Around 50 years ago in New York, I saw the most beautiful and the most literally racist exhibition I had ever seen. It was 18th Century casta art, from what was then called New Spain. Family pictures, along with carefully illustrated charts, tried to show more than forty different racial categories in Mexico in their social priority, from the white Espanoles on top to the Negros on the bottom and all the mixes between. The skill of the work was so striking that I wondered, did this deeply developed art exist simply to embody Imperial Spain’s rancid racism? That’s what the show implied.
Now a new show at LACMA tells the truth: Casta painting was just one part of a thriving and singular art world in Mexico of that time. Though it was a subject nation of some five million people, Mexico had its own families of great artists (like Juan Rodríguez Juárez), its own art academies, and its own objectives and iconographies.
A hundred pictures from 1700 to 1790 are on display at LACMA, some stunning, some which look quite European, many reflecting national traits that can only be termed singular. But the artists were mandated to portray a society unified and classified in monarchical order. Digressions might be reported to the Inquisition.
The greatest supporters of these artists were the Catholic religious orders — particularly the Jesuits. Works such as Antonio de Torres’ “Assumption of the Virgin,” who is draped in flowing blue and surmounted by a very literal rendering of the Holy Trinity, were intended to convey the teachings of the Church to the illiterate majority and inspire the intellects of the elite.
Other works dare political agendas. For instance, one shows a baroque pile of figures topped by the Mother Empire feeding her Spanish children. But at the bottom, the far-flung native offspring of the empire are left hungry.
Others verge into pure sensuality. Miguel Cabrera’s “The Divine Spouse,” for instance, shows a voluptuous Jesus, clad in a pajamas-like costume, repining in a bed of polychrome flowers, his brown eyes set in an alluring glance. This painting (above) was done for a convent, and you wonder just what the nuns wound up contemplating.
Modern Mexico, which long disdained the art of its colonial period, has finally rediscovered this cultural capstone between the Aztecs and Diego Rivera. In Mexico City, 117,000 people saw this show. Now, you can see it at LACMA.
“Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici” is on view at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion through March 18, 2018. The exhibit was co-organized by LACMA and Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C. in Mexico City.