Sunday, August 10, 2014

Old Masters from Another Part of the World: “Painting the Divine”

It is always refreshing for someone like me who teethed on old master paintings and lived with them in the U.S. and the Capitals of Europe to see such in the American Southwest.  Finally, one in the European Tradition right here in Santa Fe, “Painting the Divine:  Images of Mary in the New World”.

The image of Mary, those of us in European Old Masters would have said the Madonna, sustained the religious immigrant Spanish and their descendants in the New World still today.  Maria is depicted in the ways you would expect such as the Immaculate Conception, the Nativity and the Flight into Egypt but also one finds apparitions of Maria in the New World as well as symbols of these new surroundings. 

When I walked into the New Mexico History Museum to see the exhibition there was beautiful music coming from within.  It was the Schola Cantorum singing Sacred a Cappella Music except there were a few instruments not always used.  Here is a brief sample:


I was there, however, to see the exhibition, which to my surprise was composed of almost entirely works from the History Museum’s own collection.  The works of art had been donated by the International Institute of Iberian Colonial Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The latter was founded by Charles Wood Collier ( 1909-1987) and Nina Perera Collier (1907- 1973) in the mid 1960’s.  Both were from the East Coast and although both were familiar with Native American culture (Nina surveyed Navajo and Pueblo architecture for the Bureau of Indian Affairs headed by her father-in-law, the famed champion of Indian rights, John Collier)  neither initially had connections to the Hispanic world, Charles had travelled to Mexico City with his parents in 1930 and later with his wife travelled in Mexico and various countries in South America.   At the behest of Nelson Rockefeller, then the Department of State’s Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, they went to Bolivia in 1942 where they lived for a couple of years. They finally moved to New Mexico in 1959 with their growing collection of Spanish Colonial art.

The works in the exhibition were created in the two administrative centers (vice royalties) of the Spanish Empire in the New World, Mexico and Peru, as well as Bolivia, originally part of Peru and New Mexico.

Although the theme was images of the Virgin, it was a pleasant surprise find some sculpture included with the paintings. One of my favorite pieces was a polychrome wood sculpture, representing the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception by an anonymous Mexican artist of the early 18th century.  Somehow the dynamic flow of the robes enhanced by the color and the angelic face spoke to me.

A beautiful painting of the Virgin and Child from the 18th century is again by an unknown artist but this one has been identified as working in Cuzco, Peru, which has its own notable style.  One giveaway are the flowers along the border of the painting drawn from Flemish still lives which would have been known to the artist.  Also, the gold stenciling in the halos is typical of the Cuzco school.  This picture is installed within a baldachin (canopy) as if part of an altar in a private chapel.  This must have been a personal favorite of the curators to get such special treatment.

Few artists at the time signed their names.  The author of the 18th century Mexican painting “Our Lady of the Rosary with Souls in Purgatory” is not known but the picture is almost incidental to its incredible frame.  Most of these intricately carved frames have not survived, therefore, making this one all the more unexpected and dazzling.

One of Mexico’s outstanding 17th century artists is Juan Correa (1646-1716).   This picture is one of the closest to what one would expect to see in Spain.  It is part of a series of seven, all originally from a single altarpiece .  The image is based on a venerated Byzantine icon in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, known as “Salus Populi Romani” (Protectress of the Roman People).  It reminds us that Charles V ruler of the Holy Roman Empire was also Charles I of Spain.

José Aragón (ca. 1781-1850) is one of the best known New Mexico artists who continued in the tradition of Spanish painting.  Here he has depicted one of the most famous images of the Madonna in the American southwest, “Our Lady of Guadalupe”.  The story goes that one day in 1531, Juan Diego saw an apparition of a young girl at the Hill of Tepeyac, near Mexico City.   The girl asked that a church be built at that site in her honor; from her words, Juan Diego recognized the girl as the Virgin Mary. The picture is not painted on panel or canvas but rather on hide with gesso on top as a base.

Photo credit: New Mexico History Museum

And the tradition continues with a large contemporary image which represents “Nuesta Señora de la Selva” (Our Lady of the Jungle) by Alfredo Arreguín from 1989.  The painting was lent by the artist who lives in Seattle.

The organizers of the show were Joseph Diaz, curator at the New Mexico History Museum and Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt, an independent scholar.  The exhibition she co-curated with Joseph Rishel at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “The Arts in Latin America 1492-1820” was a major contribution to the field.  As you see from this Missive many artists still remain unidentified. There is so much more to study about the Spanish Colonial Art from the New World and I hope there are some PhD candidates out there who will be working in this field.  Even if they can’t make it to Santa Fe for this exhibition, they should acquire the catalog.

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