Sunday, March 30, 2008

Three casta paintings

Attrib. José de Alcíbar, 6. De Español y Negra, Mulato, ca. 1760-1770. Denver Art Museum. Image found here; specifics on the painting from Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico.

Two worlds God has placed in the hands of our Catholic Monarch, and the New does not resemble the Old, not in its climate, its customs, nor its inhabitants; it has another legislative body, another council for governing, yet always with the end of making them alike: In the Old Spain only a single caste of men is recognized, in the New many and different.
--Francisco Antonio Lorenzana, Spanish prelate and archbishop of Mexico from 1766 to 17721

In Antonio Lorenzana's statement we find a basic stating of something that the Spanish crown was simply blind to, at least on an official level: that its colonies were not merely just really far away from Madrid but could not have been more different from Spain. Certainly by Antonio Lorenzana's time those differences were inescapable; Mexico's revolt from Spain would begin only 40 years later.

All art is the human imagination's attempt to make sense of the world and the things and people in it, and casta paintings are a distinctly New World genre that attempts to depict and codify the bewildering variety of racial combinations arising from the commingling of indigenous, African and European populations in this hemisphere. At times these paintings, reflecting the Enlightenment era's fascination with describing racial and ethnic distinctions and, for that matter, taxonomies more generally, produced chart-like paintings such as this one (click on the image to enlarge it), as well as larger portraits like those I've posted here. Closely related to this fascination (even mania?) for categorizing is the Old World's fascination with New World exotica of all kinds--and not just the indigenous flora and fauna, either. These depictions of various mixed-blood couples and their offspring would have counted as exotica as well. Surely, one subconscious message of these paintings, given their subject matter of father, mother and child, is, well, sex with people who clearly were not Spaniards: a still-touchy subject in race-conscious Spain.

Alternately, one could be rather Freudian about all this and say that casta paintings are a manifestation of the uncanny: Spaniards, themselves more than a little preoccupied with racial purity yet confronted with the undeniable fact of 700 years of mixing of Moorish and Jewish and Spanish populations, perhaps saw in these depictions of commingling populations in New Spain an outlet for their own anxieties and yet, at the same time, an opportunity to assert the superiority (whether racial or socioeconomic) of the "Spanish race." That seems to be an implicit message in the both the painting at the beginning of this post and this one (image found here).

Their obvious compositional similarities surely serve to make that argument: in each, set in a kitchen, the Spaniard is dressed to go out to conduct business; the woman is dressed in housework garb and stands in the background--in the shadows, in more ways than one. The son, meanwhile, though dressed differently in each, nevertheless is in a position of servitude relative to the father--head respectfully bowed, offering up a dish to the father--but both males are interposed between the viewer and the mother. There is also present in the staging of the mother in this scene what Joshua Lund, in the midst of discussing a Brazilian text describing "the symbolic colonized woman," would describe as a visual depiction of a woman as "a subject within narratives of hybridity. She is a 'subject' in both senses: insofar as she is subjectified as an agent, and insofar as she is subjugated by a system of patriarchy" (The Impure Imagination: Toward a Critical Hybridity in Latin American Writing, 137, his italics).

The complicated relationship between miscegenation and class, some speculate, is also something to be considered when looking at casta paintings. That message could not be more explicit than it is in these little paintings by Pedro Alonso O'Crouley from 1774 (originally found here). The caption for the top painting reads, in English, "Spaniard and Indian, Mestizo"; that for the bottom reads, "Indian and Mulatto, 'Lobo.'" But what is more important to be read in the text that is this painting: In the top panel, the Spaniard is well-dressed, and the Indian woman, though plainly dressed, seems to be well-cared for--and perhaps, judging from the image, may be pregnant again. As she holds the baby toward the Spaniard, he points toward the baby, a calm, self-assured look on his face. The same can't be said for the couple in the lower panel: both are clearly impoverished; the man, his hands full, cannot gesture toward his child, who in any case is bundled, papoose-like, on his mother's back--a culturally-accurate depiction, but perhaps also suggestive of the figurative burden this child will be to her.

The homepage for the website Casta Paintings: The Construction and Depiction of Race in Colonial Mexico offers up a survey of prevailing opinions regarding the cultural/social forces that led to their making, some of which I've touched on above. If you're at all curious about this subject, the whole page is worth your time; here, though, is the summation:
[Casta painting] cannot be understood without recognizing its position in contemporary philosophical, scientific, and artistic traditions. Nor can it be separated from the interwoven history of Spain and New Spain during the colonial period. It reveals the fascinations and preoccupations of the era and offers insight into the construction of ethnorace in colonial times.

I'd just say that that last sentence, though accurate, is awfully polite. Though miscegenation was not policed in Latin America nearly to the extent that it was in the United States, during the colonial era it clearly caused more than a little anxiety on the part of the ruling class (European-born Spaniards--even people born in the New World of Spanish-born parents were seen as lower in rank by virtue of their having been born in this hemisphere). The Spaniard men in each of these paintings are well-dressed, serene, being served by their offspring: all visual messages meant to signify their control of their world, never mind the ethnic, cultural and political gumbo simmering all about them, all but unacknowledged.

(Cross-posted at Domestic Issue)


Anonymous said...

I wrote an essay and delivered a lecture on this subject because I was facinated with the images. They were commissioned by the Catholic Church and the costumes were most telling. I didn't get much response for my efforts because I believe the subject matter was too alien or too emotionally disturbing. I can't say which. Bonnie

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I too find these paintings fascinating because of their presence at the confluence of so many New Spanish obsessions and preoccupations.

If you are willing to send it to me, I'd very much like to read your essay.