Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521-1821

Article excerpt

Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521-1821, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

Art historians of all areas, time periods and persuasions ought to acknowledge this work as a significant milestone in the ongoing evolution of our discipline. This college-level textbook represents the first serious chronological and medium-based survey of the art and architecture of Spanish Imperial America. Donahue-Wallace has met in solid fashion an extremely tall order, to produce a review with sufficient breadth and depth to reflect, and in turn command, some due respect for the artistic creations of an often dizzyingly complicated history stretching over a vast and diverse territory for more than three hundred years. The publication is by no means infallible; it sometimes feels overly rigid in its categories, makes a strikingly political omission, and is most frustratingly hampered by insufficient illustrations which simply do hot do the material justice. Ultimately, however, such critiques are tempered hot only by the fact that the work is of clear and immediate benefit to a growing body of teachers and students of colonial Latin America, but also because its approach offers the broader discipline of art history a challenge to rethink some of its foundational principles and ongoing practices.

Just a decade ago, most US universities had no experts on colonial Latin American art history, and therefore few classes were taught in the field. By extension, there was little demand for an associated college text. My experience as a graduate student at the time reflected this increasingly outdated reality; my master's thesis on a Franciscan mural in late sixteenth-century Mexico was overseen by my advisor, an Aztec specialist, in consultation with the resident professor of Italian Renaissance art. This arrangement was hot atypical, as those with any capacity to deal with colonial material were usually trained in either European studies, or increasingly, in pre-Hispanic America, which itself still struggled with its position within traditional art historical curricula. Indeed, up until fairly recently, the art of the ancient Americas was commonly lumped together with the completely disparate visual traditions of Africa and Oceania, all three broad groupings of "non-Western" traditions easily marginalized because of their lack of apparent cultural commonalities with European art and its history. It could be argued, however, that having been cast in this position of total alterity was in some ways a blessing since at the very least these areas could develop in their own sphere without the immediate need to sort out the baggage of a discipline entrenched in its Western origins.

This contrasts markedly with the case of colonial Latin America which has always been much more complicated, precisely because of its uneasy relationship with European art and architecture. Traditionally, art created in the context of the Spanish Empire has been dismissed as derivative, second-rate, or simply a bad copy of the real thing--Renaissance and Baroque traditions whose unmatchable geographical apogee will always be Italy. Regarding a colonial Mexican artwork about which I have written, one reviewer unapologetically asserted that "Raphael would have painted it differently." Precisely! Colonial art continues to be seen by some as peripheral to Europe's center, a provincial folk tradition with little need for careful consideration on its own terms.

But even the mere existence of Donahue-Wallace's book suggests that the last ten years have seen a number of significant changes. Certainly post-colonial theory has provided scholars across the disciplines with tools to probe the structures of power--both historical and contemporary--that work to center and marginalize. Across US universities, curricula have naturally expanded in response to a variety of new demands; with the growing size of the Latino population, for instance, institutions are more compelled to invest resources in Latin American studies. …