Sunday, March 31, 2013

Journeys to New Worlds

Yes, there is a crucifix on my blog on Easter Sunday. It's not what you think.
Read on to find out why.

Today I made a visit to a topical and timely special exhibition at the Perelman Building annex of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Journeys to New Worlds is a collection of late medieval and early modern Spanish and Portuguese art from the New World, mostly from a single private collection that will eventually be bequeathed to the museum.

It was interesting if a bit one-dimensional. I came away with the sense that the collectors have exquisite taste and have brought together a great collection that coheres along many axes on that basis, but that the curators dropped the ball a little bit in failing to articulate in historical, cultural and artistic terms what the collectors were responding to at a more intuitive, instinctual level.



I always applaud when museums display objects so that they can be viewed as they would have been originally. Manuscripts are best displayed raked down, at hip height, to simulate the experience of reading, and carpets should be shown on the floor, not the walls. In that vein, they did very well to hang the silver lamp in the right-hand picture from the ceiling rather than to display it in a case. However, the didactic materials mentioned that most of what is known about this type of lamp is from paintings where examples are shown rather than from the lamps themselves (since very few still exist); but then they put the painting that shows the lamps (left) in a completely different room!


The didactic materials alluded at a lot of fascinating historical trade connections, but didn't ultimately make much of them. Much of the raw marble as well as some of the finished pieces (like the group of Franciscan saints below) came from Goa, and the labels noted that this was one of the major Portuguese imperial outposts and that it was home to a sizable Christian community, but did not acknowledge the long-standing artistic and religious relationship between Goa and the Iberian Peninsula that existed throughout the Middle Ages. The silk road and the India trade were conspicuously absent; it might not have been a glaring omission in a colonial Latin America exhibition but for these brief, tantalizing hints that not only was the wider world already out there, but it was tied in with this one, too.

The question of excluding connections and parallels with the silk road trade was pervasive, as with the label for this chest, which alludes to the style having been borrowed from Korean art
Perhaps there was total discontinuity between this borrowing from east Asian art and the earlier medieval ones, but the motifs and the inlay and the color screamed out for an explanation one way or the other.


I loved the label in this case, calling the objects "secular silver." And to be sure, it stood in contrast with what was clearly religious art made of silver in other cases (crucifixes, chalices, candelabras for church use, etc.). But it also seemed like a very missed opportunity to talk about forms of cultural production that borrow, essentially from themselves, to create very different effects in secular and sacred realms.

Baroque-shading-Rococo is not really my cup of tea, aesthetically. It was interesting to go and see how some European conventions were carried on and adapted in the New World. But all in all, this felt like a missed opportunity to do a lot more.


And one final image, because I can't resist a good visual pun: Heaven, Hell, and Limbo?


  1. Are you making fun of my geekiness? ;) Actually, I realize it might just be me since I'm just finishing an article on the rise of secular poetry in Hebrew and a particular representation of silver jewelry therein...