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Windows to the Soul


IT’S ONE THING TO APPRECIATE a work of art, quite another to realize you could be looking into the face of a Moche warrior who lived in Peru 1,500 years ago. “Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits” invites us to gaze upon the scarred features and giant ear spools of this proud Peruvian soldier.

Or to gawk at the gold tumbaga jewelry piercing the noses and ears of The Mulattoes of Esmeraldas. Then stare and be saddened by the sweaty grinning faces of black youngsters in the Sugar Children Series by contemporary Brazilian artist Vik Muniz.

If the eyes are windows to the soul, then “Retratos” allows us to see more clearly Latin America’s diverse identity and evolution through its rich tradition of portraiture. It’s the first show of its kind to tour the United States.

Organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, New York’s El Museo del Barrio and the San Antonio Museum of Art in Texas, it includes 114 works of art displayed through June 12 at the San Diego Museum of Art. It’s the second stop in a five-museum tour. The works are divided chronologically, beginning with portrait vessels and Mayan figures from the pre-Columbian era.

Clever Moche potters created realistic ceramic portrait vessels, many of them the size of a human head. Historians have determined they were made from molds and mass-produced. The subjects are believed to be esteemed members of Moche society who participated in ceremonial activities, some involving human sacrifice and the drinking of blood. These rituals were probably perceived as sacrifices made for the common good, historians suggest. But one can’t help but wonder what form of death came to the group of warriors portrayed in the exhibit.

Catholic iconography dominates the art from the viceregal period (1492-1810), a time when portraiture often reflected a relationship between the spiritual and the secular. Of particular interest are the pictures of crowned nuns, or monjas coronadas of colonial Latin America. A genre that originated in Mexico, these portraits depict lovely young women, born to elite families, about to become symbolic brides of Christ. In baroque-style paintings, doeeyed girls wear elaborate spiraling crowns, often decorated with flowers or jewels. The monjas coronadas portraits eventually disappeared as the church and the role of women in religious life evolved.

The 19th-century section of the exhibit reflects the turmoil of the 1800s, as colonies fought to sever ties with Spain and Portugal.

There was an outbreak of nationalism, and self-taught artists—such as Colombia’s José María Espinosa Prieto and Peruvian José Gil de Castro—took advantage of new opportunities, namely painting controversial figures and political leaders of the independence movement.

Carolyn Kinder Carr, a member of the “Retratros” curatorial team and deputy director and chief curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, points out the way new political heroes were immortalized.

“Look at the Castro portrait of Simón Bolívar,” she says. “It’s a simple portrait. Yet the way Bolívar fills a frame and the gesture of his stance almost encapsulates the dashing nature of this individual. He’s a conqueror. And the scale—it’s an 8-foot painting—evokes the bravado.”

In the modern era of the exhibit, works by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo display an interest in cubism, symbolism and abstract art.

It’s interesting to compare two paintings of the same wealthy woman by two diverse artists. Rivera painted Elisa Saldívar de Gutiérrez Roldán in 1946, when she was in her 30s. He flaunts her Mexican heritage and beauty with realism and bold colors. Her hair is braided and worn like a crown, her full lips and fingers painted bright red and her dress traditional Mexican, with an off-the-shoulder blouse and flounced skirt.

Tamayo’s portrait was painted 23 years later, and his approach is much different. He suggests the essence of this modern woman, now in her 50s, by painting her slightly abstract and softly muted, as if she is standing behind a picture window in a gentle rain.

The curators were also able to include Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird in the exhibit. Created for her lover Nicholas Muray, the painting is both disturbing and beautiful, reminding us of this artist’s perseverance despite a life of physical and emotional pain. Kahlo’s eyebrows are a black slash over eyes dark with resignation. A necklace of thorns pierces her neck, and a black spider monkey and black cat (symbols of lust and infidelity) hover behind each shoulder.

“Frida has assumed iconic status, and there is no question that she represents the artist who speaks from her heart,” says Carr. “She is someone who lays her emotions on the surface, who had moments of great exhilaration and great desperation.”

In the contemporary era, Mexican artist Nahum Zenil pays tribute to Kahlo with Frida de mi corazon/Frida in My Heart. Zenil confronts and analyzes society through depictions of his own body, and he’s known for presenting themes relating to gay culture, religion and family relationships. Here, he is pictured with his shirt ripped open. Frida’s face emerges from an enlarged human heart that takes up the whole space of his chest.

Carr says she admires the painting because of its many levels of interest.

“I think he identifies with her angst and agony, and that’s how he represents it. There is no question that her love of Mexico and her pride in her heritage operated in his thoughts as well.

“A friend of mine bought me a card from the Boston museum. It shows Frida Kahlo, and on the back it says, ‘I leave you my portrait so that you can have my presence all the days and nights that I’m away from you.’ Doesn’t that sum up portraiture? That’s what it is all about.

Woman blue tank Artist: Rufino Tamayo (Mexican, 1899-1991) Elisa Saldívar de Gutiérrez Roldán
mexican headress Artist: unknown, Mexican, Mayan culture Seated Dignitary with Cape and Headdress
girl with hummingbird Artist: Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1954) Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
face heart in chest Artist: Nahum Zenil (Mexican, 1947-) Frida de Mi Corazon/Frida in my Heart, 1991
handle head Artist: unknown, Peruvian, Moche culture Stirrup Spout Portrait Vessel, ca. 100-600 A.D.
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