Book Reviews: Pre-Columbian Art in the Twentieth Century -- Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient American Sources of Modern Art by Barbara Braun

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Barbara Braun. Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient American Sources of Modern Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993. 340 pp.; 97 color ills., 214 b/w. $75.00

One of the most prominent explicators of the relationship between modern Western and non-Western artistic traditions was Robert Goldwater. His 1938 Primitivism in Modern Art dealt with issues theretofore little considered regarding the impact of the formal qualities of African, Oceanic, and other traditions upon European (mostly French) artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.(1) Although Goldwater's writings left much to be desired in terms of contextualization of the "primitive" work with which he dealt, he nonetheless opened the eyes of many to some of the key elements in the artistic formation of a number of the principle European modernists. Unfortunately, the traditions of pre-Columbian art are mentioned only briefly in his text, dismissed as being neither primitive nor influential.

Forty-six years after Goldwater's study, a similar stance was taken by William Rubin in his highly controversial exhibition Primitivism in 20th-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.(2) Again dealing mainly with the artists in the orbit of the School of Paris, Rubin expressed the by-then somewhat shocking belief that pre-Columbian art exerted only a relatively minor impact on late nineteenth-and earlier twentieth-century Western painters and sculptors. Such a surprisingly myopic assertion seemed to go relatively unchallenged in the critical literature directed toward the exhibition.

In the decade since Rubin's show, the amount of research and publication in all branches of Latin American art (from pre-Columbian to modern) has increased precipitously as has the number of exhibitions devoted to it. Our ideas have been refined and, in many cases, transformed regarding many aspects of the numerous cultures from Mexico to the southern tip of South America. Yet in an age of increasing specialization on the part of art historians, it is more and more difficult to find texts that deal in an authoritatively comparative way with more than one area. Very few scholars have been willing to seriously investigate and analyze the impact of pre-Hispanic art on that of this century. Occasionally, sweeping gestures are made attempting to link the arts of the past and present. Such was the case in the exhibition Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, organized in 1990 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.(3) With a heavy dose of support from the Mexican government, which saw in the show a perfect opportunity to idealize (and indeed, romanticize) national culture and bolster the image of the NAFTA-enthusiastic PRI government, this panorama attempted to provide a seamless whole of "Mexican civilization" from Olmec times through the twentieth century.

Although one section of the exhibition did indeed physically lead the visitor smoothly into the next, neither formal nor ideological links between the vastly different historical eras were made clear. Several recent studies of the impact of Mexican visual culture on that of North America in the twentieth century have unsatisfactorily treated, in their otherwise solidly argued theses, the impact of pre-Columbian art on the moderns. James Oles's catalogue essay for the South of the Border exhibition (Smithsonian Institution, 1993) mentions, for instance, the importance for Anni Albers, Josef Albers, and Marsden Hartley of their encounters with Aztec and Zapotec art but shies away from any serious analysis of it.(4) The enormously revealing impact of pre-Hispanic (and Colonial Baroque) architecture on North American buildings of the 1920s and 1930s is touched on only briefly. The same is true in a more ambitious treatment of the interaction of Mexican and United States cultures, Helen Delpar's 1992 study The Enormous Vogue for Things Mexican.(5)

Fortunately Barbara Braun has, at least in part, remedied this lack of reflective critical assessment in her thought-provoking and elegantly written volume. …