Sunday, July 13, 2014

Behind Closed Doors: The Spanish American Home, 1492--1898, at NOMA and the Brooklyn Museum

The title, Behind Closed Doors, sounds racy, but the subtitle, Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898, suggests something more sedate. In fact, this overview of how the newly rich lived in the old Spanish colonies back when sugar was as profitable as oil is now, deals as much with social history as it does with art history. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, and featuring works from NOMA's own significant Spanish colonial collection, this show excels at deploying elegant and occasionally bizarre objects to illustrate the lifestyles of the diverse peoples who used their wealth to create a culturally rich alternative to the staid traditions of Old Europe. In Spanish colonial society, wealth, religiosity and art were all flaunted and their culture was also part of our history--the pelican on the Louisiana state flag is actually an old Spanish Catholic (and Masonic) symbol. And although slavery was horribly cruel everywhere it existed, the French and Spanish were more open to the richness of Native American and African cultures of the sort that were celebrated in this city's Congo Square, but were banned in the British-influenced American South. That relative openness helps to explain why Spanish mestizo and Afro-Creole people appear somewhat prominently in this show.

Included among the blood and gold-inflected art objects are works that reflect the exoticism of a newly ascendant class. For instance, the Inca king, top, is a mid-18th century canvas commissioned by a Spanish -Inca mestizo of means, while another, Agostino Brunius' Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, above illustrates the stylish elegance of a mixed race elite. But even Spanish colonial religious art could be quite surreal. Our Lady of Agony depicts a lady saint holding Jesus in much the way the Virgin Mary is often seen holding the Christ child, only this is a diminutive version of a bearded, bleeding crucified Jesus being held by a woman who is clearly twice his size. I have often suspected that surrealism was really born in Latin America centuries before it appeared in 1920s France, and this unpredictable show clearly furthers that assertion. ~Bookhardt

Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898, Through Sept. 21, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.