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Volume 56 / Humanities


Colonial: General, Middle America, and the Caribbean

BARBARA VON BARGHAHN, Professor of Art History, George Washington University

INVESTIGATIONS IN ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY have featured prominently in recent scholarship in the realm of Mexican art history. It is gratifying to observe that after a prolonged period of attention paid to 18th-century and Baroque monuments, the pendulum has begun to swing back toward the provocative inmuebles of the 16th century. Recent scholarship on that century has been groundbreaking indeed. While, for a time, the monumental works of Toussaint, Kubler, and McAndrew seemed to have exhausted all paths of fruitful inquiry, new research has incorporated archaeological data, secular structures, previously remote sites, and issues of conservation (items bi 95022088, bi 95022055, bi 95022091, bi 95022116, and bi 95022099). These new considerations have contributed to updated methodologies and have effectively challenged some of the canonical accounts of 16th-century architecture codified in the fifties and sixties (items bi 95022092, bi 95022107, and bi 95022068). New examinations of social and economic histories have broadened the avenues of architectural study to produce accounts far more compelling than those limited to strict formal analysis (items bi 95022093 and bi 95022124). In particular, the function of liturgy as a formative structural principle continues to be explored (item bi 95022084).

In other areas of art historical research, the inexhaustible field of Mexican iconography continues to receive much attention. Iconographic studies of retablos, vernacular traditions, and sub-genres such as allegorical painting continue to be among the most intriguing contributions.

Familiar controversies continue, of course, to smolder. Most notably, the question of precolumbian continuity and synchronism remains current in exhibitions and monographs. While the issue remains as divisive as ever, new methodologies incorporating cultural analysis have been brought to bear on the subject and will surely broaden the debate.

Among recent publications from which scholars will surely benefit are the republications of classic texts by pioneers in the field of Mexican art history. Most notable among these are Historia de la pintura en Puebla, by Francisco Pérez Salazar (item bi 95022086) and the Obras escogidas of Francisco de la Maza, edited by Elisa Vargas Lugo (item bi 95022090). De la Maza's observations continue to be fresh and insightful after more than half a century and his formative influence in the field will be noted by historiographers for years to come.

One of the outstanding texts included in this section is El patrimonio cultural de México, edited by Enrique Florescano (item bi 95022053). This collection of essays has ushered Mexican art history and cultural criticism firmly into the postmodern era of interdisciplinary study. By employing new sociological approaches and methods and addressing issues such as cultural hegemony, nationalism, and the legal issues surrounding patrimony, this book may raise eyebrows, but its impact will surely be felt.

Historical studies concerning the role of prominent religious orders are welcome scholarly texts (items bi 95000209, bi 95000190, and bi 95000213), yet much more work remains to be done with respect to advocational images and ideas. Knowledge about military architecture and fortress monasteries also has been advanced (items bi 94011417 and bi 95000191). There is, however, a critical need for serious monographs on major masters. Encyclopedic clusterings of painters and sculptors produce stunning picture books, but with regard to individual artists, discussions about stylistic evolution and the completion of their workshops are too abbreviated. Equally meager has been the iconographical analysis of monumental works and pictorial programs. The late Santiago Sebastián López was one of the few specialists who addressed "symbolical content." His erudite approach to the examination of art will be greatly missed.

The publication of survey texts continues to fill important gaps in the art historical bibliography. Books highlighting the decorative arts and individual architectural sites play an important role in laying the foundations for future monographs and detailed studies. An additional benefit of these surveys - and, indeed, of most of the works reviewed here - is their contribution to the rapid improvement of the photographic record of Mexican art history. Chandeliers, jamb sculptures and retablos need no longer suffer from dismal b/w reproductions. Colonial painting has perhaps profited the most from the improved quality of reproductions: the catalog of the Juegos de ingenio exhibition (item bi 95022075) and Juan Miguel Serrera Contreras' monograph on Alonso Vázquez (item bi 95022117) feature particularly sumptuous plates.

As usual, the reference items this year are broad in scope, covering a plethora of topics, all of which reveal the diversity of Mexico's artistic heritage. The plentiful corpus of new books should continue to inspire further important contributions to the field. A note of appreciation is given to Graham Mayer, an M.A. candidate in Latin American architecture at George Washington University, for his collaboration in the preparation of this chapter.

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