In art as in religion, the colonial period of Latin America took its greatest influence from Spain. But it wasn’t simply a thin imitation of the motherland, but a complex confluence tinged with politics, racial issues and religions both indigenous and European. That point lies at the heart of a new exhibition at the Frost Art Museum, Spanish Colonial Art: The Beauty of Two Traditions, curated by museum director Carol Damian. “The idea,’’ says Damian, “is to show that the colonial art of Latin America is not derivative and a poor copy of Spanish art, but so much more.”
Damian says she long has wanted to organize such an exhibition, not only because it is her own area of research—she is the author of The Virgin of the Andes: Art and Ritual in Colonial Cuzco — but also because, “I realized how neglected these beautiful works are in the history of art and how misunderstood.”
The result is a compact exhibition that covers a lot of ground, both chronologically and geographically. The art on display spans the 17th to 19th centuries and features work principally from Mexico and Peru with examples from Argentina, Colombia and Guatemala.
Most of the art in the exhibition comes from local collections, including the Lowe Art Museum, Jean and Jay Kislak Collection and the Frost’s itself, as well as the Ortiz-Gurdian Collection (the Ortizes own the Americas Collection in Coral Gables). Bringing them together not only puts the art into a broader context, but also reveals the wealth of rarely seen elements of Miami collections.
“This is a whole heritage we are recognizing,” says Damian.
The conquistadores and accompanying missionaries brought the art of Spain to the Americas largely in the form of illustrated Bibles and small devotional items and portraits. These images soon merged with indigenous traditions to create a New World art, especially in Mexico and Peru, where artists drew upon the rich traditions of the Aztecs and Incas. Painters of the Cuzco School in Peru, the first indigenous organization of artists in the New World, incorporated distinctive gold stenciling into their paintings that echoes elegant Andean textiles and metalwork.
Religious art dominated artistic production in the Americas during much of the colonial period, and the selection of works in the Frost exhibition reflects that.
Prominent in the installation are a pair of large painted wood sculptures of angels from Peru, replete with silver wings. They epitomize how missionaries presented Catholicism through imagery that resonated with native converts. Angels, who were presented as intermediaries between God and man, mirror the veneration of birds in Andean culture as mediators to the spirit world.
Among other highlights are two more Peruvian works: an intricate and diminutive oil on canvas, La Milagrosa Virgen de Nuestra Señora de Cocharcas (The Miraculous Virgin of Cocharcas) and an even smaller Mercedarian Virgin with Donors, painted on copper and displayed in an elaborate silver frame. For sheer beauty and affirmation of faith, however, little in the exhibition can top a 19th century painted wood sculpture, Head of a Saint, from Mexico. Presumably once part of a larger devotional statue and now devoid of any ornamentation, it radiates serenity, even ecstasy.
Looking beyond the virgins and angels, however, the exhibition offers key insights into the social and political history of the colonial Americas.
A focal point of the exhibition is a casta, or caste, painting, on loan from Madrid’s Museum of America. A uniquely American genre, casta paintings characterize the racial mixtures among Spaniards, Indians and Africans in colonial Mexican society.
One such painting, attributed to one of the foremost painters of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, José de Ibarra (1688-1756), is inscribed “Of a Spanish man and an Indian woman, a mestizo,” and depicts a multiracial family. It is one of seven by Ibarra, himself a mestizo, the child of Spanish and Indian parents, that identify and rank the union and offspring of different races. The further away a person was from “pure” white, the lower his or her social status — a point made clear in Ibarra’s painting: The Spanish husband looks directly out, his Indian wife has her back to the viewer.
Casta paintings may well have served to acquaint the Spanish public with people of the New World and to show the royal authorities what their subjects were like. If caste paintings were intended to document social status for European audiences, a mid-19th century Peruvian painting of a saint arguably fulfilled the same function for colonial viewers.
The charming folk-art style of San Ysidro the Laborer belies its political message. The 11th century saint, patron of farmers, peasants and laborers — and, more pointedly, patron of the Spanish capital of Madrid — is depicted in dress of the colonial era and portrayed as a gargantuan figure towering over the cityscape and native people who surround him.
There is no mistaking who ruled and who served in colonial society.