Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 6, 2022
M. Elizabeth Boone “The Spanish Element in Our Nationality”: Spain and America at the World’s Fairs and Centennial Celebrations, 1876–1915 University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2020. 272 pp.; 20 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780271083315)

In the past decade more scholars have abandoned an understanding of history based on contemporary political borders to embrace an understanding centering on the historical entanglement of empires. Such entanglement has resulted in our present power relations among nations in the Americas. Art historian M. Elizabeth Boone’s “The Spanish Element in Our Nationality” is an example of this shift in historical approaches, which complements work by scholars such as April Lee Hatfield, Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Katherine Manthorne, and Maggie M. Cao. More significantly, with its emphasis on the history of world’s fairs, this book creates a narrative where technology, art, science, and politics all intersect to paint a picture of Spain’s global positioning during the years preceding and following the Spanish American War (1898). From the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 to the California fairs of 1915, Boone traces Spain’s precarious positioning in global politics by way of analyzing its architectural details, painting traditions, and literary connections.

Of particular importance is Boone’s analysis of the architectural styles that the Iberian country chose for each expo. The articulation of a Spanish national identity through ephemeral architecture played out in the eyes of international audiences. The fall of the Spanish empire in the late nineteenth century brought forth a need to develop a national identity that integrated strong regionalisms. As noted by Boone, while strong regional identities “may not always imply weak national ones,” the fact remained that increasing mobility and cosmopolitanism “were certainly making circumscribed and unilaterally homogenous notions of national identity less viable” (50).

With an impressive use of archival sources, “The Spanish Element in Our Nationality” is rooted in tracing not only the aesthetic contributions of the United States and Spain but also their political and bellicose activities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book reads like a precarious saga of war where each architectural element in Spanish pavilions had consequences beyond the negative critiques of experts and journalists. Chapter 3, titled “Marginalizing Spain (and Embracing Cuba) at the 1893 Columbian Exposition,” for instance, narrates a game of chess where the United States, Cuba, and Spain, through agricultural displays, position themselves as ready for war.

At the intersection of politics and taste that permeated every periodical regarding the Spanish presence in these expos, the dis/integration of Islamic elements in Spanish nationalism was always at stake. In its attempt to articulate the legacy of its colonial power, Spain opted to display its Moorish roots where “their architectural spaces coalesce around the year 1492, bringing together the notions of peninsular unification, Columbus’ discovery of America, and North Africa” (104). In other words, as the United States and Europe’s marginalization of Spain played out in real time inside and outside the international expos, Spain carried out its own marginalization project by articulating Moorish architecture divorced from its former Islamic spiritual components. The details of Mudejar architecture history are overlooked by the author, who instead focuses on the ways in which this style was used to display regional identity. (The term “Mudejar” derives from mudajjan in Arabic, meaning “permitted to remain,” a phrase referring to the explusion of Muslims from Spain.) In the Americas, the history of Mudejar architecture dates back to sixteenth-century mendicant spaces and their violent use for forced spiritual conversion purposes. The style denoted reconquista (reconquest)—a way for the Iberian crown to display how the new world order was based on what the scholar Ramón Grosfoguel has called “epistemicide”; in this case, the process entailed the extermination of knowledge and ways of knowing of non-Catholic religions. Conversely, Boone demonstrates how these late manifestations of Orientalism are exploited by the United States to further marginalize Spain’s position outside the new imperial forces of the changing world.

Boone’s important architectural analysis is complemented by her readings of the political role of painting in the expos. For instance, Armando Garcia Menocal (1863–1942), a Cuban painter trained at the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, entered the 1893 Columbian Exposition with an image that portrayed the unpopular theme of Columbus being led back to Spain for a criminal trial after his arrest in the Indies. Boone details how Menocal compromised his original composition by erasing the chains he had previously placed on Columbus’s feet by petition of the Spanish commissioner-general. Subtleties like these abound in Boone’s research, crafting a very compelling case for the precarious state in which Spain found itself at the turn of the twentieth century. Her discussion regarding the disdain toward Spanish artists who painted colonial US history themes for the Philadelphia International Exhibition showcases how the prevalent white Anglo-Saxon Protestant origin myth of the thirteen colonies had spread throughout the United States—effectively erasing the influence of other European colonial forces in the fabric of the nation. Simultaneously, this dynamic reveals the loyalties the United States sought to maintain as it furthered its empire into the Caribbean.

One of the most compelling arguments present in the book is Boone’s brilliant analysis of the popularity of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona in relation to the San Diego Panama-California Exposition of 1915. This discussion, the high point of the last chapter, highlights how the imagined Spanishness of California ran in direct opposition to Jackson’s empathetic pretensions surrounding Native people’s displacement, enslavement, and erasure. Taking notes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jackson created an aura of empathy in which “miscegenation” filled the imagination of millions of peoples around the world. With the incorporation of literary analysis, Boone demonstrates how Spain had finally found its place in the United States’s popular imaginary.

By contrast, the author’s analysis of Christopher Columbus and his exaltation at world’s fairs comes without a thorough contextualization of his violent legacies. Any discussion of Columbus’s encounter with the Taíno people should be framed around the reality of the Native genocide that ensued. And while this book does show the erasure of Spain’s role in the origin of US national history, an examination of the legacy of Iberian conquest through monuments to Columbus is missing. More specifically, an analysis of the ways in which marginalized Italian US citizens coopted this historical figure and its reflection in coeval monuments is necessary. However, timing is everything, and at the time of the book’s publication, monuments to Columbus began to fall all over the world. As art historian Kirsten Pai Buick notes, “At the heart of ‘American democracy’ and ‘American freedom,’ there is a shameful rot, which public monuments ‘labor’ to paper over in order to present our struggles and conflicts as resolved and settled.” As of October 2021, 149 statues of Columbus still stand in the United States—speaking directly to his unresolved and conflicting legacy reflected in this book. Further, Boone’s limited acknowledgment of the violence inflicted upon Indigenous peoples, which, in my opinion, constitutes a large part of the Spanish element in our nationality, confirms Buick’s notion of the myth of “settled conflict.” More precisely, a critical approach to the colonial legacies that the Spanish empire inaugurated throughout the continent could have had the potential to enrich the disciplines to which this book directly speaks: namely, American and Latin American art history.

The last chapter, “Using Spain to Ignore Mexicans at the 1915 California Fairs,” is a fascinating read that details the US dismantling of Spanish ruling systems in a state that dismisses its overwhelmingly Mexican and Spanish-speaking workforce. In the introduction, Boone states that “making a connection between contemporary Latinx experience and the past is one of the challenges and aspirations of this book” (11). However, the inclusion of Mexicans in the closing section feels like an afterthought, given the lack of analysis of violence against First Nations people and other people of color in the rest of the book.

“The Spanish Element in Our Nationality” is a valuable addition to the history of world expos, as well as a welcome contribution to the history of Spanish architecture and its manifestations outside of the Iberian Peninsula. As noted earlier, the book adds to the growing trend of understanding the history of the Americas after 1492 via the entanglement of empires. However, a more critical approach to the legacies of Spanish “conquest” and empire are necessary to truly flesh out how the Iberian Peninsula shaped the United States and the world at large. 

Emmanuel Ortega
Department of Art History, University of Illinois at Chicago