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Getting at Heart of Mexican Art : Lecture: Shifra Goldman lays bare the body parts that have marked the mythic, visceral expressionism of Hispanic- and Aztec-influenced paintings for centuries.


NEWPORT BEACH — Bleeding hearts--wrenched from the body and adorned with the paraphernalia of intense religiosity--have upped the pulse rate of Mexican art for centuries, and so have other forms of visceral expressionism based on influences from both Aztec and Spanish Catholic cultures.

Summoning up a world of literally gut-baring imagery, Shifra Goldman lectured on "The Heart of Mexican Art: Image, Myth and Ideology" on Sunday afternoon at Newport Harbor Art Museum. In lieu of football hulks clashing on TV, her small audience got a taste of some bloody art.

A plump, forthright woman who managed to make the reading of her lecture a lively event, Goldman is a research associate at the Latin American Center at UCLA and professor of art history at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana.

She also is a frequent essayist for exhibit catalogues and journals, and the author of "Contemporary Mexican Painting in a Time of Change." Her new book, "Dimensions of the Americas: Art and Social Change in Latin America and the United States," is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press.

The bleeding heart as an icon--the ostensible subject of the museum's exhibit, "El Corazon Sangrante/The Bleeding Heart" (through Feb. 14)--derives from the vivid imagery of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a cult founded by medieval nuns in the Cistercian abbeys of Belgium, the Netherlands and the North of France.

In succeeding centuries, Goldman said, members of the Sacred Heart invoked their feelings of union with Jesus in ecstatic expressions of joy and pain that sound disturbingly sexual to 20th-Century ears.

One nun wrote of placing her mouth on the Jesus' abdominal wounds and "drinking in the sweetness from his heart as the blood of redemption." She passionately evoked the way "the lips of my soul penetrated the wound of my Lord and I drank fully of his blood."

But in the pre-Freudian era, even the image of a nun embracing Jesus in her bed was not necessarily disturbing to the Catholic hierarchy, Goldman said. (The Sacred Heart of Jesus rose and fell in official favor depending on the temper of the times, and was not recognized by the Vatican until 1856.)

Sacred-heart imagery had its biggest impact in Southern Europe, where the image of the bloody muscle began to appear in art. In Mexico, self-taught painters of retablos (altar paintings) took their cue from the symbolism used by such academically trained artists as Juan Correa.

In Correa's "Allegory of the Sacrament," from 1690, Jesus is shown kneeling on a blue ball (symbolizing the world) with a grapevine growing from the wound in his side. While a flock of seven sheep (symbolizing the faithful) look up in adoration, Jesus squeezes one bunch of grapes into blood that falls on a fine porcelain plate held by the Pope.

Cautioning that what she had to say "might be a little unpalatable for some of you," Goldman pointed out certain parallels between Catholic imagery and the brutal side of Aztec culture that horrified Spanish conquerors--even as they imported the Inquisition to the Americas and implacably burned accused heretics at the stake.

The Aztecs tore their victims' hearts from their chests as offerings to their gods. They drew blood from their own bodies by piercing their tongues, cheeks, and penises, flayed their skin to propitiate the gods and were charged by the Spanish with cannibalism.

But Eucharistic imagery--in which bread and wine are changed into Christ's body and blood--"also can suggest a cannibalistic practice," Goldman said, "now reduced to a mystic symbolism." Christian saints frequently were subjected to horrible acts of violence, and self-flagellation was the devout penitent's way of abasing his body for the glory of God.

The Crucifixion itself was a bloody business, Goldman noted. In Spain and Mexico, artists emphasized "the more bodily aspects" of the event, in contrast to Italian Renaissance painters, who typically showed it "as an event without pain and without anguish."

Goldman suggested that the parallels in imagery relating to blood, sacrifice and cannibalism probably were not lost on Mexico's indigenous peoples.

The Indians added "a hidden agenda" to Spanish Catholic culture, she said: Hearts, veins, arteries, muscles, bones and skeletons became "a politics of the body and a politics of sexuality."

This frank, body-based vocabulary has been used for a variety of mostly secular personal agendas during the past century.

What with a host of biblical temptresses to draw on, from Eve to Salome, misogynist artist Julio Ruelos was well-equipped to produce his disturbing Symbolist images. In a drawing from 1901, Mary Magdalene, the repentant prostitute, is shown as an evil temptress with a serpent coiling under her skirts and another at her naked breast. The sight of her gives the crucified Christ an erection.

During the 1940s, one graphic artist dramatically portrayed the victimization of peasants by showing a worker literally crucified by a many-armed cactus.

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