What might “Colonial” Do and Mean Now

October 25, 2019

Colonial is a vexed word when used to characterize the nature of the arts of the Viceroyalties of America. Nonetheless it is, I think, an extremely useful term to qualify artistic production, patronage, and reception in Spanish America. It is a term that is very different than “Colonial” used for Anglo America where it refers only to European forms, patronage and reception.

Some, however, would simply and happily replace “Colonial” with “Viceregal” as if the term Viceregal is not also equally vexed. Viceregal implies a Spanish culture and is preferred by Spaniards and many modern day criollos. Colonial somehow seems to be demeaning to the formation of Spanish culture in America. Colonial may be demeaning, as colonial implies a sense of dependency rather than a Spanish culture defined as being a unified, uncontentious and progressive/civilizing fact in Spanish America and elsewhere. Colonial may also be an ahistorical term. But not using the term Colonial avoids having to confront post-colonial conditions and studies that developed elsewhere and under different conditions but which are important for understanding the arts of Spanish America in terms of a social art history. 

What then does Viceregal imply for categorizing Spanish American art? Are the conditions of production and reception the same in all of Spain’s viceroyalties? Are the citizens of Spain’s viceroyalties subject to the same status and social formation? The answer to these questions is, of course, no, nor is their art considered the same. For example, one does not think of, or call Neapolitan art of the 16th and 17th centuries the Viceregal Arts of Naples. But Naples was a viceroyalty, as were Portugal (1580–1642), Aragón, Sicily Valencia etc. Are the arts there ever classified as Viceregal? No, not really.

Viceregal is a term reserved for America and the arts of Mexico and Peru and then later Nueva Granada and Rio de la Plata. Never, as far as I know, would a Spanish born artist ever be called “Lo Spagnoletto” in the Viceroyalties of America as Ribera was called in Naples. Ribera is for Spain “the first of the great Spanish masters to emerge in the middle decades of the 17th century,” according to The Prado’s web page. The term Viceregal is never used to describe his work and while his work is installed in The Prado along with other Spanish masters no work of a Viceregal artist of America, even if they were Spanish, Italian or Flemish, hangs permanently in The Prado. Yet many Viceregal paintings such as the magnificent triple portrait of Don Francisco de Arobe and his two sons by the painter Andrés Sánchez Galque who signs not only his name but states that he is indigenous (natural) belong to The Prado’s permanent collection. American paintings from Spanish America were exiled from The Prado and sent to the Museo de America and exhibited along with Pre-Columbian archeological objects. Viceregal art is therefore not a universally applied term. It denotes, as does “colonial art,” a hierarchy of values and appreciation, and creates a separate and profoundly unequal status. But then what of the use “Viceregal” and “Colonial” to qualify the art of Spanish America. They are radically different. 

Viceregal implies the political and cultural concept that America did not exist under different, and certainly not Colonial, conditions. The term Viceregal imagines a neutral political and cultural condition even when it was not. Viceregal as the only term used for these arts eviscerates any real possibility of a social art history. Rather Viceregal clearly suggests only European notions of the visual arts in which painting on canvas, sculpture and architecture are the defining categories of value, interest, and study. This naturalizing of the arts of Spanish America is confirmed by the many catalogues and monographs that reify the exclusive focus on these categories, often trying to form a canon of works and artists based on a purely European epistemological model. Moreover, these kinds of projects are important to the modern nation state formation that presents a sense of comparable history and art history with Europe, which began already in the 19th century. Bernardo Couto’s art historical account of the Viceregal painting in Mexico Diálogo sobre la historia de la pintura en Mexico (1872) and Manuel Araújo Porto Alegre Memória sobre a antiga Escola Fluminense de Pinturain (1842) concerning Brazil’s colonial art initiate this kind of canonical formation. (One cannot even use the term Viceregal for Brazil). Of course, Viceregal art exists especially in centers of political and economic power such as Mexico City, Lima, Quito, Pueblo etc. But Viceregal does not declare the social conditions of production neither in America nor in 19th-century Viceregal India where post-colonial studies were developed. The palpable contemporary antagonisms between Cuzco and Lima have a long history as evidenced by the late 16th and early 17th century legal struggle to settle contending claims as to which city was “Cabeza del Peru.” This historical contention manifests in an abstract way the difference between Viceregal (Lima) and Colonial (Cuzco).

I am not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I often use the term Viceregal when I am describing much of the architecture and painting of Spanish America. It is an exclusive term and allows one, among other things, to formulate genealogies with European models, often through prints, or understand patronage systems that brought Zurbaran’s paintings to San Francisco in Lima, Ruben’s workshop series to Bogotá, or Caffa’s Santa Rosa in Lima. But Viceregal alone is not sufficient.

The term Viceregal also seems to confirm George Kubler’s 1961 concept of the extinction of all Pre-Columbian symbolic content in art and language after the conquest. Viceregal glosses over the historical conditions of the majority of the people who lived, worked, and saw the art produced there. Colonial (although not an historically used term for Spanish America until the 18th century) is more inclusive as it encompasses the oppressive conditions of indigenous peoples’ forced labor in Peru, of African slaves many of whom were artists working throughout America, and the racializing castas system used to create social hierarchies in America. Colonial also captures artistic expressions and media that fall beyond the norms of Europe such as the casta paintings from Mexico, Angels with Muskets paintings from Peru, feather works from Mexico, mopa-mopa or resin “painting” from Colombia and Peru, illustrated manuscripts from Mexico, or textiles from Peru. These are works that were produced only under “colonial” conditions of the Viceroyalties of America and can bear the weight of the term Colonial.    

Colonial therefore is a term that immediately draws attention to various forms of artistic expression that are different from other Spanish Viceroyalties and can include Brazil in the analysis of the arts of America. Colonial also announces differing expressions and different forms that fall out of the norms of European categories just as many people do. I, therefore, also use Colonial in writing and teaching, and I would not like to think that Colonial could ever be replaced with other terms. That said, Colonial should be used just as Viceregal should be used to qualify certain types of Spanish American artistic production, patronage, and reception, and there are probably other terms we might imagine. Colonial can also bring the discussion of artistic production in Spanish, Anglo, Dutch, Portuguese and French America into comparative analysis. We must, in other words, continue to think and to write dialectically and critically, especially now as we face in the 21st century a whiting of America’s history here in America and in Europe.