The Influence of Japanese Art on Colonial Mexican Painting

January 12, 2012

Before Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World closes in just a couple of weeks, I wanted to share some of my favorite pieces. It may come as a surprise to some, but the relationship between Japan and Latin America dates back to the seventeenth century.  Japanese folding screens were first introduced to New Spain as exports by way of the Manila Galleon trade and by Japanese embassies that brought them to Mexico as gifts in the early decades of the seventeenth century. Known in Spanish as biombo–a Portuguese and Spanish transliteration of the Japanese word for folding screen, byōbu–the Mexican artform was inspired by its Japanese prototype. The versatility of the folding screen contributed to its quick adaptation to daily life; because the biombo was freestanding, portable, multi-paneled, and could be painted on both sides, it provided an ideal surface on which to paint. Biombos transformed spaces into definable spaces, and were indispensable elements in domestic interiors. Today, folding screens are such an ubiquitous part of everyday life frequently used to divide rooms and spaces, as they were originally intended.

Night Festival of Tsushima Shrine, Japan, early Edo period, Kan’ei era, 1624–44, gift of Camilla Chandler Frost, David and Margaret Barry, Lenore and Richard Wayne, Leslie Prince Salzman, Friends of Heritage Preservation, Gwen and Peter Norton, and the East Asian Art Council, in honor of Robert T. Singer. On view in the Pavilion for Japanese Art.

The unique and innovative format of the folding screen provided new ways for artists to depict subject matter. It differed from the usual format and iconography of an altarpiece, devotional painting, or portrait, and was intended for domestic use. Freed from the constraints of the Catholic Church, artists experimented with the genre of secular art and utilized the full artistic potential of the folding screen.

The folding screen was a favorite format for the depiction of historical scenes. On view in the exhibition is a remarkable example of colonial painting that depicts the conquest of Mexico on the front, and the viceregal capital of Mexico City on the back. Various scenes of the conquest play out over the ten front panels, among them the meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma, the siege of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, and the assassination of Moctezuma. The artists’ incredible attention to detail in the rendering of the human figures and their elaborate costumes invites the viewer to linger over each scene on the screen.

Folding Screen with the Conquest of Mexico (front), Mexico, late 17th century, collection of Vera Da Costa Autrey, Mexico, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/ LACMA

On the back of the screen, the transformation of the Aztec capital into the orderly Spanish colonial city replete with the city’s numerous churches and plazas invites the viewer to meander among the streets, searching the legend at the bottom left for familiar sights within the city’s boundaries.

View of the City of Mexico (back), Mexico, late 17th century, collection of Vera Da Costa Autrey, Mexico. photo © 2011 Museum Associates/ LACMA

Folding Screen with the Four Continents, Mexico, late 17th century, Museo de Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, photo by Sofía Sanabrais

The second folding screen on view in the exhibition includes allegorical depictions of the four continents as women riding golden chariots, flanked by the mythological figures of Ceres and Flora. Before the “discovery” of America, Europeans imagined the rest of the unknown world to be inhabited by Amazons, cannibals, and other unimaginable creatures. America, the second figure to the right, is pulled by unicorns, fantastical beasts, and behind her is a scene of indigenous cannibalism, an obvious reference to the misconception of the lack of civilization in the Americas.

Folding Screen with Indian Wedding and Paseo de Ixtacalco (front), Mexico, second half of the 18th century, Buch Molina Collection, photo by Sofia Sanabrais

The last folding screen in the exhibition portrays a slice of daily life in colonial Mexico. This scene takes place in Ixtacalco, a village in the environs of Mexico City known for its canals, canoes and verdant landscape that served as a respite from the hectic pace of the viceregal capital. This remarkable example of eighteenth century painting provides the viewer with a glimpse into the leisurely activities enjoyed by the various social classes of colonial society. In the upper right, an indigenous couple celebrates their wedding, revelers in flower-laden canoes enjoy music performed by musicians, and a family sits along the banks of the canal enjoying a meal.

Folding Screen with Indian Wedding and Paseo de Ixtacalco (back), Mexico, second half of the 18th century, Buch Molina Collection, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA by Yosi Pozeilov

The paintings on the back of this folding screen were unbeknownst to us until after the exhibition design was complete. The paintings depict Indians performing various activities, women, children and various examples of local flora and fauna. It was a delightful discovery!

Sofía Sanabrais, Assistant Curator of Latin American Art


Installing the Aztec Eagle Warrior in Contested Visions

November 22, 2011

At the opening of Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World stands the majestic sculpture known as the Eagle Warrior, from the Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City. This incredible example of Aztec imperial sculpture was discovered in the House of Eagles at the north end of the Templo Mayor archaeological site in 1980. The House of Eagles was used by the Aztec elite for meditation, prayer, and autosacrifice—an act performed to propitiate the deities of the earth and maintain cosmic order. This sculpture was one of two that flanked the main door of the temple that were perched atop banquettes bearing images of warriors in procession marching toward a zacatapayolli, or grass ball into which the instruments of autosacrifice were inserted.

The sculpture portrays a man wearing a helmet in the form of an eagle head, and a costume with stylized wings and talons. It is composed of five hollow ceramic clay parts: the two lower legs below the knees, the thighs and midsection, the winged arms and torso, and the head, which is enclosed in the bird mask. Supported by an internal structure, the sculpture stands just larger than lifesize.

For the installation of this fragile piece, LACMA’s team of art preparators and conservators worked alongside the archaeologist Fernando Carrizosa Montfort and the chief conservator María Barajas Rocha from the Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City.

View of the current archaeological site of the Templo Mayor with the Cathedral of Mexico City to the west in the background. The Eagle Warrior was discovered on the northern perimeter of the Templo Mayor site within a structure known as the House of the Eagles. After the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, the sacred precinct of the Templo Mayor was razed and, as seen here in this photograph, the colonial city was built atop its ruins. (Photo by Sofía Sanabrais)

LACMA conservators Natasha Cochran and Siska Genbrugge condition report the legs of the Eagle Warrior. (Photo by Sofía Sanabrais)

Archaeologist Fernando Carrizosa Montfort and chief conservator María Barajas Rocha from the Museo Templo Mayor check the stability of the piece before continuing with the installation of the sculpture. (Photo by Sofía Sanabrais)

Carrizosa Montfort secures the torso of the Eagle Warrior to the sculptures’ mid-section.

Barajas Rocha and Carrizosa Montfort carefully secure the head of the Eagle Warrior before moving it into the galleries.

LACMA’s team of art preparators, led by Jeff Haskin (right), carefully lead the Eagle Warrior into the exhibition space.

The sculpture is placed atop the pedestal.

Final installation view of the Eagle Warrior as it majestically greets visitors into the galleries.

Sofía Sanabrais, Assistant Curator of Latin American Art

Unless otherwise noted, all photos © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA by Yosi Pozeilov


A Contested Visions Travelogue

November 3, 2011

Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World opens to the public this weekend. Right now, we are busy installing it in the Resnick Pavilion before it opens to members only tomorrow. The objects are exquisite, and many are newly-restored and exhibited here for the first time. Over the course of preparing the exhibition, the curatorial team traveled to Mexico and Peru—the two areas of focus of the show—to select the artworks. The traveling was intense, taking weeks at a time and involving long treks at the high altitudes of the Andes (sometimes reaching 13,420 feet!), among other places.

Kaye Spilker, Ilona Katzew and Sofía Sanabrais pose before the Inca site of Sacsayhuamán, just outside of Cuzco. Sacsayhuamán is a terraced and walled complex that overlooks the city of Cuzco.

The great benefit of traveling to these locations is that it turned an abstract concept (an exhibition) into much more by allowing us to get a sense of those places and make connections that could only happen while on the ground.

The town of Chinchero, the Inca village in the province of Urubamba, twenty miles northwest of Cuzco, is renowned for its weaving traditions. Several people from a weaving cooperative remove yarn from a vat of red-colored dye.

This photograph was taken in the middle of a procession in the streets of Cuzco in 2008.

We’ve put together a slideshow of our journey. It includes our visit to Ollayntamabo, an astounding Inca archaeological site in the province of Urubamba in the Cuzco region; the town of Chinchero (also in Urubamba), renowned for its weaving traditions; the venerable city of Potosí in Bolivia (once part of the viceroyalty of Peru), with its impressive view of the “Cerro Rico” or Rich Mountain of Potosí, which contained the richest silver deposit in the world during colonial times, and the enchanting pilgrimage site of Chalma in the state of Mexico, famous for its healing waters and miraculous image of Christ.

We hope you’ll enjoy these images, and the exhibition.

Ilona Katzew, curator and department head, Latin American Art


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