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Berkshire Review

“Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia” August 18-February 15 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Dennis Carr discusses the portrait of Maria de los Dolores Juliana Rita Nunez de Villavicencio. Photo Virginia Raguin.
Dennis Carr discusses the portrait of Maria de los Dolores Juliana Rita Nunez de Villavicencio. Photo Virginia Raguin.

“Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia”
August 18-February 15 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There have been a number of excellent reviews of this exhibit, especially Holland Cotter’s early piece of August 27 in The New York Times. We still have several months to profit from “Made in the Americas.” My comments are prompted by my deep gratitude as a non-specialist for an exhibition that reinforces a new paradigm of art historical and critical thinking, even as it continues a tradition of a major museum able to bring an eye-popping collection of exquisite works heretofore not seen together. Dennis Carr has formed an intellectually rich exploration of global communication vital to the early modern era. Via a wide display of different media—textiles, furniture, metalwork, painting, ceramics, and inlay—we explore the relationship among the cultures of the Americas as the crossroads of Europe and Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

There is an element of awe and surprise; we are generally accustomed to our museums’ separation of media—decorative arts, painting, printmaking, sculpture—and time frames. Yes, we have flattered ourselves that often pockets of space are constructed as post-modern curatorial exercises, generally approached from an a-historical perspective. The intellectual focus is the juxtaposition of things—contemporary prints compared to Renaissance broadsides or a confrontation of African, Christian and Buddhist devotional sculpture. As provocative and engaging as these strategies may be, they play to our present-day flattening of the world, and aversion to historical context.

This exhibit does the opposite—it confronts us with the complexity of the past, and its challenge to our increasing desire to create neat categories, whether ethnic purity, religious cohesion, or a concept of eternal social structure embodied in the family. In this exhibition, we see that all is in flux—and it always was. And once again, it is the object, not the written document that so vividly conveys this “truth.” The textual record of our past, which for most of us is known only in the language of the present and in translation, is subject to interpretation molded by the present. The object is far more resistant; for example, we simply cannot erase the preponderance of homoerotic imagery on fifth-century Athenian drinking vessels. In “Made in the Americas” we find cultural expressions borrowed, copied, reconfigured, and above all, reconstructed as amalgams from multiple sources. At the opening of the show we find a large Japanese screen dated round 1600 showing the “southern barbarians” coming to trade. In proximity is a Mexican painting from 1704 of Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary who traveled with the Portuguese to Goa (India) and then Indonesia and Japan between 1541 and 1552. Xavier is presented with a map of Asia by the continents of Africa, Europe, Asia and America. An amalgam of styles is evident; rococo narrative in oil with decoupage wood border and inlaid mother of pearl predominantly on the body of the saint. Carr associates it with a quotation from Bernardo de Balbuena, who had come to the New World in his youth, resided in Mexico City and later became bishop of Puerto Rico. Grandeza Mexicana (Mexico’s Grandeur, published in 1604), metrically praises the virtues of the land. “In thee Spain and China meet, Italy is linked with Japan, and now finally, a world united in order and agreement.” The merchants’ and missionaries’ enthusiasm for order and agreement, could allow them to believe that they had acquired, or at least understood, the culture of the other, and brought all into harmony.

A Japanese six-panel folding screen dated 1601-1614, executed by an artist trained in the European style, depicts the Spanish king and his court. A Peruvian tapestry and a Chinese embroidery (juxtaposed for the first time) demonstrate how Peruvian weavers incorporated Chinese motifs using materials that also attest to geographic fusion, silk probably imported from China and wool from native llamas or alpacas. From Quebec, we find a chinoiserie-influenced altar frontal from a workshop of Ursuline nuns executed in wool and gold and silk metallic threads trimmed with needle lace. Many works are from private collections, such as a secretary from Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico, owned by Ann and Gordon Getty. Constructed of several types of inlaid wood, incised and painted bone, lacquer, gold and polychrome paint, its exterior recalls Islamic geometric pattern common to Spain before the Reconquista, as seen online by a pair of minbar (pulpit) doors from Egypt in the Metropolitan Museum. Open up the cabinet, and we find a red expanse decorated with gold patterned chinoiserie. The landscape depicts the territory of a hacienda owned by Don Gaspar Miguel Rivadeneira Cervantes in a style that recalls the indigenous traditions of map-making of the New World. In the same category are japanned lacquered furniture, such as the Boston high chest of about 1730-39 by John Pimm, juxtaposed with an amazing desk-on-stand by the Mexican Jose Manuel de la Cerda. Painting also displays this taste, exemplified by an image of Maria de los Dolores Juliana Rita Nunez de Villavicencio, of Puebla de los Angeles, painted about 1733. Fruit, flowers, trees, people, bulls, and horses cavort in brilliant colors across her cascading skirt and lace-trimmed bodice. The portrait and that of Maria’s husband have remained in the possession of her descendants.

It is inevitable that one reflects on the importance of religion to daily life in early modern times. Wealthy individuals were expected to provide support to religion and community religious activities, and thus cement social bonds. Many objects once served religious service or private devotion, many constructed with shell decoration called enconchado. Thus paintings are transformed into glittering objects pulsating with color and texture. A Wedding Feast at Cana from Mexico City displays oil-based color over a shell substratum. A Presentation in the Temple from Cuzco with gold accent on the figures (in the mode of Byzantine outlined drapery patterns) diminishes the verisimilitude of Renaissance perspective to emphasize a flat surface of hue and light. The painting’s original frame is composed of inlaid shell and carved and gilded wood.

A focused catalogue accompanies the exhibition; among the contributors, Gauvin Alexander Bailey gives a concise overview of the religious orders and the arts of Asia, especially the Jesuits which Bailey has researched extensively. Mitchell Codding gives valuable detail about the tradition of the lacquer art in Latin America, a technique already present before the arrival of Europeans. Donna Pierce and Karina H. Corrigan write on the import trade, in people as well as objects that began with the Spanish East Indies hegemony of 1565. See at the same time, the catalogue of the brilliant 2013 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, “Interwoven Globe​: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800.” The New York exhibition was larger, but Boston adds the complexity of the wide variety of objects and materials.

Carr’s presentation allows us to consider these objects simultaneously as objects of aesthetic beauty, expressions of craftsmanship, testimonies to a patron’s social position, and evidence of political and economic expansion. Indeed, the survival of such objects gives pause. The first reaction is a sense of their ephemeral nature. For a book stand (Jesuit import from Japan), textile, or picture, no matter its immense significance for its time or matter its often significant investment of economic resources, survival depends on multiple factors. Some, certainly, are natural disasters or transformation of locale. Other factors include the dedication of societies such as the Ursulines  or Jesuits. and more modern associations such as the Hispanic Society of America, the Peabody Museum of Salem, or the Newport Restoration Foundation and of individuals honoring family or tradition. Thanks to all the events, associations, and persons who have made present two centuries of a vital, far-flung culture.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, Il Museo di Roma a Trastevere, etc. and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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