- Buen Gusto and Classicism in the Visual Cultures of Latin America, 1780-1910 by Paul B. Niell and Stacie G. Widdifield (eds.)
In this volume, Paul B. Niell and Stacie G. Widdifield have collected essays that chronicle a subject often neglected in the history of Latin American art and culture: the promotion of classicism in the visual arts, specifically in late 18th and 19th century Latin America. In various documents of the period, the term buen gusto (good taste) is used to refer loosely to the virtues of classical visual objects and activities, and, according to much of the scholarship of late colonial and early national Latin America, buen gusto is a phenomenon to be revived. As is proven time and again in the essays, from the revival of buen gusto emerges neoclassicism, not only in visual but also cultural forms, thereby providing a new lens through which Latin American art and ideology may be viewed. The perspectives on these neoclassical forms are varied, including “social, political, economic, cultural, and temporal situations” (p. xiv) that demonstrate how neoclassicism was at various times imposed as an instrument of the church and state, adapted to suit a reinvented national identity, and cultivated as a social and cultural construct. In doing so, the editors trace the neoclassical phenomenon across not only an extensive historical period but also a broad geographical landscape as well.
At the conclusion of the editorial introduction, the criteria according to which essays and case studies are collected in the volume are emphasized. Three sections correspond to interrelated perspectives on the buen gusto (and neoclassicism): Redefining Urban Space and the Promotion of Classicism, Imprinting Classicism and Its Consumption, and Dividing Lines: Practices and Problems. In the chapters themselves an emphasis is placed on four interrelated aspects: first, the extensive array of visual styles that go beyond the traditional [End Page 225] painting, sculpture, and architecture; second, the process by which these styles actually reinforce (in addition to reflecting) colonial and national power structures; third, the interpretations of classicism during Bourbon colonial rule; and finally, the functions of buen gusto in the movement from viceroyalty to nation. In the chapter entitled “El Templete: Classicism and the Dialectics of Colonial Urban Space in Early Nineteenth-Century Havana, Cuba,” an engrossing analysis of the ways in which classicism was modified according to local factors is provided by Paul Niell. In the context of vice-regal and early national Latin America, Havana was one of three capitals (along with Lima and Mexico City). Thus Cuba serves as an ideal locality for the examination of urban space, one of the many visual media discussed in the chapters. In 1828, the central plaza of Havana, Cuba, the Plaza de Armas, was “redefined”—or, as is argued in this case study, reconfigured—by the construction of a memorial intended to commemorate the foundation of the city. Not surprisingly, this memorial, known as El Templete, was designed to commemorate where the first mass of the city was held. It was conceived according to conceptions of buen gusto, as royal officials collaborated with the Creole population to establish a memorial that combined elements of both Spanish and local identity. In the essay, Niell illustrates the ways in which the memorial is bound up in sociopolitical questions about, among other issues, civilization and barbarism. In the analysis, Niell presses the case that El Templete cannot be reduced to one or another identity, emerging instead as an example of classicism that was shaped to express local subversive ideals.
In the segment entitled “A Western Mirage on the Bolivian Altiplano,” Robert Bradley examines the ways in which the print media of colonial and national Latin America were fashioned to idealize the Gateway of the Sun at Tiwanaku, a pre-Columbian geographical artifact of the first millennium CE. In various prints and published illustrations of the period, the Gateway (a free-standing...