Mexican Heritage

Paintings of colonial Mexico are showcased in the DAM's current blockbuster.

The screen is gorgeous, with the party-goers depicted in the panels, below which are smaller panels decorated with floral patterns. Not only is the screen form clearly Chinese-inspired, but the piece almost looks like it was made in China. The message such an object provides is that Asian art was an important early influence in Mexican art, something I didn't know before. Curator Pierce points out that Mexicans were being exposed to Asian art before most of Europe, because the ports of Mexico were stopping-off points for Spanish trading vessels coming from the Philippines, another Spanish colony.

Also in the first gallery are formal portraits hung as though they were pairs, though they are not. "We've put paintings together as pairs throughout the show," says Pierce, explaining that this was done for didactic reasons. One of two pairs in the first gallery is "Portrait of Moctezuma," from 1680 to 1691, an oil on canvas attributed to Antonio Rodríguez, and "Portrait of Don Matías de G´lvez y Gallardo," by Andrés López, which is from the 1790s. Pierce points out that Moctezuma looks like an American Indian, and Don Matías looks like George Washington, which she hopes will link the little-known Mexican experience to the better-known story (to Denver museum-goers, anyway) of the settlement of the United States.

The rest of the show has more of the kind of thing we'd expect from Mexican art: religious paintings. You don't have to be Catholic (or, in my case, a lapsed Catholic) to understand them, but I'm sure it helps. The second gallery launches the religious aspect of Painting a New World with another show-stopping moment: the gigantic, theatrically Baroque-style "Allegory of the Sweet Name of Mary" from 1690-1699, by Cristóbal de Villalpando. According to the wall text, Villalpando was considered the most important painter of his time, and with spectacular paintings like this one, it's easy to see why.

"Mass of St. Gregory," by an unknown artist, feather 
"Mass of St. Gregory," by an unknown artist, feather painting.
"From Mestizo and Indian, Coyote," by Miguel Cabrera, 
oil on canvas.
"From Mestizo and Indian, Coyote," by Miguel Cabrera, oil on canvas.


Through July 25, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000

Around the corner in the next gallery are two feather paintings, examples of an Aztec art form I'd never seen before in person. "Mass of St. Gregory," by an anonymous artist at the School of San José de los Naturales, and "Jesus at the Age of Twelve," by Juan Bautista, both done in the sixteenth century, are out of this world and truly unforgettable.

In the same gallery is "From Mestizo and Indian, Coyote," by Miguel Cabrera from 1763, an example of a "Casta" painting, a type of work that explores the mixed races of Mexico in a numbered series of pictures. In the painting, a Mestizo male is posed with an Indian woman and their child. Cab-rera depicted the group very much in the manner of a holy family picture, and to make the point, one of those is hung adjacent to it. But Cabrera also adds political content by picturing his family in rags. Around the corner is another Casta painting, "From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto." In this one, the white husband is resplendent in a chintz morning coat and his African wife and mixed-race child are also well-dressed, though in native costumes.

In the next gallery is the third showstopper: 1709's "Inauguration of the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe," an oil on canvas by Manuel de Arellano. The painting is huge, depicting a procession of hundreds carrying the miraculous cloth with the Virgin's image from its modest old home church to a sumptuous new one. It's incredible.

In the same gallery is a more modestly scaled masterpiece, Franciso Antonio Vallejo's 1767 oil on canvas, "Immaculate Conception," which reveals an awareness of Italian Baroque art. It's very beautiful, especially the delicate handling of the Virgin's face.

Throughout the exhibit are several wonderful formal portraits of nuns -- intellectual, wealthy women who joined the convent. In the second-to-last gallery, there's one of the finest of these, "Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz," from 1713, attributed to Juan de Miranda. In the portrait, Sor Juana looks pretty formidable, stiffly posed in a starched habit, standing at a table in her extensive library. Sor Juana had been a lady-in-waiting in the vice-regal court before joining the convent when she was 21, explaining that she was "disinclined to marriage." Her intellectualism put her into conflict with conservative Catholic leaders -- the Archbishop Charles Chaputs of the time -- and she was forced to give up her library and abandon writing forever.

The show winds down quickly through a gallery that has a couple of paintings, including a depiction of an artist's cupboard. In one of those cutesy moments brought to you by the education department at the DAM, the cupboard has been re-created and holds actual objects that we're meant to handle. Sheesh.

Painting a New World is very compelling, and, because the topic is obscure, somewhat exotic. This obscurity and exoticism make the show hard to follow; I needed to see it twice before I could understand it. But you don't have to do that much. Just force yourself to go through once, and you won't regret it.

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