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
Sullivan, Edward J., Art Journal
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. Braun, equally at home in the realms of pre-Columbian cultures and the vicissitudes of the post-Columbian art world, indicates in her preface that this study was begun as an antidote to William Rubin's aesthetic judgments. Yet she goes much further, presenting the reader with a solidly researched and impressively broad tableau. Even though the book concentrates on a limited number of cases, the author is able to indicate a wide variety of areas in the fields of painting, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts in which pre-Hispanic art has been understood (or misunderstood), absorbed, and transformed by artists on three continents during the last one hundred years.
The book is divided into seven sections. In the first the author attempts "to trace the history of the reception of pre-Hispanic objects in the West by examining 'powerful discriminations' made about them...in France, England, the United States, and Mexico" (p. 21). In this brief but highly informative survey, she unfolds a broad perspective of both opportunism and misconception on the part of European and North American governments, museums, and other institutions as well as private collectors regarding pre-Hispanic art that existed well into our era. She underscores the nineteenth-century interest in pre-Columbiana as a way of legitimizing colonizing ventures on the part of some western European nations. Particular attention is paid to collectors in North America where "the acquisition of [these] items...functioned as a form of claim staking for the United States, a country that was perennially uncertain about its legitimate right to land" (p. 32) and was constantly searching for means to validate its claims to the positive effects of Pan-Americanism, essentially an outgrowth of the Monrovian concept of Manifest Destiny.
This interest in pre-Columbian culture continued to play a role in the North American affinity for pre-Hispanic art forms into the twentieth century. The Maya Revival style of architecture, for example, may be viewed as more than a mere outgrowth of Art Deco. Its most important manifestations were found in Southern California, which, of course, had been Mexican territory until well into the past century. It was in the 1920s that such ambitious projects as the Carnegie Institute's archaeological expeditions to Mexico and Guatemala were undertaken. Many of the important collections of pre-Hispanic (and Colonial) art were formed in the U.S. in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s. Among them was that of the Brooklyn Museum. Herbert Spinden, who was responsible for it, even "hailed the Maya...as good Americans because they had 'skyscraper instinct'" (p. 42). On a somewhat more frivolous but no less revealing level, Helen Delpar cites a large benefit pageant held in May 1929 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Called "Aztec Cold," it was "announced as 'the most elaborate and resplendent event of the social season'...[boasting] a cast of one thousand who represented personages ranging from Hernan Cortes and Montezuma to a Hopi Indian chief...portrayed by impresario Florenz Ziegfeld." This event "illustrates the interest of contemporary Americans, as well as Mexicans, in the pre-conquest civilizations of the Western Hemisphere, and the presence of a Hopi chief demonstrates the tendency to link the Native Americans of the United States with those of central Mexico."(6)
The bulk of Braun's book is formed by five independent yet interrelated monographic essays. Two of these (on Paul Gauguin and Henry Moore) are revised versions of essays previously published in Art History and Res respectively. A third, dealing with Diego Rivera, is an amended version of a talk given by the author in a 1990 symposium at Dumbarton Oaks and printed in the acts of that meeting. Nonetheless they should by no means be considered a patched-together rehash of previously issued material. Each has been reworked extensively with new information, elaborate footnotes, and sumptuous illustrations (about which more will be said later). Although at first this reviewer was disappointed to learn that the author had chosen to concentrate on such a limited number of artists instead of presenting us with a synthetic study of this complex issue, she has done herself and her readers a great service by laying out a vast number of issues in each of these essays and linking them either implicitly or explicitly through the course of the volume.
The essay on Gauguin concentrates on his ceramics. Goldwater had dismissed this aspect of his work as too minor, yet Braun finds in Gauguin's pottery a key to understanding the detente he reached with the art of the New World--and especially that of Peru where he had lived for some years as a child with his widowed mother and sister in the Lima household of their aristocratic great-uncle. More importantly, according to Braun, an understanding of Gauguin's ancient Moche-and Chimu-inspired ceramics serves as the "foundation of his inclination to the exotic" (p. 52). She quotes the artist as stating: "In the remotest times among the American Indians the art of pottery was always popular. God made man out of a little clay" (p. 56). Done throughout most of his life, these anthropomorphic vessels (often bearing the artist's self-portrait or that of the wife of his friend and fellow artist Emile Schuffenecker) consistently attested to Gauguin's interest in Peruvian art, which he saw in the same light as the art of Japan and, ultimately, the South Sea islands, "linked with the primitive and...envisioned as Edenic"(p. 76).
Henry Moore had much less firsthand experience of the Americas than did Gauguin. He gathered most of his knowledge of the ancient American world from his visits to the British Museum. It was there that he was struck by the affinities among the Olmec, Mezcala, Teotihuacan, Toltec, and Huastec carvings and those eleventh-century Romanesque sculptures that he had seen as a boy in the churches of northern England. Following the lead of critic Roger Fry, whose enthusiasm for pre-Columbian art was expressed in his book Vision and Design (1920), Moore looked not only at ancient art itself but at what other modernist sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi were doing with the inspiration from it. His first modernist carvings were done between 1922 and 1924. Braun presents an intricately detailed reading of the development of the artist's taste for Mexican (especially Aztec) and, later, Peruvian pieces. She is quick to note, however, that although Moore "adapted the plastic conventions of Aztec figural sculpture...he ignored their native meaning," expressing (as was so often the case at this time with artists--and art critics) little interest in their societal context, focusing instead on his belief that "the inherent primordial vitality of Mexico's archaic forms could miraculously infuse new life into modern art" (p. 111).
At first Moore seems to have embarked upon his "primitivizing" experiments in art without having immersed himself in the direct experience of the classical tradition. In the mid-1920s, however, he traveled (reluctantly) to Italy to gain firsthand knowledge ("I knew even then that it had to be done," said Moore, "but it was an ordeal" [p. 111]). After this, following the Picasso-initiated vogue for neoclassical nudes, Moore brought about a synthesis of these "discrepant" neoclassical and primitivizing currents in his work. The principal result of this major turning point seems to have been the introduction of the reclining figure, based most closely upon the Toltec-Maya Chacmool figures but also redolent of the inspiration of Picasso's bathers and other nudes. Moore changed the figures gender, however, from male to female. Braun's feminist deconstruction of the artist purposes in doing this represents one of the very few muddled sections of this book. On page 119 Braun falls, uncharacteristically, into the use of academic jargon for an unconvincing reading of Moore's ostensible "equation between lesser race and gender" and his "overt aggressivity toward the female."
Braun astutely notes that it was not until Moore's later middle age that he actually visited the Americas. After winning the sculpture prize at the 1953 Sao Paulo Bienal, he traveled to Brazil and Mexico, returning to Central Mexico and the Yucatan the following year. Yet, Braun remarks, "it was too late for this...to have any meaningful impact on Moore's work...for another thirty years...his output was mainly in the institutionalized role of old master, recapitulating...old formulas" (p. 130).
Like Moore, Frank Lloyd Wright, the subject of Braun's third monographic essay, had little direct contact with pre-Hispanic art, never traveling to Latin America. Nonetheless, as the author makes clear, he (in a way not unlike Gauguin and other nineteenth-century eclectics) viewed its ancient buildings as an "exotic" source to be mixed, in his creative imagination, with equal doses of other non-Western cultures. Although pre-Columbian sources are most clear in the work from 1910 to 1930, one can sense a taste for specifically Mayan design in both earlier buildings as well as later structures such as Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, or the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Braun seems on slightly shakier ground with some of her comparisons in this section of the book. For example, the discussion of the pre-Hispanic elements in the early Renaissance-inspired Charnley and Winslow houses (in Chicago and River Forest, Ill., respectively) seems somewhat less than convincing (p. 144). Nonetheless the author's astute analysis of Wright's style and ideology as part of the Maya Revival movement measures up to her high standards.
It is with the last two artists dealt with by Braun that this book hits its stride. In discussing Rivera's complex relationship to pre-Hispanic art, Braun analyzes the political climate of post-Revolutionary Mexico when the artist returned from a lengthy sojourn in Europe. Archaeology was a burgeoning industry, supported by the state, which sought legitimization in pre-conquest communalism for its land reform and other social programs. This sparked Rivera's enthusiasm for virtually all aspects of ancient Mexico (with the exception of the achievements of the Maya) and led him to depict many ancient themes as well as a wide variety of popular types from contemporary Mexican life in his murals and canvas paintings. Braun's close reading of Rivera's work places him squarely within the aesthetic and political contexts of Mexico as well as the United States where, in the 1930s (with the decline of Mexican government patronage for murals he worked painting frescoes. Rejecting the many romanticizing myths that Rivera himself and many others have created about his art and its sociopolitical motives, Braun examines his career under a microscope of tempered skepticism that helps her, and the reader, arrive at a fulfilling and lucid assessment of the contributions of this complex and often contradictory master.(7) It is especially gratifying that Braun does not limit her discussion to the well-known monuments dissected in practically every treatise on Rivera's art. Instead she balances her argument by considering the iconography of such lesser discussed later projects as the Rio Lerma Waterworks mosaic (1951) and the fresco for the Hospital de la Raza (1953 both in Mexico City. A careful analysis of the artist's own collection of pre-Hispanic art (now installed in the mausoleumlike house called Anahuacalli, in Mexico City both in terms of content and the political strategies that his collecting implied, completes this excellent chapter on Rivera.
Joaquin Torres-Garcia was "committed to a revival of pre-Columbian forms...in the service of modernist abstraction," writes Braun (p. 252). She discusses the similarities and differences of the art of Torres (whose work, she notes on page 252, is often treated as provincial in both North America and Europe) to the various strains of geometric constructivism with which he was associated during his long stay in Europe (1891-1934) as well as the maturity of his distinctive form of Constructive Universalism (which the author mistranslates as "Universal Constructivism") developed upon his return to Montevideo. In Uruguay Torres found virtually no reminders of a pre-Columbian past; rather, he turned his attentions to Peru (where he never traveled) for inspiration. Braun's assessment of the parallels between elements of his mature art and various strains of Paracas, Inca, and other types of pre-Hispanic art in Peru and Bolivia goes far beyond those in other studies. Most interestingly, she posits analogies between Torres's philosophies and those of the Peruvian indigenists such as Jose Carlos Mariategui, founder of the Peruvian Socialist Party and of the journal Amauta. Equally satisfying is her highly perceptive analysis of the humanist and nationalist concepts inherent in Torres's Cosmic Monument (1938; Rodo Park, Montevideo) and its relationship to the writings of the turn-of-the-century philosopher Jose Enrique Rodo.
In the last chapter Braun ties up many loose ends. Her discussion of the wide-ranging use and significance for modernists of the grid pattern as a (pre-Columbian--derived) substructure for their compositions is discussed at length. The legacies of Torres and Rivera are also treated in detail. One wishes that more space could have been devoted to those contemporary artists (in Europe and North and South America) who continue to feel the impact of pre-Hispanic art. Braun obviously is very much at home in this area and she makes some interesting parallels, including the relationships of Robert Smithson's and Michael Heizer's earthworks to the art of Rivera. Unfortunately, too little attention is given to contemporary Mexican artists such as Dulce Maria Nunez and Nahum Zenil who reject the doctrinaire and romanticizing aspects of Rivera's pre-Columbianism while performing their own distinct and often cynical variations on pre-Hispanic themes to comment on contemporary Mexican society. Yet these are minor complaints compared with the enormously positive contribution made by this volume.
This book's physical production is, for the most part, splendid. Although when looking at some of the many lush colorplates one has the impression that the publisher sought to decontextualize and aestheticize the objects depicted (in sharp contrast to Braun's text we are nonetheless grateful for the excellent photographs, so unlike those often-grainy images published in archaeological reports or other texts. Plates on pages 192 and 239 constitute the few exceptions. The timelines and maps at the front and the serious bibliography at the back make this book especially useful. One hopes that a paperback version will be available soon as this is a perfect volume for student use.
1. Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art (first published as Primitivism in Modern Painting, 1938) (New York: Random House, 1967).
2. William Rubin, "Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction," in Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984), vol. 1, 1-79; see esp. 74-75, n. 14.
3. Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, exh. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990).
4. James Oles. South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 159-71.
5. Helen Delpar, The Enormous Vogue for Things Mexican: Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935 (Tuscaloosa; University of Alabama Press, 1992), see esp. chap. 4, 125-64.
6. Ibid., vii.
7. See, in contrast, for a highly romanticized view of Rivera's approach to pre-Columbian art, Beatriz de la Fuente, "El arte prehispanico y la pintura mural de Diego Rivera." Diego Rivera Hoy (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1986), 89-99.
Edward J. Sullivan, professor of art history and chair, Department of Fine Arts, New York University, has written extensively on Latin American art.…
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Publication information: Article title: 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. Contributors: Sullivan, Edward J. - Author. Journal title: Art Journal. Volume: 53. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1994. Page number: 106+. © 2008 College Art Association. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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