, is displayed adjacent to a similar fourteenth-century Jewish example, featuring a Star of David. The formal similarity of the bowls and the intentionality of this proximate display intriguingly suggest an interchange of aesthetic ideas on the island and a more cosmopolitan outlook than one might imagine of a late medieval Spanish island province. A posthumous portrait of Serra, painted in 1790 by Mallorcan artist Francesc Caimari Rotger, is the first of multiple visual interpretations of the missionary included in the exhibition. Loaned from the Ayuntamiento de Palma in Palma, Mallorca, the oil painting depicts Serra near the end of his life, garbed in his Franciscan habit, gazing devoutly upon a crucifix. This first encounter with the image of Serra as a pious and quiet follower of Christ gives no indication of the politically astute intelligence that contributed to his ascent through the intellectual hierarchy at Lullian University in Palma, nor does it indicate his boldness in confronting clerical authorities and the crown-appointed political rulers of New Spain.

“Becoming Junípero,” in the following gallery, elaborates on the persons and theologies that influenced Serra to leave academia and serve as a missionary in New Spain. A careful viewing of the texts in this gallery reveals Serra’s early interest in religious imagery and foreshadows his application of that imagery as an aid to conversion. Marginalia drawn in one of his student notebooks depicts the five wounds of Christ, rendered with an emblematic vocabulary. This image suggests that Serra had a knowledge and understanding of Franciscan visual symbols and their use to create meaning. Artisans in the Sierra Gorda region of Mexico, the center of Serra’s first missionary activity, constructed a monumental depiction of this emblem on the facade of the Mission Santiago de Jalpan, a model of which is displayed in the exhibition’s third gallery. The emblem also ornamented the retablo at Mission San Miguel Arcángel, built in central California under the direction of Fr. Fermín Lasuén. Here is a missed opportunity to trace and interrogate the role of imagery—its creation, transformation, and reception—in the California mission enterprise. How were images used in the mission environment, and how were they received by the indigenous Californians, the Spanish military, and the settlers? Serra’s journal recounts that indigenous women residing adjacent to Mission San Gabriel brought offerings to a painting of the Virgin Mary, and that votive gifts were left at the base of the crosses in Northern California. The missionaries found similar offerings at indigenous prayer poles and other sacred sites. Mission era paintings and sculptures in the exhibition would have been an opportunity for fruitful discussions concerning the transference of belief, the role of votive offerings, and notions of hybridity between indigenous and Catholic deities.

Hackel and Gudis, both associate professors of history at the University of California, Riverside, consulted with California Indians, museum curators, and other historians in a conscious attempt to give voice to overlooked constituencies in the traditional Serran narratives. One result of this collaborative process is the display of objects created by the indigenous coastal peoples of California during pre-contact and the mission period—visual evidence of the diversity of media and symbolic imagery employed by indigenous artisans. Especially noteworthy is a presentation basket woven circa 1815–22 by Juana Basilia Sitmelelene, an accomplished Chumash basket maker. The basket, created at the request of the missionaries at Mission San Buenaventura for a visiting Mexican dignitary, is ornamented with a repetitive motif featuring an eighteenth-century Spanish coin, and is signed around the rim by its creator. On loan from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, this fine, rare, and extremely large basket raises intriguing questions concerning the missionaries’ employment of indigenous artisans for the production of aesthetic objects in the California mission economy, European versus native Californian notions of authorship, practices of gift exchange, and the means by which European images were transferred to and transformed by indigenous artists. More extensive wall panels throughout the exhibition would have been helpful to investigate some of these questions, providing even more voice to indigenous artists.

Given such an ambitious and biography-based narrative program, it is not surprising that the paintings, sculptures, prints, and liturgical objects are presented as texts, with their imagery frequently used to create and support the narrative arc of Serra’s life. The installation of these objects within their original liturgical contexts and the responses of mission neophytes to them are rarely addressed in the exhibition. For example, the walls of the fifth and largest gallery’s expansive space display exceptional examples of mission-era paintings, nearly all from California mission collections. The most compositionally sophisticated and iconographically rich of these is a monumental Last Judgment, painted by Mexican artist José Joaquin Escuíbel circa 1790 for Mission San Diego de Alcalá and now in the collection of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia. What responses did the Franciscans hope to elicit from indigenous neophytes by its liturgical display? Serra was well aware of the power of images to assist in conversion and support traditional Catholic teachings, as noted in many of his letters to his superiors in Mexico City. A more informed elucidation of the performative power of these objects, and how that power may have been subverted and challenged by Native California neophytes and artists, would have been a welcome addition to the textual discourse of the wall panels in the exhibition.

The final three galleries explore the legacies of the mission enterprise, which came to an end in the 1830s after Mexican independence. The missions were secularized, and with the collapse of the mission economic systems, many fell into ruins. In the “Legacies” gallery, an evocative 1875 oil painting, Carmel Mission on San Carlos Day by Jules Tavernier, depicts Mission San Carlos Borroméo, its stone walls softened by the glow of sunset. A small procession of friars and worshippers winds its way into the mission church. The church’s interior is illuminated by a radiance that replicates the warm colors on the horizon, suggesting the demise of the mission and its way of life while foreshadowing the romanticism that would soon dominate the narrative of the mission enterprise in the popular imagination. Cases display early to mid-twentieth-century brochures, orange crate labels, maps of the “Mission Trails” auto route, and photographs and programs from mission-themed pageants. These cases present unequivocal evidence of the sentimentalized narratives that created the mission mythology and document this myth’s contribution to agricultural marketing, tourism, and education.

Several contemporary video installations grapple with the current legacies of the mission era. Especially notable is Spanish Caprice, created and lent by film artists Jesse Lerner and Rubén Ortiz Torres. A section of a 1995 work entitled Frontierland/Frontierlandia, the film explores the notions of the California missions in popular American culture through a careful editing of vintage films of twentieth-century mission revival pageants and parades and serves as a striking critique of the dominant culture’s appropriation of the myths of the California Indian. It is disconcerting to watch Anglo Americans costumed as indigenous Californians, waving from a parade float to delighted crowds, and demonstrates the myopia concerning native Californians and their way of life that dominated the popular imagination only several decades ago. Located on an adjacent wall is a slide show created and lent by cultural commentator Charles Phoenix. Family snapshots, most from the mid-twentieth century, depict tourists posed in front of the missions. Unlike much of the period art in the exhibition, these installations need no additional explicatory text. They are presentations of the vestiges of the colonial enterprise and its sanitization for popular consumption in the twentieth century.

The objects in the exhibition are thoughtfully and expertly displayed. Despite their large quantity and the diversity of their media, they create a meaningful narrative, challenging viewers to come to their own conclusions concerning Serra and his work in California. The exhibition would have been well served by an accompanying catalogue. Unfortunately, none was produced. However, the interested viewer will appreciate Hackel’s recently published biography of the missionary, Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013), as well as the work of the California Mission Studies Association, a nonprofit organization that advances, through its annual conferences and journal, Boletín, the multi-disciplinary field of California mission studies.

Holly Anne Mitchem
PhD student, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley

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