'A New Form of Self-Expression.' (Baroque Art in Latin America)

By Zea, Leopoldo | UNESCO Courier, September 1987 | Go to article overview

'A New Form of Self-Expression.' (Baroque Art in Latin America)


Zea, Leopoldo, UNESCO Courier


"A new form of self-expression'

THE term baroque refers to forms of cultural expression originating in a distinctive conception of life and humanity. The Renaissance, basing itself on a distant Greek past and turning away from the Christian view of man, had evolved a new ideal and a new idea of mankind. Renaissance man rejected the heritage of medieval man, the creature and servant of God, and wished to several all connections with the immediate past. A new start was to be made. Man should be the architect of his own destiny, as the French philosopher Rene Descartes would later insist.

The Baroque in Europe was therefore associated with a certain rationalism. It was more than simply an aesthetic phenomenon. Its striking diversity, variety of ideas and involution of forms reflect an attitude to life that was consonant with Jesuit rationalism and the dialectic of Spinozism. As an artistic phenomenon, it gave rise to a number of different forms of expression, among which Spanish Baroque appears to have been the origin of baroque art in general.

Across the sea lay America, the object and the instrument of the dreams of imperial Spain. In the sixteenth-century controversy about whether or not Indians should be considered as human beings, the ideas of the Spanish historian and theologian Juan Gines de Sepulveda prevailed over those of the Dominican missionary to the Americas, Bartolome de Las Casas. The result was that the indigenous people of Latin America were regarded as homunculi--something less than human beings--and as such only fit to be the servants and slaves of those who were considered supreme examples of the human race.

With their status as human beings called into question, forced to reproduce exactly the models imposed on them by the dominant culture, the people of the Ibero-American colonies gradually became aware of their identity. "What am I,' they asked, "a man, or a homunculus?'

In the sixteenth century, the creole culture of Latin America was a mere copy, and sometimes a poor one, of metropolitan models. Of course, in the following century the models came from an Iberian peninsula that was aware of its decline. The Baroque was an expression of that awareness, and the spirit of Spain was manifested in it. And this kind of artistic expression, with its characteristic diversity, was to enable Latin American people to manifest their disputed identity, albeit unconsciously. Thus appeared the marvellous products of Latin American baroque art, with its proliferation of contorted lines which expressed the originality of those who had fashioned them. Outstanding examples of this art include the little church of Tonantzintla, in Puebla (Mexico), in which cherubs and saints are shown with Indian faces; and the flowers and offerings which appear in other baroque works of art throughout Latin America.

But what is the true status of these works? Since they are not faithful reproductions of baroque models, should they not be considered simply as mediocre copies?

If they are considered to be poor copies, it is because they do not closely resemble the original; they differ from the model. Despite the painstaking efforts of the copyists, the copy was a distortion of the model. In time, their failure to execute faithful copies was to be the undoing of these artists; they were excluded from the colonial system, and even became subversive of it. …

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