Art: An intense look at Iberian colonial works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Barton Church, who died last month at age 86, taught at the Barnes for 59 years.
Barton Church, who died last month at age 86, taught at the Barnes for 59 years.
Posted: March 17, 2013

If you enjoyed the exhibition of Iberian colonial art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art six years ago, "Journeys to New Worlds," the museum's current presentation of similar material from a private collection, should prove equally compelling.

With about 250 objects covering more than three centuries of Spanish and Portuguese settlement in the Americas, the 2006 show was almost too much to absorb, particularly because much of the material was unfamiliar.

The museum is revisiting the subject with a more focused show, half as large and, consequently, more intense. It presents the extensive collection of colonial art gathered over four decades by New Yorkers Roberta and Richard Huber.

Curator Joseph J. Rishel became acquainted with the Hubers while organizing the 2006 show, to which they lent two paintings. When he discovered the depth and quality of what they had, he decided to pursue a further exploration of Latin American art.

The earlier exhibition included art from what was called New Spain - Mexico, Central America, and parts of North America now part of the United States. The Huber collection concerns itself mainly with Brazil and what the Spanish called the Viceroyalty of Peru, now the countries that occupy the western half of South America.

The Hubers lived in South America for many years and began to collect Spanish and Portuguese colonial art for the best reasons - because they were attracted to it and enjoyed living with it.

The exhibition reflects their passion through a selection of 120 magnificent objects - paintings, sculpture, fabrications in silver, and, most intriguing of all, small ivory carvings created in eastern Asia.

Art often reveals the essence of a culture quickly. Unlike eastern North America, whose colonies were dominated by austere Protestants, South America was settled by Catholics who brought with them a feverish religiosity and an extravagant baroque esthetic.

The majority of the Huber art is devotional or specifically ecclesiastical. Those qualities extend to the show's three dozen silver objects, and also to the 35 ivories - small figures of Jesus, the Virgin, and various saints and apostles.

Most of the Huber ivories were carved in Goa, a Portuguese enclave on the west coast of India from 1510 to 1961, and in the Philippines, a Spanish colony from the mid-16th century until 1898.

Esthetically and culturally, the ivories are hybrids. Usually inspired by European prints, which were easily transported to Asia by ship, they express Christian iconography, but with subtle Asian shadings introduced by the carvers.

The baroque influence in South American colonial art is most apparent in the paintings; there are three dozen of these on view as well. Painters also were influenced by European prints, although the deficiencies and eccentricities of provincial technique individualize the subjects.

As with the English artists to the north, a faintly sweet, naive quality in even the religious images marks these painters as colonials. Yet they could create images of striking intensity, such as the anonymous Peruvian painting of St. Michael the Archangel slaying a dragon and the aristocratic portrait of Countess Rosa de Salazar y GabiƱo, also by an unnamed Peruvian.

The naive inflection that makes provincial art charming is best appreciated in two Bolivian paintings. In one, the familiar story of a weary and anxious Holy Family resting on their flight to Egypt is transformed into a bucolic idyll in a verdant clearing. Mary even has time for laundry.

In the other, a similar evocation of domestic tranquillity, young Jesus learns carpentry from Joseph while Mary prays and chubby angels fetch and carry planks.

The Hubers have given four paintings to the Art Museum and have promised nine more, a significant gift that will enhance the institution's standing in an underexposed field. In the meantime, this handsome and enlightening show encourages visitors to broaden their understanding of the term "American art."

Sic Transit Gloria Merion. The death of Barton Church at 86 on Feb. 21 dissolved the last link to the Barnes Foundation in its original form - that is, to Albert Barnes himself, to his pedagogical heir, Violette de Mazia, and to the educational philosophy that set the organization in motion.

Church began teaching at the Barnes in 1952 and preached the faith for 59 years, until he retired in 2011. Only fellow painter and colleague Harry Sefarbi, who died in 2009, approached his amazing longevity.

Church was thoroughly devoted to art and to the Barnes collection. He spent countless hours in the galleries, studying and contemplating, when he wasn't in front of a class. It's this purity of vision and purpose that impressed me when I met him and heard him speak to students.

His total immersion in the art of painting mirrored that of Barnes. Yet he was a far more attractive and modest person, who perfectly represented what made the Merion establishment unique. He embodied a vanished ideal that has inevitably been eroded by the forces of marketing and power politics.


Art: 'Journeys'

The Huber collection continues in the Perelman building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 19. Perelman hours are

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; admission is $10, $8 for visitors 65 and older, $7 for students with valid ID and visitors 13 to 18. Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.


Contact Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com

"Art" by Edward J. Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear on alternating Sundays.

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