Finding the Forgotten

The exhibition Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America recounts an oft-overlooked area of art history.

By James D. Balestrieri

“Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800”, the new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), doesn’t trade in cautionary tales—indeed, it takes pains not to draw sweeping conclusions—yet a cautionary tale lurks just under the sumptuous surfaces of the culturally complex artworks and objects. The tale I came away with is that centers of power shift, often rapidly. From the time of Columbus until the advent of the 18th century, Spain was the dominant power on Earth. Mexico City, it could be argued, was the axis mundi—the crossroads of the world. California and what is now the American Southwest were Spanish, as was Florida, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Sure, Holland and Amsterdam might have been able to mount an argument, Britain was heading toward “Great” and France was on the move, but Spain ruled the waves and a good bit of the globe. And yet, to use that word “yet” yet again, Spain’s grip is long past, a moment in history receding from us with every passing year.

Unidentified artist, Saint Michael Vanquishing the Devil (San Miguel triunfante sobre el de-monio), Guatemala, second half of the 18th. Century.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of Mexican Art Deaccession Fund. Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA.

A presentation of the exceptional Spanish Colonial—or viceregal—artworks collected over the past two decades under the direction of Ilona Katzew, LACMA’S curator and department head of Latin American art, “Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800” illuminates a long moment in world and art history that has often been overlooked or relegated to a position subordinate to what we have come to call the Atlantic World—England, France, and North America—during this same period.

The conquistadors who followed Columbus swiftly discovered that they didn’t need a passage to the “fabled Orient” to find the unimaginable wealth they sought. The New World’s riches were well beyond imagining and came with Indigenous populations to subjugate, convert, enslave and, crucially for the exhibition, train. As an example, the city of Potosí, in what is now Bolivia, yielded so much silver that it transformed the world’s economy and, in the process, became one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet. New World silver was highly prized in China and became the dominant medium of exchange for all manner of goods, techniques and ideas. The name, Potosí, would also become a synonym for excess—the streets, as an example, were paved in silver for special occasions.

And yet, as power does, Spain pressed on, conquering the Philippines in 1565 and establishing trade with Japan (until the Dutch monopolized trade there) and China. Draw the route with your mind’s eye. Nagasaki and Macau to Manila, Manila to Acapulco, Acapulco to Veracruz, Veracruz to Seville. Imagine raw materials and finished goods moving along this axis and to and from Mexico City, Lima, Potosí, Santiago, Havana, and the myriad hubs in New Spain and you can feel the heave of empire.

The object that perhaps epitomizes the exhibition is Folding Screen with Indian Wedding, Mitote, and Flying Pole (Biombo con desposorio indígena, mitote y palo volador), painted by an anonymous artist in Mexico, circa 1660-90. As curator Katzew writes, “Screens such as this one were especially prized: Their format connected them to Asia, the medium of painting to Europe, and the subject matter to the New World. The result was an entirely new type of commodity—one that symbolized the reach of the Spanish Empire but also New Spain’s central place as a global crossroads.” Even the Spanish word for screen, biombo, derives from the Japanese word byōbo, meaning “wind wall.”

Miguel González, The Virgin of Guadalupe (Virgen de Guadalupe), Mexico, ca. 1690.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of Mexican Art Deaccession Fund. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.

The screen depicts the joyous celebration of an Indigenous wedding—note the couple exiting the Catholic church on the rightmost of the four panels. The mitote, or Moctezuma dance, and the terrifying dance of the palo volador, or “flying pole,” evoke the pre-contact past. Such ceremonies, adapted to a hybrid Christian-Indigenous culture, were “not only tolerated but even encouraged by the state and various religious orders as a mechanism of social cohesion,” writes Katzew. Elsewhere in the work, Spaniards, at left, look on—and down on—the proceedings with a hint of hidalgo hauteur, while one Native juggles a log with his feet and others make pulque, a local intoxicating beverage. The background of the work is almost dreamlike, and very European, in the manner of a pastoral scene on a piece of Delft porcelain.

This picturesque harmony, as Katzew suggests, was meant to indicate the pliability of Indigenous peoples and their suitability to integrate into the dominion—and worldview—of Greater Spain. And yet—there’s that yet again—there’s something rather subversive about all of it, something evocative of, say, Breughel’s Wedding Dance, where the sheer vitality and energy of the revelers acts as a thumb in the eye of aristocracy and authority. This elegant screen, that, according to its provenance, graced the estates of royal families of France, Brazil and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, stood as a subversive reproach—unintentional, no doubt—to its owners. “We’re flying,” it says. “We’re dancing. As we did long before you came. What are you doing?” Like life, to paraphrase Jurassic Park, culture finds a way.

The “Hearst Chalice” is another singular object in the exhibition. As Katzew writes, “Although the identity of the chalice’s silversmith remains unknown, the mix of materials and the collaboration among artists parallel ancient Mesoamerican practices. The Mexica assigned great significance to the concept of preciousness. The otherworldly radiance that resulted from contrasting gold, feathers, and special stones in ritual paraphernalia was central, and amantecas [feather workers] often worked together with goldsmiths and lapidary artists.”

Backing intricate minute “micro-carvings” of scenes from the New Testament that rivaled anything produced in Europe with iridescent feathers that catch the light and surmounting these with worked quartz and finely worked silver harmonized the colonizers and colonized and, for the Spanish, “proved the successful process of evangelization and exemplified the talent of local artists…” From another angle, the exemplary craftsmanship of an object like the “Hearst Chalice” underscores not only the adaptation of Indigenous peoples to Spanish—and Christian—authority, but also a subtle form of cultural subversion. Katzew goes on: “For the Indigenous communities, this new type of object represented much more than an amalgamation of cultures; it demonstrated their willingness and ability to adapt to their new circumstances under Spanish rule, ensured the continuation of vital local practices, and underscored issues of ethnic pride.”

Unidentified artist, Folding Screen with Indian Wedding, Mitote, and Flying Pole (Biombo con desposorio indígena, mitote y palo volador), Mexico, ca. 1660-90.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of Mexican Art Deaccession Fund. Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA.

Language is a way to assert and maintain dominance. What happens in New Spain is what happens in every colony. Over time, people of Spanish descent are born and live their entire lives away from Spain. Mixed marriages produce mixed children whose allegiances and notions of home and pride are divided and tied to their birthplaces. Racial and geographical differentiation assumes outsized importance. In the arts, this leads to comparison and, over time, rivalry. Thus, the Bolivian painter Mélchor Perez Holguín (c.1660- c.1732) becomes “El Greco Altoperuano” (the El Greco from Upper Peru) and his mixed—mestizo—ancestry accounts, even in fairly recent Spanish art scholarship, for his personal style.

As Katzew states throughout the catalogue, Spanish Colonial art has, for the most part, been seen as inferior to the art of the mother country.  It’s a bit like seeing Roman art as an unsuccessfully reverent imitation of Greek mastery. In both cases, seeing the art for itself, in its own context, reveals syntheses and inventions that mark clear divisions from their origins and inspirations. The division of the picture plane alone in Holguín’s Pietà, executed around 1720, is anything but El Grecoesque. The figures in the lower half are draped in raiment adorned with gold leaf (brocateado), as if to catch what little light shines on this darkest of moments. Above, all is darkness. Only the tiny light borne by one of the angels penetrates the gloom, while the wood of the cross extends beyond the top of the canvas—the sole bridge that spans the fallen world and eternity. The symbolism is quite stark and Katzew makes the case that the dominance of “green and red bore ancient associations with Inca rulers and the sacred” and “that this type of color transposition constituted a deliberate means of keeping the memory of the Inca past alive. In other words, it was a vestige of the ancient world that triggered a definitive type of ‘mnemonic energy’ linked to ideas of the sacred, only here applied to the new religion.” And yet, as Katzew suggests, are these colors, by the 18th century, still linked to spirituality, or have they evolved into an aesthetic, that is, style?

Joaquín Caraballo, Virgin and Child with Saints Francis of Paola, John, and Roch (La Virgen y el Niño con san Francisco de Paula, san Juan, y san Roque), Bolivia, 1773.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Nicolás Cortés Gallery, Madrid. Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA.

Other works, the Guatemalan polychrome carving Saint Michael Vanquishing the Devil (San Miguel triunfante sobre el demonio) and Mexican artist Miguel González’s The Virgin of Guadalupe (Virgen de Guadalupe), as examples, are tours de force in terms of materials and craftsmanship. The figure of Saint Michael, with its silver wings and naturalistic glass eyes and bone teeth, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its dazzling mother-of-pearl inlays (enconchado), are clearly meant to demonstrate not only the wealth of New Spain but also the inventiveness of its artists and artisans and their ability to compete with anyone across the Atlantic.

The discourse of such dynamics between colony and fatherland, even in the arts, eventually turn into fissures, fissures that, in their turn, turn into revolutions and, at last, complete breaks. So history—and art history—tell us.

For decades, if not longer, New York City has claimed the unofficial mantle, “Capital of the World.” In terms of finance, and because the United Nations makes its home there, maybe, but more because of its incredible diversity—languages are still spoken in New York that have disappeared in their own homelands. Yet the loss, the apartness, the anxiety that COVID and deep divisions in the American polity have thrust upon the city—and the nation—and patterns of migration and atomization of culture have transformed other cities into lively nodes of exchange. Ideas can colonize as readily as armadas. Which leaves us with the question: What will the museum of the future collect and exhibit from New York’s—and the United States of America’s—“preeminent period?” Will the once-gilded head of Rockefeller Center’s Prometheus serve as the Ozymandias in a museum on an island that was once a mountaintop?

And yet—last “yet”—must the past be always and only prologue?

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