Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 1, 2006
Gauvin Alexander Bailey Art of Colonial Latin America New York: Phaidon, 2005. 448 pp.; 240 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (0714841579)
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Something there is that doesn’t love the survey of art history textbook. Just as with Robert Frost’s more pentametric unloved wall, everyone has a different opinion of just what it should keep in, or keep out. It’s a statistical fact that very few of the many aspiring tomes published in this category succeed in being accepted as required reading in big-enrollment introductory courses, thus rewarding underpaid professors with long-term royalty income. Even more discouraging to the hopeful authors, and unlike the never irrelevant and always assignable monograph even when out of print, the survey text once remaindered is no longer read at all. College library stacks are cluttered with such forgotten volumes, abandoned to yellow away in dusty oblivion.

Furthermore, rarely do such efforts, even those that have enjoyed sales success, rise to the level of good literature. When I think of all the popular surveys I’ve assigned in my fifty years of teaching art history, from Robb & Garrison, through Gardner, Jansen, and Hartt, only E.H. Gombrich’s Story of Art, originally published in 1950, with over six million copies sold so far and now in its record sixteenth reprinting, is a true literary gem. In spite of its controversial Eurocentric content, it can be read and re-read just for the enjoyment of its elegant writing.

But now, eureka! The survey by Gauvin Bailey here under review has, in my seasoned opinion, truly reached a literary level worthy of Gombrich. Even though Art of Colonial Latin America is restricted to the architecture, painting, and sculpture of North and South America under Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) colonial rule (covering two continents where Gombrich concentrated on just half of one!), Bailey manages to achieve the same magisterial sweep, opening with a brief but keen overview of the arts of ancient indigenous civilizations that flourished here for some two millennia before 1492, and then demonstrating how these were assimilated and amalgamated during the three centuries of imposed European Renaissance/Baroque culture, a process still resilient to this day. Just as Gombrich’s great book captured the imagination of so many young idealists yearning to believe that Western art, descending collectively from a common classical heritage, could be the glue to help remend Europe after the devastation of World War II, so Bailey’s book sets the stage for understanding the cultural complexities of “new world” Latin America, this time descending from an unlikely mixture of indigenous and foreign traditions. Bailey’s survey is especially timely since this heretofore ignored subject is now attracting ever more students, and being increasingly recognized for its political as well as aesthetic importance by art history departments all across the United States and even Europe.

His is not only a superb survey, but one of the most engaging art history books I’ve ever read on any subject. With impressive knowledge of pre- and post-conquest art in both Meso- and South America—particularly the latter—the author has sympathetically, but without the current jargon of “victim” politics, related the indigenous cultural voice to that of the Spanish and Portuguese colonists in a vast bi-continental panorama from Chilean Patagonia—where the natural environment encouraged the colonial Catholic churches to be built of wooden shingles, looking remarkably like their northern latitude clapboard counterparts in Protestant New England—to the United States Southwest—where native adobe was employed by the early Spanish missionaries in equally creative, environmental- and ethnic-friendly ways.

As did Gombrich, Bailey has wisely chosen to present his huge subject by way of overarching cultural themes rather than simply dividing it into geographical or chronological chapter headings. Indeed, after a provocative introduction discussing the knotty problem of stylistic labels (more on this later), his initial two chapters, titled “First Encounters” and “Eyeing the Other,” offer a fascinating comparison of indigenous American and European cultures before the conquest, with all their native ideological prejudices and stylistic peculiarities, and then their confrontation and struggling attempts to come to terms with each other in the first century after 1492. Bailey here claims unequivocally what he will describe in well-turned phrases and well-chosen images throughout the rest of the book: “The product of a unique collaboration between Europeans and non-Europeans of every walk of life, the art and architecture of the Iberian Empires in America during the three-century colonial period is one of humanity’s greatest and most pluralistic achievements (19),” and then in a rejoinder to those who view the colonization of the Americas as an entirely negative experience: “Few realize that Spanish America enjoyed relative peace for almost the entire three centuries of its colonial era—a time when Europe was embroiled in some of the bloodiest battles of its history” (63).

Chapters 3 and 4, “The Image of Empire” and “Making Art,” spell out the specific Iberian influences on the arts of various regions of South and Central America from the seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries—the differences, for instance, between Portuguese Brazil and Paraguay, and the neighboring Spanish dominions. While the colonial styles are clearly Renaissance and Baroque inspired (that is, according to the conventional European classification), such general labels, Bailey points out, are at best elusive in the Americas where idiosyncratic adaptations abound, often, as he says, “in chronological anarchy” (16). In truth, the Baroque in Latin America achieved its own uniqueness, especially during the eighteenth century, when it metamorphosed into the “Ultrabaroque,” a quirky, wildly decorative style once called “Churrigueresque” after the Spanish architectural family famous for a similar Rococo-like variant in Spain.

In the next three chapters, “Idols and Altars,” “A Divine Splendor,” and “Town and Country,” the author argues that the real determinant of stylistic difference in the various regions of the colonial Americas had to do with “center and periphery,” whether the art and architecture was created in the more sophisticated, and thus Europeanized, urban centers or in the provincial countryside where indigenous influences remained strong. The unique convento missions erected by the Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, and later Jesuit orders throughout the colonies during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are prime examples of “country” architecture since they were mostly built and decorated by indigenous craftsman who freely mixed traditional techniques and motifs with the new styles they often had just learned and only partially understood. In contrast, the grand cathedrals, churches, and government palaces of the metropolitan centers like Mexico City, Quito, Lima, and Salvador, Brazil, were built mostly in the seventeenth and eighteenth century by educated architects as skilled as any in Europe. Similarly, town and country affected the building of domestic structures in the same way, especially of the well-to-do who, no matter where they lived, surrounded themselves with artifacts for aesthetic pleasure and to impress their guests in their secular quarters, and as indispensable personal aids for private worship in their family chapels. As Bailey observes, "It is important that we acknowledge how deeply works of art were woven into the fabric of people’s daily lives. As we usually see these sculptures, paintings, and other objects in the sanitized setting of a museum or as pictures in a book, we tend to overlook their social and religious context . . . whether the decoration of a church or house. . . . People worshipped or meditated in front of statues or paintings of the saints, touching and anointing them. . . . An image of a saint was often a powerful symbol of community identity as any modern flag or coat of arms, a fundamental association with place that is irredeemably lost when the statue or painting is taken out of context” (12). In truth, the almost idolatrous attitude toward works of art by Iberian Catholics in colonial America was amazingly similar to the attitudes of the indigenous population regarding their own pagan artifacts, which no doubt helped to ease their remarkable assimilation.

Bailey’s last chapter, “The Renaissance Abroad,” reviews again the extraordinary spread of Iberian architecture and art beyond the Americas to the Philippines, Japan, China, India, and Africa, much of it promoted by the Jesuits, a subject he covered in detailed length in his excellent earlier volume, Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542–1773 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999). Finally, there’s a brief “Epilogue” excursus into the arts of Latin America during the nineteenth through twentieth centuries, not only in conclusion, but as an introduction to upper-level courses, which any student, having just finished this wonderful book, will surely be enticed to take.

Critics of Bailey’s book will naturally discover, as with any such “comprehensive” survey, errors of commission and/or omission regarding their own precious specialties. I, too, raised an eyebrow regarding his comments on the Franciscan church of San Esteban del Rey in Ácoma, New Mexico, which does not have a transverse clerestory window as he claimed. But finding such quibbles actually makes the reading more fun! Indeed, a survey as truly good as this one should encourage as many questions as it answers.

Samuel Y. Edgerton
Amos Lawrence Professor of Art History, Art Department, Williams College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.