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Latin America: The Battleground of Art

Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World

an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 6, 2011–January 29, 2012, and the Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City, July 6–October 7, 2012
Private Collection/D. Giannoni
Our Lady of Cocharcas Under the Baldachin (detail); eighteenth-century Peruvian painting, artist unknown

Soon after disembarking on the Gulf coast of Mexico in February 1519, Hernán Cortés met with ambassadors of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. The diplomatic gifts that they gave him—which included a heavy gold disk as big as a cartwheel, a massive silver circle, and enough gold pellets to fill up a conquistador’s helmet—hinted at the immense treasures that lay farther inland. Spaniards had at long last reached a region whose riches matched their ambitions.

Ignoring his orders to explore and trade but not colonize, Cortés ventured inland toward the great Aztec imperial capital of Tenochtitlan. As the captain and his men moved toward Tenochtitlan—in the site of present-day Mexico City—they fought groups that opposed them and made strategic alliances with tribes weary of Aztec dominance, most notably the Tlaxcalans, who after first fighting against Cortés soon gave military assistance that would prove decisive in the battle for control over the Aztec capital.

Cortés and his men arrived in Tenochtitlan bearing arms and crosses. Moctezuma greeted the Spanish forces hospitably, hosting them in his palace. A week later he was in chains, and seven months after that he lay dead—we do not know whether at the hands of his Spanish captors or of discontent Aztecs, since the many historical accounts written about the Spanish conquest of Mexico disagree on this crucial point. Soon, all-out war broke out. Between June 1520 and August 1521, Aztec warriors battled the Spanish forces and their Indian allies. Smallpox, a disease that Europeans brought to the Americas, ravaged the native population. The war for Tenochtitlan culminated with a devastating three-month siege during which the island city received no food, drinking water, or supplies from the outside.

Indigenous sources compiled decades later tell of many people dying of dysentery after drinking dirty water and others so desperately starved that they resorted to eating lizards, wood, plaster, boiled leather, and ground adobe bricks from destroyed buildings.1 On August 13, 1521, Cortés took control of Tenochtitlan in the name of the Spanish king. The once-magnificent metropolis, which awestruck Spaniards had compared to an American Venice and exalted for its grandeur, lay in rubble. The defeated Aztecs were forced to become laborers, using the materials of their former buildings to construct Mexico City, the capital of the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain.

The French historian Serge Gruzinski has described the conquest of Mexico and the imperial regime that followed for the next three hundred years as a “war of images.”2 Cortés and his men marched inland from the Gulf carrying religious banners, medals, and figures. They whitewashed murals in native temples and destroyed local idols, replacing them with Christian icons. One of the very first requests that Cortés made to Moctezuma was for permission to place a portrait of the Virgin Mary inside the main temple in Tenochtitlan, the most sacred Aztec space—a suggestion that Moctezuma indignantly rejected. After the conquest, Catholic churches rose in the exact spots of pre-Hispanic temples, capitalizing on the sacredness of those locations. Missionaries waged their own war to extinguish native religion, burning ancient sacred books and ritual objects as part of their effort to achieve a spiritual conquest.

While many of the new cultural practices attempted to replace Indian traditions, Spaniards allowed certain customs to continue as long as they aided the colonial regime and the project of conversion to Christianity. For instance, Aztec painter-scribes (tlacuiloque in Nahuatl, their native language), whose pictographic writing impressed and puzzled Europeans, found new employment painting religious murals and drawing up manuscript codices that served a diverse range of purposes in the new colonial society, functioning as legal evidence, cultural encyclopedias, and accounts of tribute, among other uses. Into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as locally distinct cultures emerged out of the complex mixture of native, European, and colonial elements, images remained a supple and powerful means for staking out political, social, and cultural claims.

The Spanish conquest of the Inca empire of Peru—the other major civilization in the Americas at the time—introduced not only a new regime but also a new status for images. In 1532 Francisco Pizarro entered the Inca capital of Cuzco, the following year he ordered the Inca king Atahualpa executed, and in 1535 he founded Lima, “The City of Kings,” as the new capital of the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru. After decades of Indian resistance against the Spanish occupation and bloody power struggles among Spaniards, the last Inca emperor, Túpac Amaru, was executed in 1572. In Peru as in Mexico, war was waged with weapons, crosses, and images. The Incas, unlike the Aztecs, did not have a pre-Hispanic painterly tradition. Nevertheless, they quickly realized that images held important and special meaning for Spaniards. After witnessing the fervor of Catholic practices, the Inca ruler Manco Inca (d. 1545) concluded that the Spaniards worshiped painted cloths, which they believed to be Viracocha (the Creator), rather than the large idols or structures that the Incas revered.

By 1615, the importance of visual materials was so firmly established that when the Andean author Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala drafted a protest denouncing the abuses of colonial administrators, he composed it in the form of an illustrated book he entitled The First New Chronicle and Good Government.3 The manuscript includes twelve hundred folio pages of text and four hundred drawings. In his introductory letter to King Philip III of Spain, Guaman Poma explained that he was well aware of the king’s high regard for pictures. The manuscript’s line drawings combine image and word, comic-book style, to present powerful depictions of the Inca dynasty, the conquest of Peru, and the social disorder that followed. Guaman Poma clearly understood that in the colonial era a document required images to be credible and persuasive.

Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World,” a thrilling and important exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, shows the ways in which Native American artistic traditions persisted after the conquest, their transformation over almost three centuries of colonial rule, and the ways in which pictures of Amerindian peoples made eloquent arguments about history, religion, and social standing. The show is a collection of treasures, bringing together rare materials from public and private collections in Latin America, the US, and Europe: oil paintings on canvas and copper; Andean textiles with intricate geometric patterns; silver figurines; an exquisite Aztec mask covered in multicolored mosaic of turquoise, jadeite, shell, mother-of-pearl, and coral; sumptuous Inca tunics made from bird feathers in either brilliant multicolors or rich dark-chocolate brown and beige, fur-like in their pillowy richness; and printed European books whose illustrations are testaments to a long-standing fascination with New World peoples—often pictured as heathen idolaters or barbaric cannibals. Among the most exciting materials on view are illustrated manuscripts that tell rich tales about Indian life and culture in colonial Latin America.

The exhibition thoughtfully juxtaposes objects that viewers would not otherwise encounter together—some come from art collections, others from libraries, natural history museums, and ethnographic collections. It uses them to present a complex story about the connections between art, history, and religion in colonial Latin America, focusing on the active parts that native peoples played as subjects, makers, patrons, and viewers of art. While there is no exhibition catalog, the gorgeous accompanying book of scholarly essays explores these themes in great depth and reproduces many of the works in the show.

The exhibition argues strongly for the continuity of indigenous artistic techniques and forms. It opens with two rooms highlighting pre-Hispanic artifacts. Many of the objects are stunning. An imposing life-sized terra-cotta sculpture of an Aztec eagle warrior (circa 1440–1469) powerfully depicts the standing figure, torso leaning forward, fists clenched, adorned with the symbols of this group: his sleeves take the form of wings ending in comma shapes suggesting feathers, sharp talons project from his shins, and his face emerges from inside a helmet in the shape of an eagle’s head, the beak wide open in mid-scream. It is a showstopper, and we are only at the entrance to the first room.

The selection of Mexican and Peruvian artifacts that follows, in stone and gold and silver and feathers and clay, demonstrates that the Aztec and Inca empires were powerful, far-flung, polyglot, and encompassed multiple populations. Like Europeans, Amerindians created artworks for god and king. They valued rare and exotic materials from distant lands—silver and gold, turquoise from present-day New Mexico, brilliantly colored feathers from the Amazon region, shells and mother-of-pearl from faraway coasts—and used them to flaunt imperial wealth, reach, and power.

These artistic traditions did not disappear with the conquest. As the exhibition convincingly demonstrates, they evolved to suit the needs and ambitions of patrons in the new colonial society. An Aztec basin made of carved basalt stone, slightly over seventeen inches tall and a bit more than thirty inches in diameter, was reused as a baptismal font—it did not matter that the carvings that adorn its exterior are related to practices of human sacrifice, an Aztec religious practice that missionaries strongly opposed.

After the conquest, Mexican “feather painters” (amanteca in Nahuatl) turned their skill at crafting delicate and precise compositions out of multicolored feathers to the production of works with Christian imagery. European collectors, among them the Medici, coveted these feather paintings for their exotic origin, marvelous craftsmanship, and precious materials. They also saw in them material proof of the successful conversion of Amerindians. And the featherwork is truly wondrous to contemplate: two feather paintings of Saint Augustine and Saint John the Evangelist from seventeenth-century Mexico, each about the size of a large book, use the iridescent feathers to impart the luminous objects with an otherworldly glow. The material and technique are local, and the compositions come straight out of European prints.

Perhaps the most persistent and supple Aztec artistic tradition in colonial Mexico was that of manuscript painting. The earliest example in this exhibit is a painting on native bark paper (amate) created in the town of Huexotzinco in 1531, only ten years after the fall of Tenochtitlan. Using native pictographic icons, it describes the tribute that the town had recently paid to its Spanish rulers, down to the exact number of sandals and loincloths. A central figure depicts the most costly item that Huexotzinco provided: a large banner of the Virgin and child, made in feather and gold for a conquistador to carry into battle. The painting documents this information exclusively through images, in the manner and style of Aztec tribute lists. This is the first known depiction of a Christian image made in the colonial Americas.

It is also one of eight paintings presented as evidence in a lawsuit over excessive tributes demanded from some of Cortés’s native allies by Spanish administrators in his absence—a suit that Cortés brought against some of the most powerful Spaniards in Mexico (and won both there and at a retrial in Spain). In the trial, Spaniards gave oral testimony and Indians presented pictorial evidence. The painting combines pre-Hispanic symbols and the European religious image, just as the trial’s record combines Amerindian pictorial sources with the extensive written documentation usual in the Spanish legal system. In the Spanish Americas, images carried legal evidentiary weight. From the early days of the new regime and well into the late eighteenth century, painted documents made powerful claims about labor, property, inheritance, and legal status.

  1. 1

    Stuart Schwartz, Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000). 

  2. 2

    Serge Gruzinski, Images at War: Mexico from Columbus to Blade Runner (1492–2019) (Duke University Press, 2001). 

  3. 3

    The manuscript is held in the Copenhagen Royal Library. A digital facsimile of the entire work, with a transcription, is available online at the Guaman Poma Website, www.kb.dk/permalink/2006/poma/info/en/front page.htm. 

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