The afterlife of images. The endurance of colonial artworks

This article is based in one of the chapters of my MA dissertation “What happens when images move? Problematic in the study of Venezuelan colonial artworks: Three topics”

We have been so marked by the “era of art”, that we can hardly imagine how the “era of images” was, using art historian Belting’s terms. The borderline between one era and the next one can become blurry, and it is not really possible to mark down the specific moment in which a society or group of people start observing images in a different way. 

When we think of an image from an art history perspective, we locate it in its specific time and place of production, to understand what the image or painting meant at that moment. However, the same image can change meanings throughout time, depending on the spectators or even where this image is observed. 

Although most Latin American colonial paintings are of a religious thematic, that doesn’t mean that these images are an exclusive matter of religion: images are a matter of the society represented in, and their content goes beyond the theological, perhaps even further as we move farther in time from the production moment. It is the cultural use what will, in the end, define the medium in its history.

In some territories of the former Spanish colonies the changes observed in images were more obvious, such as with the Guadalupe virgin (Figure 23), whose image was transformed to a Proto-Nationalist symbol in Mexico, former New Spain, with the revival of the advocacy in the seventeenth-century as documented by S. Gruzinski. But what apparently happened with the Venezuelan colonial artworks is that they remained forgotten for a period of time, until different researchers sought to understand them and catalogue them already at the beginning of the twentieth-century.

The era of images

In comparison to other Spanish overseas territories, the Catholic Church’s force was not so strong in current Venezuela; its power was more superficial than real. Still in the eighteenth-century, the different territories that now comprise Venezuela were subscribed to a mosaic of juridical-administrative institutions, not only for civil life but in religious matters, which made justice and control difficult.

As such, most institutions were supportive, not directive, and structurally frail. Those places that were isolated geographically were even more difficult to control, and as such different visits from representatives of the Church were instituted to control them, as well as publishing edicts and ordinances to refresh the memory of the Christians on what was forbidden and what was permitted. Furthermore, the Inquisition was not a particularly strong institution in the Venezuela region. Even so, the triumph of the baroque image was exploited, and they required just a minimum of coercion and repression for its success. In general, the Catholic Church forbade images that didn’t comply with the established canons, yet they were reintroduced when they were still in the believer’s minds, with just some conditions for their control. 

The Diocesan Synod of Caracas of 1687 never expressed particular stylistic patterns to follow. It would only stipulate clergy visits to churches, hermitages, chapels, altars, relics, titles and instruments, to either legitimate them or suspend their use if they were inadequate for devotion. It is mainly the use or function that images –and other objects– could have what was more relevant for the Catholic Church in this Synod, as the doctrine priests had to make inventories of the ornaments found in the town churches. The Synod also states that repainted or retouched images had to be blessed before being hung again in their original place. Also, it was forbidden for private households, neighborhoods and villas to make altars. In general, the ordeals in the Venezuelan territory (from 1574, 1611 and the Synod) were hardly severe, and were commonly modified to adapt to different situations.

Political images, such as portraits of the king, also needed to be present in the New World. Everyone swore fidelity to the crown in front of images of the king, and this also reaffirmed the divine origin of the monarchy. But even when religious and political images were interrelated, their duration over time was different. Political image was usually ephemeral; cult images had a presence and immediacy that the former lacks and, as such, the political image fails in contrast to the everlasting triumph of the religious images.

When celebrations for the rise to power of Charles IV were being held in the city of Caracas in 1790, banners and royal portraits of the king could be seen publicly, protected by two guards. Nevertheless, once the festivities were done, the images were taken to the council chambers and stored, to not be seen again by the general audience. Even when political images were not perishable, their consumption was marked by festivities and celebrations.

Standing on the borderline

In this way images exalt power, and with political images commoners in the different colonies could know about the life of royalty, of other important individuals such as the vice king, celebration of victories and of treaties for peace. Gradually, creoles came to dominate the church and with them, in time, a patriotic epistemology emerged. In the emergence of this creole patriotism, the baroque image had a unifying function in an every time more métis world. In the end, the longevity of the baroque sensibility was a consequence not only of the Bourbon defeat in Europe, but the triumph of the Independence movements.

The New Spain Proto-nationalism can be seen not only as a resistance to colonialism, but as a demonstration of the power of colonialism to reproduce itself; being the colonial period a constant influx of images –political, religious– for certain individuals –if not for the vast majority– we wonder how this got reflected on the world of images while Nations emerged from the post-colonial state.  

With the nationalism processes that occurred in Latin America, the upper class individuals of the different regions started imagining their own political communities. For this, it is likely that they used the available elements around them, either to appropriate them or to negate them. It is in this negotiation that the elites started elaborating strategies of self-hood, new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration and contestation, negotiating nation-ness.

As such, in New Spain, the imaginary of the political image answered to the expectations and intellectual reflections of the elites which would exclude the urban and rural masses.In general, especially in Venezuela, Mexico and Peru, the key factor spurring drives for Independence was the fear of the “lower-classes” mobilizing politically.

It is possible that this situation of initial rejection for individuals of different castas in the Nation project would also bring a dichotomy in the way the elites viewed the images; in the colonial period there was no proper distinction between images other than by their theme: the cataloguing of popular art and academic art started to emerge in the nineteenth-century, possibly an unconscious subterfuge for the elites to separate themselves from those considered inferior. This seems to be a reflection of what Chakrabarty describes as the rise of non-Western nationalisms, in which the different nations would produce local versions of the same colonizing narrative, replacing what was once the centre, “Europe”, with some locally construed one. 

As such, “popular art” was seen, in general in Latin America, as having no history, and most of the emergent paintings in Latin America during the nineteenth-century were descriptive, in contrast. Among the new themes was the American nature as virginal –theme that was also reflected in literature– and the indigenous portrayed as noble savages, who had been ripped off from redemption. Although the baroque style, and all of what the baroque implied, worked as a unifying style in the former Spanish overseas territories –with its different nuances in every region or territory–with the continent becoming more accessible different influences gave art secular functions, which reinforced unity.

But where does this leave the colonial religious paintings? The only “traditional” works that kept being produced while the different nations were emerging, on an unstable condition and with no wealth, were the paintings produced for churches. Still at this moment in the nineteenth century the political function of images was not perceived, thus we believe previous paintings remained unnoticed for the development of this consciousness, keeping their religious layer latent and still functioning. The break from the religious system doesn’t seem to have been so definite, as many of the religious paintings persisted and, likely the way they were apprehended did not change. In Venezuela the negotiations for a new identity were being construed elsewhere in new objects, in new places of hybridity, while the previous, mainly religious paintings, stayed “neutralized” in the shadow of all the political and social changes that emerged throughout the continent, waiting to be uncovered and observed once again with a new mindset. 

While New Spain had the virgin of Guadalupe who unified the population from the beginning, the first images that were used to reflect this still in development national identity in Venezuela were done in the second half of the nineteenth century. They were not only portraits of those considered heroes, but they would depict different moments of the independence process. Artists like Martín Tovar y Tovar and Juan Lovera are among the names of those who manufactured images that still work as identity vehicles for the population. The presence for a national imagery at the beginning of the independence process, unless embedded on patriotic elements such as flags, were likely missing in the territory.

The era of art

The different Latin American independence processes presented certain thinness, and it is likely related to a certain reflection of Spain’s geo-political state at the beginning of the nineteenth-century. We could argue that the construction of a national identity would reflect this frail origin, thus the available elements to build an identity would necessarily rely on past cohesive elements. Already advancing to the start of the twentieth-century, different theorists stipulated the existence of a New World Baroque, focused on the hybrid re-figurations of the European baroque paradigms when transplanted to the colonial arena. This resulted in an overlapping of foreign and native elements in conflict, and as Alejo Carpentier explains, the …”«eye of the epoch» (the Baroque) increased its strength with creole-ness; the consciousness of being other thing, a new thing, of being a symbiosis, of being a creole. After all, the creole spirit is, by itself, a baroque spirit.”

Writers like the former, José Lezama Lima and Severo Sarduy read the cultural artifacts of the colonial period as instances of discontinuity from the European aesthetic norms, despite their external medium as an adherence to the metropolitan canons, but in a way failed to see continuity through time of the different vestiges of material culture by appropriating a wide and general conception of the creole.

Even when New World Baroque was already being discussed in the decades of 1950s-1970s, and seen as a differential hybrid, it took many elements derived from Western classification of its objects, specifically when images started being treated as art: the dichotomy “fine arts” (academic art) versus “crafts” (popular arts) was implemented by different scholars dedicated to the study of this supposed hybrid colonial paintings. The middle ground has been diluted, just like most of the paintings done in the colonial period in the Venezuelan region. Between the nineteenth and twentieth-century, anthropological and art studies failed to recognize those middle grounds in which negotiations occurred in colonial situations, and this idea still persists in many scholars views regarding the image production during the colonial times.

Still in 1979 Juan Calzadilla, art historian, believed that the artistic field hadn’t developed properly on the Venezuelan territory until the eighteenth-century. Sixteen years prior to that, Luis Mariñas stated that those paintings done by self-taught artisans were useless when searching for allusions to the national life. Overall, Calzadilla used the cultivated or art painting category in contrast to “popular” art. He also saw the paintings of such period as the translation of Hispanic traditions –while he categorizes the indigenous culture as primitive–, but he does observe great inspiration, freshness, grace and an authentic expression in the popular paintings done on wood. 

It was Alfredo Boulton’s systematization with his 1964 book, along with the research of other scholars like Carlos Duarte and Graziano Gasparini that a proper appreciation for the paintings done in this period occurred. Even so, Boulton’s work did present the usage of some unjust stylistic parallelisms between the paintings done in the Venezuelan territory and in Europe: “creole Mannierisn”, “Italian Mannierism influence” and so on are mentioned on his prime work. The current attractive of the colonial paintings of the Venezuelan territory seems to be on the side of collectors, investors and families of long tradition. The power that images comprise has been determined mainly by museums and antique shops, by important families and collectors. The power they exert has been limited to its attractive determined by the institutions, and it is a possibility that they haven’t been actively “advertised” or displayed on purpose. Colonial paintings usually come with a family name, as guardians of their existence.

The era of the antique

When images are not capable of making analogies with what came before them or to what makes them relate to the world, they fail on their purpose. Most of what is now considered “artworks” had a more functional than aesthetic purposes in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and already in the nineteenth century they seemed to have been forgotten, waiting on their walls or closets to reemerge in the twentieth century. When the Museum of Colonial Art of Merida was being formed in 1909, and the Archbishop of Merida was gathering all of the possible colonial objects for the institution, there are accounts that testify the ignorance some individuals had of their belongings: many did not know that possessed colonial paintings, and in some cases they even threw it away, considering them junk. Images failed to show their antique patina to their beholders.

Furthermore, the value that has been given to them is irregular, whether considered “popular” or “academic”. It might not have so much to do with the aesthetic cataloguing, or for how difficult the spectator might think it was for the artisan to achieve certain result, but on the impossibility of searching for the traces of creation, therefore lacking of the aura of transcendence.

In 2013, or perhaps early 2014, I visited the Casa Piú antique shop in Caracas. Both images above (Figure 26, figure 27) were being sold, among many other antiques not only from Venezuela but from different parts of the world. While the Holy Trinity had its own space hanging on a wall (although we must say it has big dimensions: 57×43.5 cm), Raphael (whose dimensions are much smaller: 30×23.2 cm) was cramped with two other paintings of wood in an opposite corner, as being just one example of “popular art”. It might be true that the attitude of the spectator would vary depending on the technical processes which gave rise to the paintings, but it could also be aided by its provenance, and the ideas and thoughts the audience could have from such regions. Nowadays, the town of Río Tocuyo is nothing like it was in the colonial period: it is just a rural town from which finding information is rather difficult.

For some individuals, colonial paintings might not have ceased to function as vehicles for worshipping and adoration since their production, but when it is viewed as an antique it stops being practical, and its new duty is to signify time: an immemorialization, as coined by Baudrillard. Many churches in Caracas still hold religious images manufactured in the colonial period; nevertheless, most of them are rarely treated as antiques, persisting as elements for cult.

Images kept moving, circulating, being consumed, being appreciated; but perhaps they also stopped for some time. Michel Campanelli, owner of the antique shop Casa Piú, mentioned that popular artworks are the most solicited because they are considered the authentic Venezuelan paintings from the colonial period. He further stated that he prefers to sell Venezuelan paintings to Venezuelans or inside the country, in a way to maintain them with people who will understand them and appreciate them. Perhaps by understanding their heterogeneity and stylistic continuities and discontinuities for the classification of the paintings done in the Venezuelan territory during the colonial period, we can break with some of the self-imposed Western canons that have not allowed us to rightfully observe them by themselves.

Author: laverias an anthropologist interested in art history, Latin American art, and sustainable practices. You will find her trying to pick up some free furniture from the street and re-purposing old fabric. Spanglish speaker.

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