When did European art influence Latin American artistic movements?

With the diversity of art styles that can be identified in any society and among individuals, it is insufficient to observe a whole region’s artistic production homogeneously and just by static influences, on how one place of the world influence the other one. From this question, at least two main issues arise: 1) the concept of art is a rather modern appreciation of the confection of objects and imagery, and 2) the idea of a binary organisation of the world (Western vs. non-Western), in which some styles and techniques would belong to one side of the world, and the other just blindly adopts it, does not give you a complete view of the artistic landscape.

We can, however, talk about moments of interaction between different visual and stylistic traditions that would result in new, hybrid elements, which we could differentiate as 1) the input of Spanish and Portuguese religious imagery during the conquest and colonial period, 2) the focus on local themes for the creation of a national identity to convey political and cultural ideas in the 19th century, 3) the first half and part of the second half of the 20th century, in which there was an ambiguous take on the possible superiority and importance of European models, and 4) a revisionist period, that rose from within Latin America with a wide range of representatives since the late 20th century until today.

The first interactions: from the 15th century until the early 19th century

Images –and writing to a lesser extent– worked as didactic colonial strategies for the end of conversion and acculturation. In consonance, the archbishop of Bologna, Gabriele Paleotti (1524-1597), and other members of the Christian hierarchy, insisted that paintings were the adequate “books” for the illiterate, even when they harboured the threat of idolatry. Missions were meant to impart religious services to the indigenous populations and, thus, religious images would be a must for the transmission of the Christian doctrine.

With the support of the Church, different local baroque developed in different regions of the continent, and each developed their own particularities, although they were all inspired by the European stamps and imagery brought from Europe. Scholars claim that the main inspiration for religious paintings in the American continent came from Dutch and Flemish engravings, based on stylistic comparisons between colonial paintings and engravings, as the one shown below. However, as we can see, the artisans took certain liberties even when utilising these engravings and European elements for the confection of the images.

The influence of Italy on the north, and afterwards in Paris and the rest of Europe was exerted through these reproductive prints, which conveyed the news of innovative styles, thus the different contacts cannot be reduced to the Europe-America dichotomy, giving a place to the different territories and identities, reproductions and individuals that changed with the translation to different mediums from different places.

However, writers like Alejo Carpentier, José Lezama Lima and Severo Sarduy, understood cultural artefacts of the colonial period as instances of discontinuity from the European aesthetic norms despite their external adherence to Europe’s canons.

The Independence and Nationalist movements

With the nationalist sentiments that occurred in Latin America, the upper class from different regions started “imagining” their own political communities. For this, it is likely that they used the previous elements to their disposition, either to appropriate them or to negate them. Probably in this negotiation many in-between spaces emerged, and as such, the elites started to elaborate strategies of self-hood, new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration and contestation: negotiating nation-ness.

From the start of the independence movements, the ideas of the Encyclopedists and the ideologues of the Revolution left a big footprint on the ideals of emancipation. This set the terms of intellectual and civic debate throughout the region. It was particularly in Mexico and Brazil were the esthetic models, ideologies, philosophical values, and topics followed closely what was happening in Europe.

Noteworthy is the fact that all the artistic enterprises that were founded during the conquest and colonisation period started to be gradually dismantled, especially those connected to the guilds and the Catholic church. As such, once the Republicans were in power, the Church started being seen as a representative of the old order, and an enemy of progress and liberal ideas.

While in the first half of the century the ideals of the French Revolution influenced not only politically but aesthetically, in the second half of the 19th century there was an aim for integration, and participation in international exhibitions and trade fairs, as the summit of progress and modernity. Social distinction played an important role, as it was linked to material possessions such as foreign goods that were mainly brought from Europe -or, if not possible, local objects that resembled in design those that came from overseas.

According to some more recent academics, the period between 1850 and 1950 can be seen as a co-production between Western and non-Western cultures, instead of a unilateral process driven by the West alone. Moreover, a deconstruction of the colonial and postcolonial perspective has given way for an approach from the global/national approach, with a multitude of dialogues with the focus on the mobility of culture.

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. According to such theorists, this resulted in “…incongruous overlapping of foreign and native morphologies 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.”

World Wars and the direct European influence: the 20th century

Already at the beginning of the 20th century there are reports of many Latin Americans as students in different schools of Europe, and that great art dealers of Paris and other European cities had a healthy and continuous demand from Latin American patrons. But not only would Latin Americans travel to Europe; European artists would also travel to the new continent.

It was considered by some art critics that Latin American art at the beginning of the 20th century was a servile imitation of European academic tendencies, developed in absolute ignorance of all that was not official art (particularly that of France and Spain), and that the innovations done by Latin artists were for a very small crowd and only pleased some. However, this is a widely contested idea nowadays, as there are many other interpretations that observe the different iterations and innovations within the presumed copies, and their particularities within their moment of production.

In the 1920s, besides some art schools being created throughout the continent, some Latin American artists travelled to Europe and became interested in the abstract experiments of the avant-garde. In 1928, the magazine “Revista de Avance” was invested in creating a Latin American art that could compete internationally, with Europe being seen as the standard to achieve.This created a geo-cultural consciousness, that privileged the avant-garde. In this way, the idea of a Latin American art was constructed, debated, translated, and displayed through print culture in the 20th century.

During the Second World War, many Latin American artists that resided in Europe returned to their homelands, and a lot of European artists and critics moved to the American continent as well. For some, this resulted in an awakening to art-consciousness. In other cases, some artists attempted to re-capture elements and symbols from the pre-conquest time, using them descriptively, or aiming to assimilate them creating modern representation of them.

But one of the decisive moments in Latin American art history may have come not from Europe, but from the United States with its “Good Neighbour Policy”, which provided generous facilities and rewards for the study of the arts. This alternative became more prominent after the return from Europe of some artists after the war ended.

However, later in the 1960s and the 1970s the economical, social and political struggles between the United States and Latin America, clashed with this inert image that was built of the latter, becoming more notorious the exclusive linkage of the art developed by Latin American artists with their pre-hispanic past. This imaginary place that was Latin America for the Western world, untouched by “modern progress” and inhabited only by indigenous, was a pervasive image throughout the 20th century. Due to an increased anti-imperialist sentiment from the Latin American artists, a lot of them moved on and outside of the United States, not partaking in the “Good Neighbour” policies (although a large group of Latin artists did keep their residence in such country, particularly in New York).

Theoretical revisionism

In the 1960s, Paris was the capital of Latin American art and literature, according to Octavio Paz. It was during that same decade, and in that same city, that Mario Vargas Llosa went from feeling that Latin American was an archipelago of countries quite unrelated one to another, to something completely different: as it happened to him and many other artists, the quest became to find through art the elements that make the Latin Americans as a whole, and to define their identity has been one of the main premises of the art created in this region: as an opposition, or as an answer to the most Western representations, as embodying the Hispanic, the indigenous, the African, and the many other backgrounds that have blended into the continents, or perhaps something completely different.

Is Latin American art an extension of the Western traditions, of the Western world, as elaborated by Vargas Llosa and Romero Brest? Or is Latin America still subdued to be the former Spanish colonies, with all that it entails? Due to the particular position in which Latin American artists are, they encounter themselves preoccupied with creating something that could be both universal and national, local and international. Marta Traba discussed the effects of globalisation on subaltern cultures, and critiqued the cultural imperialism from the North. For Traba, the Mexican muralism was impregnated with nationalist exacerbation, and she believed that Latin American artists should thrive for a superior representation of Latin America, based in the transpose to the magical and mythical.

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 “fine arts” (academic art) versus “crafts” (popular arts) dichotomy was implemented by different scholars dedicated to the study of this supposed hybrid colonial paintings.

It is possible that the key to the study of the influences of the artistic styles of a continent in another continent is not the right question or at least the correct approach, whereas we should be considering how the Western world has been influenced by the different contacts with the non-Western, the differences within its own regions and countries, as well as the hybridisation processes and slippages that have occurred in this continuum of shared experiences and styles, transpiring the different interactions that have occurred through time.

Perhaps it is time to ask the right questions.


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Author: laverias

...is 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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