Art review: ‘Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World,’ LACMA

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In 1910 a California company produced a tourist postcard showing a flatbed railroad car rumbling across the sun-drenched Golden State, hauling just two strawberries. Each fruit was roughly the size of a pachyderm. The picture is an early example of what soon became a flood of promotional images that cast the place as an exotic but industrious region of unimaginable wonders.

Mars always needs women, but early 20th century California needed to attract people too. A picture of gargantuan strawberries might not be taken literally by the postcard’s bemused recipient, but the enticing enthusiasm of its message was clear.


Although the ‘big berries’ pitch today appears quaint, it was hardly unprecedented. Not by a long shot. About 125 years before, similar representations were made in Ecuador.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a large and engrossing new show includes four big canvases painted in 1783 by Vicente Albán. Just a few of the 181 rarely traveled works assembled for ‘Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World,’ Albán’s paintings overflow with arresting super-abundance. Guavas are as big as your head. Plantains swell to the size of baseball bats. Pineapples are gigantic and, yes, strawberries are big enough to make a meal for the whole family.

Not unlike the modern postcard, these colonial canvases were surely designed to reach the folks back home -- meaning, in this case, Spain or elsewhere in Europe. Since an 18th century European would need to be told what exotic South American wonder he was ogling, an elaborately painted cartouche contains an alphabetized key labeling each fruit. In good Enlightenment-era fashion, natural history and precise classification were prized.


Sometimes the colossal fruits are piled on the ground, surrounded by green tropical lushness. Mostly, though, they’re displayed atop baroque stone pedestals. A giant guava in the fertile jungle becomes the functional equivalent of a heroic warrior commemorated by a bronze sculpture in an important civic plaza, or perhaps a religious saint’s statue venerated in a church. Ecuador, then in the late stages of the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru that stretched along the Pacific coast, gobbling up what once had been the powerful Inca empire, is cast as a prosperous New World Eden.

Albán’s paintings, however, don’t just display fruit. Also shown are Amerindians, lavishly dressed in indigenous or colonial costumes. They offer up nature’s super-abundance, smiling and gesturing benignly. These embellished figures belie the equivalence to slavery that many endured in service to Catholic Spain’s imperial ambitions, just as many had to their Inca overlords. Like the fruits, the people are also catalogued within the cartouche, as if their distance from European humanity was simply assumed.

The exhibition is filled with remarkable works whose undeniable beauty mixes with inescapable strangeness. (Ponder a painting that shows an Indian praying at the barred gate of a cloistered Capuchin nun.) The magnificent show, organized by LACMA curator Ilona Katzew, is the first in the U.S. to chart the roles assumed by and for indigenous peoples within colonial Latin American art.


Its only drawback is the absence of a catalog. A handsome companion book has been published, complete with 12 scholarly essays. But it doesn’t include an exhibition checklist, while many of the show’s works -- including Albán’s -- are not discussed. That’s a shame.

The viceroyalties of Mexico and Peru spanned most of three centuries and covered huge territories, starting in the Southern United States and reaching all the way into Argentina. Dominated by the Aztec and Inca empires when European colonization began, these vast regions also were home to scores of indigenous groups. Each had its own cultural traditions.

Neither were the conquerors monolithic in outlook, habit or alliances. New Spain’s history is rich and complex. That makes for sometimes difficult navigation within the show, but ‘rich’ and ‘complex’ also describe the art.

The exhibition’s six sections open with Aztec and Inca sculptures and textiles, principally from the powerful ancient cities of Tenochtitlan and Cuzco. They range from monumental to miniature.

A looming, 15th century terra cotta ‘Eagle Warrior,’ its life-size figure adorned in a ferocious costume crowned by the yawning beak of a screaming bird, once guarded the Aztec capital’s main temple. (It was also seen at the Getty Villa last year in ‘The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire.’) The magnificent avian imagery echoes against the brilliantly colored feathered-tunics installed nearby, made a world away for earlier Peruvian burial sites.

Aztec and Inca ceremonial art sets up the impending clash with the Catholicism of invading Spanish armies, surveyed in the show’s second section. Pictures of St. Augustine and St. John the Evangelist, sacred to the conquerors, are composed from iridescent feathers, sacred to the conquered. Celestial carvings on a stone baptismal font, repurposed from an Aztec sacrificial basin, assume new religious meanings. Old Peruvian textile patterns filter into new liturgical garments.


Paintings dominate the rest of the show. The preponderance of paintings demonstrates how thoroughly a European idiom came to prevail in New Spain. Even the uniquely Asian tradition of painted folding screens, unknown in Europe, came to the region by way of Spain’s colony in the Philippines. Dazzling screens display extravagant personifications of four continents, Hernán Cortés’ dramatic defeat of Moctezuma, a lavish map of Mexico City and, from LACMA’s own collection, a sumptuous Indian wedding ceremony at a Catholic church.

Images compare the Aztec and Inca empires with ancient Greece and Rome, establishing an indigenous classical pedigree for New Spain. Indians are portrayed as deeply pious or irredeemably heathen -- or maybe both, as in that fellow praying at a Capuchin nun’s door. Different ostentatious rituals performed by pre-Hispanic and post-conquest societies are fused together. Finally, Europe’s aristocratic tradition of noble heraldry was merged with Indian motifs, as in an Inca genealogy painted by Marcos Chillitupa Chávez.

Unanswered is the question of why sculptures apparently did not play a role similar to paintings for Amerindians. Colonial sculpture is essentially absent, except for one impressive, monumental carved relief of Santiago Matamoros -- St. James the Moor-killer. Spain’s patron saint is shown on horseback trampling a brown-skinned Indian rather than a Moor.

Like this relief, Spanish Colonial paintings are Baroque emblems. Ideas crystallize in recurring patterns.

That’s very different from European Baroque paintings, in which artists cranked up eye-popping illusions of the world as a theatrical stage for the enactment of salvation. Europeans needed to combat the barren iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, but that type of pictorial theater didn’t matter in Mexico and Peru, since Protestantism hardly existed. European Baroque paintings elaborated space, but colonial Baroque paintings elaborated surfaces.

Sumptuous embellishment is eye-popping in its own way. It generates a visual pageantry appropriate to a mark of honor. Images tend to be frontal, residing in shallow space -- whether a colossal vision of the Virgin and Child surrounded by tiny Andes mountain villagers; a full-length formal portrait of Moctezuma II; the bloody martyrdom of a preternaturally serene saint with spears thrust through his chest and a blade in his skull; the stormy battle for control of the Aztec empire; the opulent wedding of two Spanish generations into Inca royalty, and more.


This ecstatic emphasis on surface even makes colonial paintings feel circumstantially modern. Orthodox subject matter is one thing, but delirious adornment is quite another. ‘Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World,’ Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 857-6000, through Jan. 29. Closed Wednesdays.


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-- Christopher Knight