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Review: Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898

D. Eric Bookhardt on the exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art



The title Behind Closed Doors sounds racy, but the subtitle, Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898, suggests something more sedate. In fact, this overview of how the newly rich lived in the old Spanish colonies, when sugar was as profitable as oil is now, deals as much with social history as it does with art history. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum and featuring works from the New Orleans Museum of Art's own important Spanish colonial collection, this show excels at deploying elegant and occasionally bizarre objects to illustrate the lifestyles of the diverse peoples who used their wealth to create a culturally rich alternative to the staid traditions of Old Europe. In Spanish colonial society, wealth, religiosity and art all were flaunted and this also was part of our own history — the Louisiana pelican flag is actually an old Spanish religious symbol. While slavery was horribly cruel everywhere, the French and Spanish were more open to African and other native cultures that were celebrated in Congo Square yet banned all over the British-American South. That relative openness helps to explain why Spanish mestizo and Afro-Creole people appear prominently in this show.

  Included among the blood- and gold-inflected art objects are works that reflect the exoticism of a newly ascendant class. Inca King (pictured) is a mid-18th century canvas commissioned by a Spanish-Inca mestizo of means, while another, Agostino Brunius' Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape illustrates the stylish elegance of a mixed-race elite. But even Spanish colonial religious art could be quite surreal. Our Lady of Agony depicts a female saint holding Jesus in much the way the Virgin Mary is often seen holding the Christ child, only this is a diminutive version of a bearded, bleeding crucified Jesus held by a woman twice his size. I have often suspected that surrealism was born in Latin America centuries before it appeared in 1920s France, and this unpredictable show clearly furthers that assertion.

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