And value lay in the fact that work from New Spain was recognized as distinctive: not a European knockoff, but a different product with its own styles, stories and symbols. Counter-Reformation stridency never really took hold in New Spain. By the 18th century, a seductive gentleness had settled into Mexican church art, as seen in Miguel Cabrera’s allegorical picture “The Divine Spouse” from around 1750. A much copied image, thought suitable for contemplation by cloistered nuns, it presents Jesus as a pink-cheeked man-child reclining, as soft and plump as a piece of tropical fruit, on a bed of flowers.
If overt eroticism tended to be downplayed in Mexican painting, exoticism was a selling point. It lent fascination to culturally specific icons like the miracle-working Virgin of Guadalupe, with her Byzantine splendor and indigenous roots. And to European eyes certain types of Mexican portraits — of nuns wearing hand-painted badges like breastplates, and arriviste urban matrons showing off their wealth — must have had a picaresque appeal. One such matron, Doña Juana María Romero, seen in a 1794 likeness by Ignacio María Barreda, wears two of almost everything — two corsages, two watches, two strands of pearls — along with a prideful smirk, not unearned considering she had survived the birth of 13 children.
Maybe the most intriguing of all Spanish American portraits are those that come under the label of “Casta Painting.” This genre, devoted to pictures of racially mixed couples and families, was both documentary and promotional. On the one hand, it provided a kind of DNA profile of a colonial society built on the intermingling of ethnic bloodlines, European, Indian and African. And it suggested how, through socio-economic ranking by race, European power could be maintained. By colonial law, for example, a woman with ‘‘black blood” was banned from wearing European-style clothing.
Of course, prohibition produced alternative power of its own, such as marvelously inventive clothing styles — power-couture, for sure — which artists delighted in detailing. While we may now read Casta Painting negatively, as a record of programed exclusion, it was intended to convey what was then considered a positive message, to advertise New Spain as a good place to be: racially mixed but, thanks to thorough policing, well-ordered and danger free.
In 1996, the year of the Brooklyn Museum survey, a young scholar named Ilona Katzew organized a memorable exhibition of Casta Painting — at the time little-known outside the field — at the Americas Society Art Gallery in Manhattan. And as present chairwoman of the Latin American department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she has led the team that put “Painted in Mexico” together: Ronda Kasl of the Met; Jaime Cuadriello of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City; Paula Mues Orts of the Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía; and Luisa Elena Alcalá, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain.
Despite the size and scope of the show, the curators modestly assert in their information-rich catalog that it marks the beginning, not the end, of a scholarly project. They have also taken the opportunity to somewhat revise what “Spanish Colonial Art” means by, overall, downplaying gilt, ornamentation and spectacle in favor of complex cultural narratives and subtler visual drama.
A 1793 painting called “The Discovery of the Body of Saint John of Nepomuk” by the Puebla-based artist Miguel Jerónimo is an example. The story of this 14th-century Bohemian martyr followed a familiar pattern: pious life, terrible death. After refusing to reveal the secrets of the confessional to a nosy king, the saint was subjected to brutal torture before being drowned in the Moldova River.
His end, in short, offered all the ingredients for a horror show image, but that’s not what we get. Unusually, it’s a nighttime scene. The saint, wrapped in a black cloak or shroud, floats on the river’s surface, his body lapped by little feathery waves. There are traces of his ordeal — ropes dangle from his wrists — but no sign of pain. His figure is framed — and buoyed up, it seems — by flaming stars; they look like runway lights in an airport, guiding him toward takeoff. People shout from the riverbank; he doesn’t hear. Angels descend with gifts; he doesn’t see. He’s dead, or asleep, or concentrating deeply before making his entry in the grand silent opera of Beyond.