Mexico City: Fomento Cultural Banamex, 173 pp., $25.00 (paper)
Jonathan Brown, in an essay adapted for the catalog of the exhibition of the work of Cristóbal de Villalpando at the Metropolitan Museum, warns us against the use of the word “colonial” in connection with Spanish-American painting of the period 1550–1700. Colonial, he says, “carries the burden of second-class status.” It “implies the domination and subordination of a territory and its inhabitants, who are dependants of the conquerors.” Once you start in this direction,
the path is clear; the final stop becomes “derivative” and thus inferior. “Center” and “periphery” are also insufficient, with their implication of hierarchy. Equally, “hybrid” has its flaws, for the hybrid is set implicitly into opposition to the pure and unadulterated.
So: New Spain (of which Mexico formed a part) was not a colony. It was not dominated by or subordinated to Spain. Its art was in no way derivative or inferior to anything European. Nor was it in any sense hybrid. Although the definition of hybrid—the offspring of two animals or plants of different species—seems not unhelpful when we contemplate, for instance, those rifle-toting angels of the Cuzco school in Peru. They are winged figures of clearly Christian derivation. But they are inconceivable in the setting of any European church. Something else is at work, something very powerful, to give us angels with rifles.
This kind of marked difference is of course what excites us, and what we hope to find in the art of the Mexican baroque. And for my part I feel that it is better, when displaying paintings of this sort, to keep them well apart from European works, as here, to avoid comparison. The experimental, haphazard mixed hang that museums sometimes go in for does them no favors. They are in danger of looking folksy and repetitive and crude. If saying this implies that such works are vulnerable to such juxtaposition, so be it. Paintings are vulnerable. All paintings are. Each needs its own special consideration.
In São Paolo recently I saw an old master collection rehung in a radical way: each work was suspended in mid-air, without the benefit of any wall. The labels were attached to the reverses of the frames. So one could walk past a row of European old masters without reading a single label, guessing at authorship, or one could treat each oil painting as an object with two sides, and think about the qualities of canvas, stretchers, and labels old and new. What was eliminated was what most of the artists involved would have expected to be present: a sense of a stable color-field background.
It seemed a dreadfully cruel way to treat an interesting collection of paintings. One man who would particularly have hated it would have been Degas, who was…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.