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ART REVIEW : Rediscovery of Jesuit-Guarani Indian Works

When a Catholic school presents a show of religious art, one doesn’t expect revisionist history to be written. And not surprisingly “Paradise Lost” (on view at Loyola Marymount’s Laband Art Gallery through Saturday) is presented as living testimony to the auspicious legacy of the Jesuits. The survey is of art made in South America during the 17th and 18th centuries by Guarani Indians under the tutelage of Jesuit missionaries.

Those who caught Roland Joffe’s 1987 film “The Mission” should have a passing familiarity with the Guarani, who were first colonized by the Jesuits, then enslaved by the Spanish. Your basic Christianity-versus-paganism epic, the story of the Guarani is in some respects more interesting than the art in “Paradise Lost,” which looks for the most part like standard-issue sacred art of the Baroque period. The sweeping Baroque style promoted by the European Jesuits was broad enough to assimilate--and upstage--regional idioms, and it is the dominant voice we hear in this art.

The exhibition is accompanied by an exhaustingly thorough catalogue that is fascinating and troubling. Including six essays by various scholars, the text is riddled with such comments as, “in the history of the Conquest there was nothing more beautiful than the image of the Jesuit, his prayer book under one arm and no other aim but to bring these primitive people to the bosom of Mother Church.” Nowhere is it suggested that the Jesuits may have been a bit bossy, misguided even, in their missionary zeal.

And zealous they were. No one can question the devotion of these men who succeeded in colonizing 100,000 Guarani from 1609 to 1767. Before the arrival of the Jesuits (who traveled to South America from all over Europe), the Guarani lived throughout Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The Jesuits rounded them up and settled them in 30 communities known as Reductions (a synonym for “a place of teaching”). Text posted in the exhibition informs us that “it was thought the Guarani couldn’t be human, much less Christian, if they were dispersed through forest and field without any political organization.”

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Often cited as models of colonization, the Reductions created dictionaries preserving the Guarani language, protected the Indians from slavery (Spanish soldiers bent on conquest were lurking about South America at the time), introduced them to astronomy and sewage systems, enforced a strict separation of the sexes and taught them how to make art. European art. While the catalogue states that the Jesuits “were liberal in permitting local traditions to survive,” you really have to look for the regional stamp on this work.

Only 1% of the works created in the Reductions has survived two centuries of Paraguayan political upheaval and religious reformation, so these pieces are exceedingly rare and of high quality. Drawn from private collections, none of the works are signed or dated. In fact, historians have been unable to discern whether a given work was made by a Jesuit or a Guarani. It is known, however, that all the artists were men who toiled in workshops located near the Father’s quarters--"in order to facilitate the Father’s necessary continuous vigilance,” the catalogue explains.

Needless to say, Jesus Christ is the star of “Paradise Lost.” For centuries the repository of the deepest longings and fears of the human race, the Christ figure is depicted here as we’ve seen him countless times before: on the cross; with his Virgin Mother; ascending to heaven.

Executed for the most part in polychromed wood, the works occasionally reveal discreet traces of the Guarani’s native voice. Faces on a few figures, for example, are broad, flat and recognizably Indian. Embellishment and trim on architectural fragments look vaguely Aztec, and a few oddball works look more folk than Baroque. A sculpture of Christ at the pillar has a crude, schematic simplicity typical of folk art, while two small sculptures of Jesus seated in a chair passing time in a manner reminiscent of Rodin’s “Thinker” have an engaging playfulness rare in religious art. It’s impossible to know, however, whether these comparatively awkward pieces represent a respected style, or are simply the work of an unskilled apprentice.

While some viewers may take issue with the ideology behind the Reductions and the art it produced, this is nonetheless a beautifully executed show. Installed with lush tropical orchids, traditional Guarani music, explanatory text and photographs of missionary ruins, it succeeds in conveying a sense of the mood of the world that produced these pieces.


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