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Volume 58 / Humanities


Colonial: General, Middle America, and the Caribbean

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

HISTORIC MONUMENTS, many of which have been the subjects of restoration projects in Veracruz, Morelos, Jalisco, the Yucatán, Michoacán, and Oaxaca, have figured prominently in recent scholarly works on Mexican art history (items #bi 97017206#, #bi 97006071#, #bi 97013096#, #bi 97013024#, #bi 97006063#, #bi 97006059#, #bi 97006068#, #bi 97013015#, #bi 97013098#, #bi 97013043#, #bi 97006064#, #bi 97013028#, #bi 97006053#, and #bi 97006075#). Such architectural studies, continuing in the tradition of those by Manuel Toussaint and George Kubler, are important to the development of the field. New investigations of secular architecture offer a counterbalance to the considerable number of studies on 18th-century churches and they are indeed a welcome addition to scholarship which has encompassed conservation and archeology (items #bi 97017205#, #bi 97013085#, #bi 97006054#, and #bi 97013028#).

Equally significant have been the forays into 16th-century architecture, including the little explored humanist impact upon decorative programs such as the Casa del Deán in Pueblo (item #bi 97013033#). Such fruitful examinations contribute to our understanding of the melding of ideas that occurred due to the convergence of cultures in the Americas. Most importantly, investigations of religious orders in Mexico help define the advocational interests of a nation. Complementing current work on the social evolution of Mexico are the broader analyses of Franciscan, Oratorian, Dominican, and Jesuit endeavors. Three excellent studies not only describe the structures built under the aegis of dominant orders, but also provide the names of ecclesiastical patrons, their interest in specific advocational images, and even the function of liturgy as it relates to the structural form of notable complexes (items #bi 97013013#, #bi 97013094#, and #bi 97013082#).

The bountiful field of Mexican iconography receives attention, but not enough. Many architectural studies provide excellent surveys of a site, but analysis of the symbolism in sacred art is more often than not abbreviated. Technical examination and analysis of style demand a more comprehensive discussion of the imagery and ideas presented in major altarpieces. Citations of exegetical literature, rarely found in current works, would clarify issues regarding the selection of specific subjects. A Carmelite institution, for example, can be thoroughly analyzed regarding the evolution of its architectural components and restoration; the same study can be resplendently illustrated, inclusive of its chapel altarpieces, while failing to make a single mention of Saint Teresa of Ávila, whose writings provide the basis for examining Carmelite pictorial themes. Santiago Sebastián was among the first to recognize the need to emphasize iconography in Mexican art historical research. He is gone, however, and the challenge remains to fill in these theoretical lacunae.

Almost as severe as the lack of books containing "symbolic content" is the dearth of monographs on major Mexican masters. Encyclopedic picture books contribute greatly to the photographic record of Mexican art history and are often visually striking in their grouping of painters and sculptors (items #bi 97006070# and #bi 97013090#). The information they contain on the stylistic development of masters and their workshops, however, is superficial. Two texts provide important documentary information on colonial portraits (item #bi 97006069#) and the marriages of 16th and 17th century artisans (item #bi 97006058#). Another focuses on the polychrome wooden sculpture in the Museo Nacional del Virreinato de Tepotzlán, and it contains superb material on workshops and the social and religious milieu of colonial sculptors (item #bi 97006055#).

The decorative arts have received attention this biennium, with fine investigations of colonial lacquer (item #bi 97013095#) and works of tortoise shell (item #bi 97013026#). Also worthy of note are two texts on the silver of the Canary Islands (item #bi 97006066#) and Guatemala (item #bi 97013097#).

The issue of synchronism continues to be a subject of scholarly polemic, with a relevant study regarding the impact of precolumbian and colonial Mexico on Spain that should inspire further work on the topic (item #bi 97013017#). Panama also has been the focus of investigation, including an in-depth analysis of its post-17th-century social structure (item #bi 97006056#). A recent study of the architecture of the Caribbean before World War II describes the civic and religious buildings, also including significant information about waves of migrations (item #bi 97006060#). Two outstanding collections of essays merit special attention from researchers: a volume on Cuba edited by Felipe Préstamo y Hernández with articles concerning architecture and urbanization over four centuries (item #bi 97006073#), and the papers of the 1991 International Symposium on Historic Preservation for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean (item #bi 97006065#).

As usual, the reference items this year encompass a wide variety of topics, each of which contributes to knowledge about Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. One of the most outstanding is the bibliography compiled by José Guadalupe Victoria, which lists Mexican colonial publications dating between 1521 and 1990 (item #bi 97006062#). Though illness this year has precluded writing a lengthier commentary, it is obvious from a perusal of the corpus of new books to be annotated for HLAS 60 that scholarship in the field continues to be most impressive. A note of appreciation is given to Pilar Díaz, a PhD candidate (Bolivian painting) at George Washington Univ. for her collaboration in the preparation of this review.

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