Letters to Linda I

Text and Images (C) 2011 by Metta Anderson –  All Rights Reserved

July 2011

Dear Linda–

In your last letter, you asked about art and artists in Colombia. You also made a couple of good comments about how artists in a place as removed from “the New York scene” as Lansing get together and keep in touch. You asked if the same might be true in Colombia.

I tried to write short but coherent answers, but couldn’t. Your questions made me think, which was like flipping open the tap on a keg of beer. Everything flowed out and I ended up–figuratively–standing in a sea of gold and foam. Once it all soaked into the floor, as it were, I was left with the following series of letters. At the end, I’ll give you the bibliography. I apologize, however, for not being able to illustrate the letters as I’d like, with images from the catalogues mentioned. I do not have the copyright owners’ permissions.

On the other hand, the catalogues may show up on the Internet eventually, and then you’ll be able to “match the face and the name.” Hopefully before we die.

And of course, we do agree that all the opinions and points of view are mine and not intended as academic pontifications to be engraved on sterling silver platters for posterity, okay? Thanks!

Explaining art in Colombia is not linear. It’s much more like tracing a family tree in which each generation has divorced, remarried several times or died, producing offspring at every event. The tree becomes a psychedelic arabesque and it’s easy to get lost. This is also the Moorish influence that arrived in the New World with Columbus, took root and flourished. It still goes on. From what I’ve read, the pre-Columbian civilizations had certain things in common with the European ones, such as a reliance on bloodlines.

Anyway, the most prominent influence on art and life in Colombia is the Catholic Church. However, the Church that installed itself between Mexico and Chile and Argentina from the beginning of the 16th C. was the product of 800 years of Islamic influence, much more than French or Italian philosophies. Simultaneously, the priests who arrived with the ragtag conquering Spanish armies descended upon the indigenous groups with pen and paper in hand. They took notes of absolutely everything, perhaps included drawings, even as they were trying to convert their subjects to Christianity. For all that most of these documents are eyewitness accounts, in contemporary eyes, there must have been elements of “reality programming” mixed into the encounters, such as the kind that hits Ph.D. candidates trying to write the dissertation to end all dissertations. Much has been made in films of the clashes between the European and indigenous groups, but I think this is slightly exaggerated. Yes, the Spanish brought certain diseases and weapons and were not necessarily sympathetic to the indigenous lifestyles. But the Spanish also encountered tropical (hence, unknown to them) diseases, flora and fauna that could be lethal, languages they did not understand, and disorienting topography. Figure this first encounter ended in a draw.

The distance between New World and Old created isolation, of course. When the Reformation and Counterreformation took place in Europe, the religious orders which arrived with the Spanish had established convents, monasteries and parishes along the lines of the same structures found in Europe. The Inquisition was also established, for the same reasons, although one should substitute “Indian” for “Jew,” in the definition of “heretic.”

In Colombia, the Church has been the biggest influence on education, the arts, society and politics since it arrived. But its influences on the sciences are mixed–well-documented research on flora, fauna, customs and dress still exist, but research in the applied or experimental (theoretical) sciences has not been supported.

Simultaneously, during the Colonial period, excellent pieces of art arrived from Europe as part of dowries for wealthy brides and grooms–women who either married Jesus or a human fiancé; grooms who were usually priests and monks bringing paintings from the workshops of Zurbarán and others which were given to the monasteries where these men would live. The dominant groups in Colombia were the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Augustinians and the Benedictines. Women usually joined the sister orders of these groups, donating beautiful paintings and sculptures to the convents.

In 2005, the Augustinians put their art on display in the National Museum and in their recently-restored church, both in Bogotá. The exibitions were well-organized and curated, and shared a full color catalogue. One brother even mentioned to me that there were other pieces in storage which they hoped to exhibit, “some day. . .”

The local leftists have, of course, complained about the exhibits as showing only that the Church ripped off Colombia’s poor. That’s not just an imprecise reading, it’s usually wrong. The religious orders acquired most of their works through gifts and donations. The works were displayed in monasteries, schools, cloisters, chapels and churches, which was the common practice. Their financial value was usually not a subject of debate. It’s only been in the last twenty or thirty years that the religious works have been reassessed and their values have changed dramatically. Case in point–Until the 1908s, Francisco de Zurbarán was considered pretty inferior to his contemporary, Diego Velásquez. Because of that, my grandmother and her friends managed to buy that huge Zurbarán painting of St. Anthony that they donated to the Kresge Art Museum, at Michigan State, in 1959. Llike many paintings of saints, this one was probably designed originally for a monastery, and to be hung well above the floor. I once got on the floor of the Kresge and looked up at this painting, and sure enough, it looked much, much better. The composition was more dynamic and I ended up with a better appreciation of Zurbarán.

An offshoot of this kind of art, and one that allowed talented women to do more than pray, was the “Crowned Brides” practice. Women who joined convents (and had families who could afford it) were dressed not only as brides on the day they took their vows, but wore elaborate crowns in homage to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The crowns themselves were wire frames for holding flowers, ribbons, laces and other ornaments. Among the wealthy families, it became common practice to have their daughters’ portraits painted in these ceremonial robes and crowns. A great deal of attention to detail wnet into them because they became the only record the families would have later of the girl.

Sometimes the portraits were done just prior to or shortly after death, and these were painted by other nuns. When a nun died, and if it was believed that she had lived an exemplary life in the convent, she was dressed in her best habit and an elaborate crown was placed on her head. She was not dying, but finally going to meet her husband. Her portrait commemorated the occasion and was kept in the convent as an inspiration to new “brides.”

I have the catalogue for this exhibition, too, which came from Mexico in 2004 and was presented at the National Museum. Colombia kept up this custom until sometime in the 19th C. Little was written about it, but when archeological excavations in abandoned convents revealed skeletons with “wire cages” attached to their heads, it took a lot of digging through musty church records before researchers were able to grasp the meaning of their finds. What I like about the catalogue, and about the exhibition itself, was the care given to each portrait. Each woman’s personality comes through, she is an individual as much to her family as to the artist who painted her, as well as the contemporary society seeing her for the first time. In spite of the robes and crowns, most of the women look directly at the viewer. They’re saying clearly, “Remember me.”

 While it’s no doubt true that young women could be dispatched to a convent by an unfeeling or greedy male relative, many other young women were happy to join. The most outstanding example of the latter nun is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, of Mexico, whose convent life consisted mostly of writing poems and lengthy letters to bishops, cardinals and the Pope on ecclesiastical matters. No doubt her family had her portrait painted, too, although it was not included in this exhibit.

Another area of religious art involved the creation of crosses, chalices, shepherds’ staffs (“Bácula”) and “custodias” for the altar. (Sorry I don’t remember the translations for the words in quotation marks. The translator on the top bar wants to translate the entire page, rather than a couple of words.) Anyway, in the Colonial period, the gold and precious gems in the viceroyalties belonged automatically to the Spanish Crown. (This is another point the latter day leftists never seem to grasp, or they do but without its historical context.) Nevertheless, the raw material often ended up in the hands of the Church, converted into objects by local goldsmiths. Families would commission the best goldsmith they could afford to create an object that would end up in a church, as thanks to a saint for a favor or to ask for one. In Colombia, there are two famous “custodias,” now on display in a museum belonging to the Bank of the Republic, which demonstrate the abilities of these local craftsmen. Each is between 18″ and 22″ high in gold, crosses on heavy bases with circles in the center of the horizontal/vertical joint, and covered with up to 378 emeralds, amethysts, pearls, rubies, diamonds, sapphires and pearls.  Other and equally elaborate “custodias” can be found in Popayán, Tunja, Cartegena and Pamplona. (This Pamplona is in the Department of North Santander, in the northeast area of Colombia, but yes, they do have a running of the bulls every year.)

Even though the Church was both recipient and patron of the arts, there was secular art, although the demand for it might have been relatively small.

Art as it is understood by the rest of Western society did not take a back seat in Latin America’s cultural wagon. For all intents and purposes, it had to walk. During the Colonial period, artists from Italy, France and Spain made their way from port cities and then the interiors of the countries, doing commissioned paintings for churches and local residents and sometimes teaching their skills to local artists. At the same time, local artists as early as the 16th C. freely mixed indigenous themes with the new ones dictated by the Spanish, creating in the process a truly unique body of work. As the Brooklyn Museum revealed in its 1996 exhibition, “Converging Cultures: Art and Identity in Spanish America,” the Spanish Virgin Mary became a Caucasian Inca Bride of the Sun, and the traditional Inca corn motif was clearly visible. The Baby Jesus in a diaphanous diaper, popular from the beginning of the Renaissance, almost disappeared in the swaddling blankets of the indigenous Andean peoples. (Which I find unfortunate. Baby Jesus as a loaf of bread. Very sad.)

Villegas with his painting Virgin of the Emeralds ('93)

Colombo-Peruvian artist Armando Villegas with his painting "Virgin of the Emeralds" ('93)

The painting above is from a series created by Armando Villegas based on images of the Virgin and Child as depicted in the “post-Inca/Colonial Period” in Peru. The Christ Child is wrapped up according to Indian custom and the Virgin’s robes are closer to the clothing worn by Inca princesses. I’ll write more about Armando Villegas later, because he came to Colombia after World War II and was part of the modern art movement here.

Anyway, to get back to what I was saying. . . Contrary to the popular belief that the Spanish were a bunch of uncouth dirty bastards interested only in gold and sex, many had cooler heads and good ideas. Yes, some of the Spanish conquerors definitely were greedy dirty bastards–Francisco Pizarro, who discovered Peru, was an illegitimate, illiterate and greedy soldier looking for gold and not much else. Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, in contrast, was a lawyer and philosopher who founded Bogotá on August 6, 1538, and in the process pretty much set the tone for the way the city has developed ever since.

One early abbott, it has been said, surveyed the extensive green and placid Sabana of Bogotá and wrote to his superiors that it was the perfect place to set up a utopian system of monasteries and convents. Only church bells would be heard over the bird calls. The high altitude valley surrounded by mountains, with difficult access, was also lush and fertile. It would be–dare one say it?!–Heaven on earth in no time!

He almost got his wish. Bogotá has had an impressive number of religious buildings–many still in use–for a city that was smaller than one million souls til the mid-1930s and ’40s. Alongside the religious architecture, though, you can still see residential housing built according to the custom of Andalucian Spain–one large main door opening into the zaguan, a corredor leading to the two or more patios around which all life in the house centered. Rooms on the front were usually offices or shops of some kind, and often had separate entrances. This would be the “men’s area.”  Around the second patio would be rooms for the family (a kind of livingroom; usually a diningroom, which might even be off limits to the wife and daughters if there were male guests), a sitting room where the wife could receive visitors, maybe some bedrooms. The third patio was the laundry area, kitchen area (and I use that term very, very loosely), a garden, a hen coop, maids’rooms, storage and related “private areas.” In the 19th C., after Independence, a variation of French architecture was imported, and simply incorporated into the existing Moorish design–one entrance, men’s area, two or more patios, etc., but now, TWO STORIES! And it was common to rent out the zaguan at night to the homeless, as well as rent out the rooms on the ground floor as offices or even living quarters. The owner of the house and his family lived on the second floor. Because of that, Bogotá remained a physically small city even as its population increased.

House of Colonial period artist J. M. Espinosa (2011)

A well-preserved house from the late Colonial-early Republican period, in Bogotá ('11).

Religious architecture runs from mudejar (combination of a mosque and a Catholic church in the 15th C.) to variations on the Jesuits’ Il Jesu in Rome and Spanish Baroque. The best example of mudejar is probably the Church of San Francisco, in downtown Bogotá, although architectural details from the period show up in churches built in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In the 20th C., modernism put a stranglehold on all public architecture and churches did not escape.  There are some very interesting churches in town based on Bauhaus and Mies van der Rohe, although currently the cherry on the cake is probably the Mormons’ Cathedral on Calle 126 with the Northside Highway. It’s a kind of stripped down version of International Gothic, and I met one of the French artists who worked on the interior frescoes when the Cathedral was under construction. I’m sure we could have had some interesting discussions on religious art in contemporary life if we’d been able to establish a common language.

I also remember that, even forty years ago, much of the Sabana was still farmland. Anyone going out for a Sunday drive would find rather large convents and monasteries looming up from the Sabana behind high walls, invariably located at the end of narrow dirt (potholed) roads. Pretty much the original religious vision of the Sabana.

Bogotá’s founder, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and his successors, however, were able to impose a secular order on the abbott’s dreamscape, starting in 1538. The city was laid out in a formal grid, starting up in the lower part of the Andes, in an area now known as La Candelaria Centro Histórico.   This makes it easy to get around downtown Bogotá on foot. The rest of the city has slowly twisted itself up, but for once, that is not the Church’s fault.

Bogotá’s location and altitude (8,660 ft above sea level) not only make it unique, but has affected its development since its foundation.

This is a valley surrounded by mountains. The shrines of Monserrate and Guadalupe, on the Eastern Cordillera overlooking the city are 10,000 and 11,000 ft above sea level, respectively. Getting here before the introduction of airplanes (1919) was a serious trek from ports on the Caribbean coast to the north and on the Pacific coast to the west. For this reason alone, the Church found itself cut off from most of the fundamental changes that took place in Europe. And it could, of course, just as easily ignore dictates from the Pope. It remained a Moorish-Christian entity well into the 20th C., hospitable but also suspicious of foreigners because they  might bring ideas that run counter to what was considered “Christian orthodoxy.” Even in the 1960s and 1970s, Holy Week virtually shut down the entire Republic of Colombia–stores, schools, banks, government offices, businesses, etc., closed down by noon of Holy Wednesday. The Church had decided that Holy Week was a time of reflection, and that was best done by staying home, leaving only to go to Mass at specified times.

(Fast Forward–Holy Week in the 21st Century:  This is now a national spring break, and everything’s open. You can easily find vacation packages to spend  your time somewhere else, doing something else. Everything’s open. Times do change.)

This isolation, however, has affected other areas of Colombian life, and often with the Church’s complicity–politics (women did not get the vote til 1957); education (women were not allowed into the all-male universities until the mid-1930s, and the protests from male students went from rude to crude, in writing and published in newspapers and magazines); and the arts. But simultaneously, or perhaps ironically, the isolation has not stopped foreigners from arriving, staying and imparting their ideas, while Colombians have travelled abroad to work, study and live before returning to teach their newly-acquired ideas and skills here. Colombian society is notoriously conservative, but it does change, eventually.

The arts as a whole paddled along without making much of an impression til the mid-to-ate 19th Century. There were artists and much of their work has been saved. In the 18th C., Gregorio Vásquez de Arce y Ceballos and the Figueroa brothers were the dominant artists working in Bogotá. Foreign artists brought in new pigments, especially reds and greens, not available here, which raised the bar for local art production. An example of this is Francisco de Pozo, who was born in Milan, Italy, and then set up his workshop in Tunja, a city north of Bogotá at the end of the 16th Century. With the end of Colonial rule and the beginning of independence in Colombia, non-religious artists such as J. Espinoza became celebrated, along with C. Torres Mendez, for their portraits in watercolor (more often gouache) of the leaders of the battles for independence, their wives, children and families. These men also participated as engravers and cartoonists for local newspapers.

In the nineteenth century, three Englishmen arrived and made detailed drawings and watercolors of the landscape, the cities and the customs they found. Henry Price actually stayed, helping to found a symphony orchestra and other cultural organizations. Joseph Brown arrived in 1825 as an agent for the Colombian Mining Association (actually a British company) and stayed til 1841. He travelled extensively and kept a diary, which was published in a bilingual edition in 1989 by the Fondo Cultural Cafetero. He also made watercolors, which were included in the book because his descendents returned them to Colombia. It is stated in the book that some of the watercolors were done jointly with J. M. Groot and J. M. Castillo, who were also artists working in Colombia at this time. The third Englishman was Edward Walhouse Mark, who arrived in Santa Marta as part of the British Consular delegation in 1843. More than the others, Mark benefitted from technological advances in watercolor paint, papers and brushes, as well as talent and education. His watercolors, often on tinted paper, are works of art even as they show the environment through which Mr. Mark travelled. After Santa Marta, he was sent to the British embassy in Bogotá, and used the city as a base of operations to go on painting expeditions in the surrounding Andean countryside. He remained in Colombia til 1856, and his watercolors were also donated to the nation. The works of all three men are now part of the permanent collection of the National Museum in Bogotá.

As of the mid-nineteenth century, and in spite of constant local conflicts of one kind or another, art instruction and production continued. While this is positive, the down side is that Colombian artists remained outside the flow of technological innovation (paint in tubes, for example, and synthetic pigments) as well as aesthetic movements. There has never been anything like the Impressionist movement here, nor Symbolism nor any of the other -isms that developed between approximately 1880 and World War I. The few artists and writers who studied in Europe and thus were exposed to these new ideas were either censured one way or another when returning to Colombia or simply toned down their experiences in order to get along in a conservative society.

I’ll get into this in my next letter. I promise. At the moment, I have to take the dogs for a walk along the Eje (pronounced “EH-hey”). The Eje is for me what Giverny was for Monet. I’ll send you some recent shots in the near future, when I spent a couple of hours in the rain last Saturday taking pictures. (Okay, it wasn’t exactly raining, but there was a lot of mist. The light was GORGEOUS!)

Hope you’re having a great summer! Take care!


(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved



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