Nueva York (1613–1945)

EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO | SEPTEMBER 17, 2010 – JANUARY 9, 2011

For those willing to venture to the end of New York’s “museum mile,” El Museo del Barrio offers an education in local Hispanic cultural history with its groundbreaking exhibition, Nueva York: 1613 - 1945. To say this show is eye-opening would be an understatement.

Joaquin Torres-Garcia. “New York Docks,” 1928. Oil and gouache on cardboard. Yale University Art Gallery.

Although Nueva York isn’t an art exhibition, it is permeated with art in the form of portraits, landscapes, crafts, and graphics. Entering the show, one encounters Velázquez’s early portrait of the youthful, wavy-haired Philip IV, King of Spain, 1624-1627—dressed in black, when black was a sumptuary notice of wealth, with a stylish Batman collar, rosy-cheeked, a Ruler of the World. Then one comes across a pair of pineapple Torah finials of engraved and chased silver from New York’s first synagogue on Mill Street, reflecting the recognized financial importance to Spain’s empire—and thus toleration—of its Jews.

Indeed, almost all the art in Nueva York is inescapably political, in both documentary and contextual terms: Spain’s very material colonization and exploitation of the New World; the settlement by Hispanic people under Dutch and British control; New York’s trade with the Spanish colonies; and, finally, the United States’ intriguing role in Latin American independence (or non-independence, in the case of Puerto Rico). So even with an otherwise pedestrian painting such as Juan Bautista Romero’s (1756-1802) “El gusto por el chocolate” (“Still life with chocolate and strawberries”) (1775-90), which captures a merienda (picnic) spread of chocolate, strawberries, bread, and a brimming bowl of azúcar (sugar) on a lace-trimmed tablecloth, the immense financial value of cocoa and sugar is implicit. The Spanish and other Europeans enjoyed sweetening their beverages of chocolate (a New World drink) with sugar (a New World sweetener), the cultivation and harvest of which involved slavery, while its refining, distribution, and trade took place in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Likewise, the primitive portrait of merchant Diego Maria de Gardoqui is accompanied by a caption explaining that, like the French, the Spanish provided “huge loans” and “battlefield aid” to Colonial forces in the American Revolution, and that Gardoqui stood beside George Washington at Federal Hall during his inauguration in 1789.

Many of the artworks are not by Hispanic artists, but rather by others who served up their impressions of Spain and Latin America to satisfy New Yorkers’ fascination with what were considered exotic lands. The blockbuster landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church catered to popular interest with the impressive “Cayambe” (1858), of the Ecuadoran volcano. Charles Wolf Brownell’s “Havana Harbor” (1856-66) interpreted the Cuban port as a romantic city by the sea. American Impressionist William Merritt Chase ingenuously fell in love with Spain and paintingen plein air, and even named his daughter Helen Velázquez Chase. His “Sunny Spain” (1882), replete with stucco wall and crucifix, shows a scumbled scene of torrid premodernity.

The range of works by Hispanic artists run from the Puerto Rican Francisco Oller’s “Hacienda La Fortuna” (1885), of a sugar plantation estate, to the ultramodern “Still Life” (1938) by Cuban Amelia Peláez, which in its vibrant red/green/blue presages the computer’s intense chromatic lightbox screen in pigment.

Nueva York presents a puzzlingly brief summary of the origins of the Hispanic Society of America Museum at the site of naturalist John James Audubon’s estate in Washington Heights, established in 1908 under the auspices of collector Archer Milton Huntington. Miniature studies in oil by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, a popular Spanish painter and contemporary of John Singer Sargent, underrepresent the importance of this museum—which contains rare masterpieces by Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya—to New York. The towering 20th century muralist and New York presence Diego Rivera is allotted only two small prints—“Cane Workers” and “Emiliano Zapata,” a pair of Art Deco illustration prints. Created in 1933 as the Great Depression gripped America, both have political undertones: the first of worker dignity, and the second of revolutionary struggle.

Not all of the art presented in Nueva York is high art. In fact, a highlight of the show is a pair of puppets used by the celebrated Pura Belpré, New York’s first Puerto Rican librarian and author of Pérez y Martina, a disarmingly charming romance between a mouse and a cockroach. The fine art high point of Nueva York, without any real competition, is the show’s poster image, “New York Docks” (1928), by the modern pioneer Joaquín Torres-García. “Docks” is practically alive—a churning cityscape in oil and gouache with a palette of ochre, olive, slate, rose, and charcoal. Today, “Docks” is a rare painting, given that many of Torres-García’s works were destroyed in a fire in 1979.

The final work in Nueva York is Henry Glintenkamp’s oil, “Club Julio Antonio Mella” (“Cuban Writer’s Club”) (1937), from the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. There is no small irony in the fact that this depiction of a rendezvous for anti-capitalists was collected by a quintessential one. Algunas cosas nunca cambian [Some things, alas, never change]. 

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