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ART REVIEW

Visions of imperial power

Unhailed Latin American works from the three centuries after Columbus' arrival reflect a world view turned upside down.

October 29, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Philadelphia — GETTING a new empire off the ground is never easy. There are territories to be secured by armies, complicated political structures to be established, populations to be subjugated, elaborate trade routes to be forged, cosmologies to be altered and much more. New ways of thinking need to be conceived, developed, inculcated and embodied -- especially about personal and social identity.

And frequently, an awful lot of art needs to be made.

History shows that art can play a central role in embodying those new ways of thinking. Sometimes it shoots off in unexpected directions. And sometimes it takes the mundane but no less intricate form of the decorative accouterments of daily life: textiles, vessels, furniture, religious artifacts and such.

And once in a while art takes on many of those tasks at once. Consider the painting "Asiel, Fear of God," a three-quarters life-size figure of an amazing angel made by an unidentified artist in La Paz, Bolivia, sometime at the start of the 1700s. It's one among about 250 objects in an astounding exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the first show to focus on the rise and transformation of empires in the three centuries following Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas.

Dressed in the fine raiment and plumed hat of a Spanish or Flemish militiaman, all stamped in rich gold patterns representing embroidery on purple and crimson silk, the celestial spirit sports powerful wings nearly as detailed as an Audubon painting. The angel, Asiel, takes delicate aim with a long gun of the type employed by the conquering Europeans. Called a harquebus, the silver-trimmed weapon features a golden cord used to sling it over a shoulder.

Asiel's pale face is youthful and serene, his figure sleek and regal. The space he occupies is virtually abstract -- a chestnut-colored field, where the military angel's body casts an elusive shadow.

There is nothing quite like this marvelous, magical image in all of European art. The exhibition's catalog explains that such works were common in South American villages. Asiel derives from the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which says an army of angels led by the Archangel Michael controlled the stars in the sky. In Andean towns around Lake Titicaca, Catholic teaching faced indigenous cults dedicated to celestial phenomena. Spellbinding images of conquering angels helped change their minds.

Michael turns up all over Latin American art -- almost as often as the Virgin and Christ. San Miguel wasn't only a Biblical warrior who slew devils for God. He also virtually personified the Iberian Catholic monarchy in the Americas, in splendid triumph over New World pagans.

By the time Spain and Portugal were done, a landmass stretching from the Pacific Northwest to Tierra del Fuego had dramatically changed -- for better and for worse. The Spanish viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru, which today comprise Mexico, Central America and most of South America, and the Portuguese territory of Brazil produced an abundance of richly imaginative art.

Most of that art has been underappreciated -- or even unknown, since the 19th century political independence movements and 20th century Modern art together pushed Colonial work into the realm of virtual taboo. The art of conquerors had no place in the world those revolutions forged.

A sense of discovery

ONE result of that suppression, which began to wane only in the 1980s, is that the Philadelphia show is jam-packed with surprises. The paintings, sculptures and decorative objects in "Tesoros / Treasures / Tesouros: The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820" have been drawn from public and private collections all over the region.

Several works come from the Philadelphia Museum, which organized the show in collaboration with Mexico City's Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, aided by a Getty Foundation research grant. (Mark your calendar: The show travels to Mexico City in February and to L.A. in June.) And they come from excellent if sometimes unheralded museum collections in the U.S., including Denver and San Antonio, as well as European museums.

Wisely, the show is not divided into national categories -- Brazilian, Guatemalan, etc. Those states are modern. The older, transnational colonial view allows three striking aspects to emerge.

One is this art's opulence. Veritable mountains of gold and silver made Portugal's king the world's richest man and Mexico the Spanish Empire's economic fulcrum. That wealth also funded an extraordinary quantity of art, much of it produced under church guidance. Sumptuous theatricality everywhere awes and seduces. Among the more conventional floral motifs on a silk-and-gilt priestly vestment from Quito, Ecuador, flocks of brightly colored parrots seem inevitable.

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