"Mass of St. Gregory," by an unknown artist, feather painting.

Mexican Heritage

There's an important exhibit at the Denver Art Museum that's being given the royal treatment, which makes sense, because it's filled with regal pieces. The blockbuster is Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521-1821, a mammoth endeavor that includes more than fifty paintings, many of them monumental in size. The works are ensconced in first-class accommodations in the Hamilton Galleries, one of the most important sets of rooms on the premises.

I think it's risky to put on a blockbuster without including any famous artists -- and there are none in this one. I mention it because these shows apparently are all about bringing people in the door, cranking up not only ticket revenues but attendance numbers, which are used for all kinds of funding purposes. In recent years it has become increasingly obvious that having well-known names in a show guarantees a box-office bonanza. Recall the museum's smash hit, El Greco to Picasso, and there you have it: The success formula is right in the title.

But risky or not, Painting a New World is a good idea for the DAM, and for Denver, on at least two scores. First, it's relevant to our community, which has a large Mexican-American population, and second, there's the ready availability of appropriate material: Nearly half the paintings in the show are from Denver.


Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521-1821

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

And there is such an abundance of important paintings from Mexico in Denver thanks to collectors and donors Fred and Jan Mayer. The largesse of the Mayers is legendary; they have donated many of the pieces in the show, loaned many others, and, most important, they've established an endowment for the New World department at the DAM. This endowment pays for everything, including the salaries for two curators, one in pre-Columbian art and another in Spanish Colonial art. It was Donna Pierce, the Spanish Colonial curator, who organized Painting a New World, a project she started in 1999 when she was first hired by the DAM.

The Mayers were pioneer collectors of Mexican art; they became interested in the genre in the 1970s, when such work elicited little interest in the market. There were bargains to be had, and the Mayers snapped up significant items at a breathtaking pace. They were guided by the late Robert Stroessner, a visionary curator in the New World department at the DAM from the late '60s until his death from AIDS in the early '90s. Pierce credits Stroessner's efforts and the support, in so many ways, of the Mayers for making Painting a New World a reality. The Mayers are also why, despite the limited popular appeal of the show, it was feasible to do; their financial support means that the cost of the exhibit really doesn't need to be offset by ticket revenues.

Painting a New World is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue written by Pierce, along with Rogelio Ruiz Gomar and Clara Bargellini, both from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The catalogue is a valuable resource for such a little-known branch of art history. The story of New Spain is laid out, with the authors starting at the beginning and ending at the end. That sounds sensible, doesn't it? It's a shame the show doesn't follow that same format. Instead, as usual for the DAM, the pieces in Painting a New World are not arranged chronologically, but according to themes.

I've said it before, but I need to say it again: When a show is hung in a thematic, free-form way, as Painting a New World is, the historical message is hidden and therefore missing in action. What makes this so very irksome to me is that I don't think it helps attract viewers, which is ostensibly why these blockbusters are done. Art history is seen as a turnoff by focus groups. But you know what? I don't think they represent the people who actually see shows like this. I think those who do see them want to know their history and therefore their meaning. It's perverse, but the DAM persists in pitching shows to the people who don't go to see them while ignoring the ones who do. One thing I'm sure of is that this was out of Pierce's control.

The paintings displayed up front are not the oldest but are those that got the highest scores with focus groups or that make a point. So the strong suit of the thematic displays is the visual appeal and narrative content. And that's what we see in the first of many galleries devoted to Painting a New World: beautiful objects that convey a message.

Straight ahead is a true show-stopping moment, an oil-painted screen by an unknown artist titled "Garden Party on the Terrace of a Country Home" done somewhere between 1730 and 1750. Notice the anonymous attribution and vague date. Many items are so identified because there was little interest in this material until lately, and so much of the information about the artworks had scattered to the four winds. Now that there's increasing interest in the topic, many of these historical art mysteries may be solved by future scholars.

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.

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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