- Wonderful Things: Artifact and Argument in the Brooklyn Museum’s “Converging Cultures”
When archaeologist Howard Carter broke through the doorway to King Tut’s burial chamber, his patron Lord Carnarvon, who was standing behind him in the narrow passage, asked him what he could see. “Wonderful things,” Carter replied. These words describe the contents of the Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibit of Spanish Colonial art with equally apt succinctness. While the objects in the exhibit have not been buried quite as long as those that Carter excavated, most of them have been safely at rest in the less frequented storage areas of the Brooklyn Museum since 1956, when the museum’s last exhibit of Spanish Colonial art was dismantled and its contents distributed among four separate departments of the museum. Now they have reemerged, and, in combination with a few [End Page 138] loans from other museums, have been reassembled by a team of curators, conservators, and scholarly advisors into a dazzling exhibit about the artistic and artisan achievements of the viceroyalties of Peru and New Spain from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The subtitle of the exhibit, “Art and Identity in Spanish America,” provides the theme and thus a clue to the argument that accompanies the exhibition of these magnificant artifacts: since their origins were in a place and time where highly developed civilizations came together for the first time, how do these objects relate to “the issues of identity that were of concern to colonists and native peoples alike?” In other words, how Spanish is the art and architecture of Spanish America, and how Indian is it?
This is not the first exhibit of Spanish Colonial art to raise this question, and it surely will not be the last. Indeed, Converging Cultures takes its place on a long continuum of exhibitions that have wrestled with the question of mestizaje, or the mingling of European and Spanish peoples in the Americas. The first major exhibit to deal with the subject was Mexican Arts, organized by Rene d’Harnoncourt for the American Federation of Arts in 1930. In many ways Mexican Arts was a prototype for many of the exhibits that followed, although its extreme stance was tempered somewhat in the subsequent shows. It was assembled with the cooperation and the vigorous participation of the Mexican government and the government-sponsored Mexican art establishment; its chief American patron was Ambassador Dwight Morrow; its distinguished advisory committee included Diego Rivera, Dr. Atl, and the Mexican Minister of Finance Luis Montes de Oca; it opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and travelled to Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Washington, Milwaukee, Louisville, and San Antonio; and like many subsequent exhibits it had a political subtext. It was intended to help repair a relationship that had been strained by the Mexican government’s expropriation of American-owned oil and agricultural properties during the preceeding decade.
Mexican Arts took an uncompromisingly indigenist stand, reflecting the intellectual and political climate of the 1910 revolution in Mexico, a revolution that was still unfolding when the exhibit opened: art in Mexico received its vitality from its Indianness, rather than from any European styles or models. In fact, the opening sentence of d’Harnoncourt’s catalogue essay stated unequivocally that “This is an exhibit of Mexican arts, not of arts in Mexico.” Mexican arts, he explained are “such works of art as are an expression of Mexican civilization”; all “unassimilated copies of foreign models must be disregarded for the purposes of this exhibition.” [End Page 139] Many objects produced in Mexico in the past have been of “indubitable artistic merit but with no possible relationship to the cultural arts of the country.” They are, in fact, only “the results of foreign arts accidentally practiced on Mexican soil.” Concrete examples of such objects, d’Harnoncourt wrote, were the blue-and-white ceramics...