Nepantla: Views from South 2.2 (2001) 317-353
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Plantation Pictures in the Americas, circa 1880
Land, Power, and Resistance
I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe, but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world: America has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant them; Africa has been depopulated so as to have the people to cultivate them.
—J. H. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage to Isle de France,
Isle de Bourbon, the Cape of Good Hope… with New Observations on
Nature and Mankind by an Officer and a King (1773)
Hacienda Aurora (figure 1) was painted about 1898 by Francisco Oller y Cestero (1833–1917), a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It depicts one of the island's many sugar plantations, located in Carolina and owned by the Saldaña family, friends of the artist. We see in the foreground sugarcane swaying gently in the breeze, anchored to the sugar mill and stack in the middle distance, and overhung by a bright blue sky with billowing clouds. It is a pastoral, serene image, with no outward reference to the strife or suffering associated with the plantation and its principal crop. When the Museo de Arte de Ponce mounted an exhibition in 1983 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Oller's birth, this picture was displayed on the front cover of the catalog. Opening the essay on Puerto Rican nationalism with a discussion of Hacienda Aurora, art historian Albert Boime (1983, 37) observed that it “speaks to me of Oller's privileged social position as a creole liberal.” In the international context of the Guggenheim's exhibition 1900, part of the art world's celebration of the new millennium, Oller's Hacienda Aurora represented Puerto Rico, appearing perfectly at home among the largely conservative assemblage (Rosenblum, Stevens, and Dumas 2000). Yet the depiction of a subject as emotionally charged as a [End Page 317] sugar plantation, painted on the eve of the Spanish-American War, can no longer pass as a serene, impressionistic landscape.
“I know of no good literature that serves to praise established values,” Gabriel García Márquez remarked in a famous conversation with Mario Vargas Llosa. “I have always found in good literature the tendency to destroy the established, the accepted, and contribute to the creation of new societies, in the end, to better the lives of men” (quoted in Saldívar 1991, 37). Along with “good” literature, he could have added that significant pictorial art challenges contemporary ideological assumptions. Infused with postmodern and deconstructionist theory, art history over the past twenty-five years has been engaged in a re-vision of major nineteenth-century art in line with García Márquez's claim. And indeed other canvases by Oller have been credited with challenging the dominant viewpoints of their place and time. His El velorio (The wake; 1893, Museo de Historia, Antropología y Arte, Universidad de Puerto Rico) has been seen as a complex critique of the role of folk superstition and Catholicism in the lives of the rural population. Similarly, his School of Master Rafael Cordero (1890–92, Puerto Rican Athenaeum), which depicts the workshop where the tobacco worker and freed slave gave free schooling to children of different social classes and racial origins in Old San Juan, is read as an indictment of Puerto Rico's repressive social system.1 These pictures however, consist of figure ensembles that lend themselves to interpretation through the actions and physiognomy of the human actors; landscape painting—with its focus on what is for [End Page 318] many of us the more abstract realm of the natural world—requires other analytic tools. We need now to reconsider this plantation picture, focusing on the way that the Puerto Rican artist seized upon landscape ideologies in his work. I argue that its apparent complicity with liberal Creole attitudes masks a subtler political message, and that it...