The fruits of Lacma’s efforts to become a showcase of Spanish colonial art are on display


When Ilona Katzew arrived at the Los Angeles Museum of Art (Lacma) in 2000 as the first curator of Latin American art, she noticed a gaping hole in the collection. “I saw that we had a pre-Columbian collection and this collection of modern Mexican art, but there was a whole piece missing between the two,” she says. The missing piece was the art of Latin America under Spanish colonial rule, also called the viceregal period. “I was given the responsibility of sorting through this collection and pulling out work that was redundant,” she said of her tenure when she arrived.

Two decades later, a new exhibition at Lacma shows just how busy she was. World Archives: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500-1800 (until October 30) features approximately 90 works of art, objects and furnishings that detail a rich and surprisingly diverse, albeit contested, era. They reflect new hybrids like European culture mixed with Asian, African and indigenous cultures. Twenty of the works are new acquisitions and exhibited at the museum for the first time. The exhibition, writes museum director Michael Govan in the accompanying catalogue, reflects “our longstanding commitment to Latin American art. Our dedication to this field embodies our unwavering belief in the artistic and historical sophistication of the material, as well as the importance of providing visitors with greater opportunities to view and study these works as part of the history of the world art.

Unidentified sculptor and polychromer, Saint Michael conquering the devil (San Miguel triunfante sobre el demonio)Guatemala, second half of the 18th century, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Purchased with funds provided by the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of the Mexican Art Accession Fund © Museum Associates/Lacma

Since 2015, Katzew has piloted the acquisition of around a hundred objects in this field. This may not seem like much, but the curator has chosen carefully, both because of the limited number of quality objects coming to market and because there are no acquisition funds readily available at the museum. . Typically, new acquisitions are obtained as gifts or cash donations from patrons or a combination of both. For these acquisitions, there was also another source: Many works were purchased with “funds provided by the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of the Mexican Art Accession Fund,” according to the list of objects.

During a recent guided tour, Katzew discussed some highlights of the exhibit. The Catholic Church figures prominently in the paintings and devotional objects that fill the early galleries, which is not surprising since the church was directly involved in the colonization process. A display case in the middle of the first gallery displays one of Lacma’s most prized objects, the 16th-century silver “Hearst Chalice”, one of the few items already in the collection when Katzew arrived. It was a gift from journalist and insatiable collector William Randolph Hearst.

Unidentified artists, Chalice (Caliz)Mexico, 1575-78, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of William Randolph Hearst © Museum Associates/ Lacma

“He draws on very deep-rooted ancient traditions to create this new kind of Christian object,” Katzew explains. In shape and decoration, the chalice is reminiscent of European models, but this one also features iridescent feathers that form the background of miniature scenes at the base of the vase. The use of feathers was a pre-Columbian practice, points out the curator.

In the following gallery are several caste (caste) paintings. These showed couples – a white Spaniard and his mixed-race wife, for example – and their children. Although created to display “New World” exoticism and to codify racial distinctions for European audiences, they were also particularly friendly to interracial families, likely because they were made by local artists.

An 18th century scroll painting, From Spaniard and Morisca, Albino Girl (1763), is by Miguel Cabrera and was discovered rolled up under a couch in a Bay Area home, and eventually obtained by Lacma. It is a genre of painting in which Katzew has long been interested, and Cabrera is probably its most accomplished practitioner. The man wears the uniform of a Spanish soldier, a cigarette between his lips. He is seated with a pistol in plain sight by his leg, while the woman stands before him and wears a woven shawl and a calico skirt printed with a native flower pattern. In between, they lovingly hold their albino child, very blond and pink.

Miguel Cabrera, From Spanish and Morisca, Albino Girl (De español y morisca, albina)1763, purchased with funds provided by Kelvin Davis in honor of the museum’s 50th anniversary and partial gift of Christina Jones Janssen in honor of the Gregory and Harriet Jones family © Museum Associates/Lacma

Nearby is the first object Katzew acquired for Lacma, which is also one of the most important objects in the exhibit, a 17th-century Mexican folding screen depicting an indigenous wedding. On the right, the bride and groom leave the church, while local celebrations take place in the middle, including the mitoteor Moteuczoma dance, and the palo voladorwhere men “fly” around a pole with their feet tied to the top, a ritual practiced to this day.

“So you have the folding screen, which is an Asian format,” Katzew explains, “you have the [painting] style that’s very western, and then you have an aboriginal wedding with all these different games or performances. Meanwhile, Spanish guests in European costume are gathered at the bride’s house on the leftmost panel. “I love this item because you really have everyone in it.”

When asked if she will add more items to the collection, Katzew quickly replies, “Yes, if I can. Always more.

  • World Archives: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500-1800until October 30, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

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