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Denver Art Museums Mexican Art and Life show is world-class

click to enlarge Moctezuma by Antonio Rodriguez
  • Moctezuma by Antonio Rodriguez

Five years in the making, the Denver Art Museum's new show Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521-1821, is a spectacular, epochal show that vaults Denver into the very first rank of American cultural institutions.

This is not simply a display of masterful paintings, but also a door into an unsuspected world, that of colonial Mexico.

The show consists of 60 paintings, all created in Mexico during the colonial era. Far from being a sleepy backwater, Mexico was a cultural, commercial and artistic center of New Spain. Only decades after the conquest, the melding of two ancient cultures had created something entirely new that would endure for nearly three centuries. Prosperous and cosmopolitan, Mexico was home to prolific and talented artists who found a ready market for their talents.

Despite the difficulties of the journey, Mexico was an attractive destination for 16th-century artists. The High Renaissance master Andres de Concha, whose light-filled "Holy Family" is on display, joined with Flemish master Simon de Peyrens to create the still-existing altar screen in the Franciscan mission church of Huejotzingo. In a contract that any living artist would envy, the Indian governor of the city agreed to provide the artists with six assistants, two servants and two cooks, not to mention hay for the horses, lodging, firewood, a hundred bushels of corn, and cash in the amount of 7,000 gold pesos.

As well as Spanish expats, indigenous artists thrived in New Spain. Look at the radiant portrait, done c. 1595, of "Jesus at the Age of Twelve" by Juan Bautista, an amanteca, or Aztec feather artist. Using only the feathers of indigenous birds, these artists created images that are indescribably beautiful. As Fray Bartolome de Las Casas wrote in 1529: "Looked at from one angle it will seem golden ... from another green ... crosswise another lovely color ... all shimmering marvelously." Somehow, this delicate work, created entirely from feathers laid down on metal, has survived for over four centuries. Stand before it, bend down, and look up at the image, and you'll see Jesus' hair change color, from nondescript brown to an iridescent copper gold.

You won't miss Antonio Rodriguez's life-size portrait of Moctezuma, the last Tenochca emperor -- it's the first painting you'll see. Presumably derived from much older portraits, indeed, Moctezuma was as distant from Rodriguez and his time as, say, George Washington is from ours. It's a fierce and overpowering work of art. The warrior-king wears an elaborate feather cape and headdress, gleaming gold jewelry and an elaborately patterned loincloth. In his right hand he holds a spear; his body is powerful and muscular. Rodriguez presents him not as a conquered savage, but as a ruler of men.

And that was exactly what he intended, and exactly what his presumed patron, Carlos de Siguenza, required of him. For like many illustrious Mexicans of his time, Siguenza felt that the viceroys of New Spain were the successors not of Cortes, but of the Aztec kings. Appropriately, curator Donna Pierce has placed Andres Lopez's 1790 portrait of Don Matias de Galvez y Gallardo, the 48th viceroy of New Spain, beside that of Moctezuma. Galvez, dressed in blue with a crimson waistcoat, holding the viceregal baton in his right hand, is as stern and formidable as his Tenochca predecessor.

By the mid-1600s, many Mexicans, perhaps even a majority of the population, were of mixed ancestry. As a fascinating corollary to social change, so-called casta paintings emerged, which depicted, usually in sets of 16 separate paintings, the various racial mixtures of colonial Mexico. Many of these paintings survive, and they're absorbing windows into the early colonial era, when race was no bar to upper-class status.

Consider Manuel de Arellano's 1711 "Rendering of a Mulatto" or the anonymous "Portrait of an Indian Noblewoman" from 1757. Both young women are richly dressed and wearing expensive jewels. There's no trace of condescension in these portraits; like Paris Hilton or Nicole Ritchie, they're simply privileged young women whose images define their time. Another casta painting, "Castizo and Spaniard Produce a Spaniard," shows a young family -- Spanish mother, mixed-race father, and their child -- in an affectionate family grouping. These early castas are rich historical documents, embodying a collective pride in the land of Mexico, which came to be called criollismo.

click to enlarge Portrait of an Indian Noblewoman by Manuel de Arellano
  • Portrait of an Indian Noblewoman by Manuel de Arellano

This pride is embodied in Arellano's "Inauguration of the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe." Painted to commemorate an actual event, this enormous work (70 inches by 102 inches) depicts the dedication of the great church to the Virgin, near the spot where the devout believe that she appeared to the Indian seer Juan Diego. The painting contains thousands of figures, from oblivious kids swimming in the river to the viceroy himself, leading a vast, orderly throng to this monumental stone building, which still stands in the heart of Mexico City. There are men and women of all ages, occupations, and cultures, and even a group of Asians perched on the roof of a nearby house. Not so surprising, when you realize that the trade routes between Spain and the Far East converged in Mexico. And remember; on this day, April 30, 1709, Boston, Philadelphia and New York were rural settlements of wooden houses and muddy roads.

There's more. For example, the great portrait of New Spain's leading poet/philosopher, the cloistered nun Juana Ines de la Cruz; or the immense folding screen -- derived from imported Chinese examples -- depicting a 17th-century garden party, whose attendees gamble, flirt, smoke cigarettes and gossip. Titled "The Afternoon of the Boating Party," it was painted 200 years before Renoir's great masterpiece.

In sum, this is an amazing, wonderful show. We owe thanks to curator Pierce, who gave five years of her life to create the show, and to Jan and Frederick Mayer, passionate collectors and generous donors to the D.A.M. Thanks largely to the Mayers, Denver holds the finest collection of Spanish colonial painting, sculpture and decorative art in the United States. Absent such a base, the current exhibition could never have been assembled.

Twenty years ago, then-Mayor Federico Pena asked Denverites to "imagine a great city." The D.A.M. has done its part. What was once a perfectly nice little regional art museum is now among the finest museums in the country. You'd expect to see this show at the Metropolitan in New York City, or in Madrid, or Mexico City, not 60 miles up I-25.

So go!

capsule

Painting a New World: Mexican Art & Life, 1521-1821

Denver Art Museum, 100 W, 14th Avenue Parkway

Through July 25

Adults $9.50; Senior and college students with ID $7.50; Students (13-18) $6; Students (6-12) $4; Children (5 and under) and members of the museum free.

For information on guided tours, hours and membership call 720/865-5000 or visit www.denverartmuseum.org

  • Denver Art Museums Mexican Art and Life show is world-class

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