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What to Wear in New Spain

Behind Closed Doors peeks into the fashion and elitism of the past

Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar
Brooklyn Museum, gift of Mrs. L.H. Shearman
“Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar,” 18th century, attributed to Pedro José Diaz

For over four centuries, the most powerful people in Spain’s New World—an elite group made up of Creole, indigenous and mixed-race peoples—were as anxious as modern-day celebrities when it came to their social ranking and how they appeared in public. Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898—an exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain Road NW)—explores how the upper classes of New Spain wanted others to view and revere them. These privileged aristocrats anchored themselves in displays of material goods and used portrait painting to legitimize their power. Their elaborate portraits were as telling as snapshots of Hollywood stars spontaneously freezing on the red carpet in all of their self-styled finery.

Take Doña Rosa María Salazar y Gabiño, Countess of Monteblanco and Montemar, the Peruvian aristocrat who posed for a painting (attributed to Pedro José Díaz sometime around 1770) in such unsettling ostentation that every inch of her body seems to be sprouting diamonds and pearls. The portrait includes a motley pattern in the upper right-hand corner that represents the combined coat of arms of the countess and her husband—about as subtle as a Prada label.

Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape
Brooklyn Museum, gift of Mrs. Carl H. de Silver
“Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape,” circa 1770-96, Agostino Brunias, oil on canvas

Then there’s Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar—an ungainly woman depicted by a Peruvian painter (either José Joaquín Bermejo or Pedro José Díaz) in a giant blue shell of priceless fabric. This discerning woman avoided marriage to the man she was promised to (an old fogy pronounced “uglier than an excommunication”) by entering the convent. Later, when the coast was clear, she reentered society and married her original fiancé’s wealthy nephew—the mayor of Lima. She quickly became one with the “in-crowd,” including the countess of Monteblanco and Montemar, who often frequented her salon.

Inca King
Brooklyn Museum et al
“Inca King,” Peru, probably mid-18th century, oil on canvas

As the catalog for the exhibit—edited by Richard Aste, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum where the show originated—explains, every group in New Spain was out to prove its worthiness in a new world of changing political and racial identities. For example, the Creole elite set out to prove their “limpieza de sangre” (“purity of blood”) in complicated genealogies that illustrated a lack of Jewish or Moorish ancestry. What’s more, as direct descendants of the pre-Hispanic nobility, the Inca elite produced Europeanized portraits of their ancestors in order to put themselves in the right light to gain privileges such as the right to hold office.

The blurring of racial lines in New Spain allowed for a greater conversation about what groups are given the right to wield power and a greater anxiety over how various people distinguished themselves from one another. Agostino Brunias, a painter of Italian origin, captured the complexity of the new social rules in his painting “Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape.” Here we see free gentlewomen of mixed race dressed for a date with leisure—something that never would have gone over in Europe.

Brunias’ smudging of color lines may have been a reaction to casta painting—eighteenth-century paintings created in Mexico and meant as clear visual lessons about the racial caste system in the New World for those in Old Spain. These paintings attempted to delineate a clear hierarchy among different social groups and they depicted people as belonging to one distinct racial category or another. (A knee-jerk reaction to anxiety over the mingling of bloodlines.)

In 1898, the Spanish-American War ended the empire’s rule of Cuba and Puerto Rico—the last Spanish claims in the Americas. But by this time, the conversation about “new world identity” had already been going on for centuries. Who was who? What rank did you belong to? How could you prove it?

Power dresses itself up in many different ways—almost all of them painstakingly deliberate. What comes first, the emperor or the emperor’s clothes? Judging from this exhibit, it's hard to say.

View in Alibi calendar calendar
Behind Closed Doors:
Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898

Runs through May 18

Albuquerque Museum
2000 Mountain NW
242-4600, albuquerquemuseum.org
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday, 9am to 5pm
V.23 No.8 | 2/20/2014
Carlos Núñez rocks the gaita
Courtesy of the artist

Arts Feature

Your Secret Celtic Heart

Let Galician musician Carlos Núñez uncover it

Carlos Núñez’ mission is to share the lilting, fluid music of Galicia and other Celtic traditions, and he’s been working on it since he first picked up a gaita 35 years ago.

[ more >> ] [ permalink ]

V.22 No.39 | 9/26/2013

Book Review

Found in Translation

Spain's Great Untranslated

Spain’s Great Untranslated is a new anthology that deals with issues as disparate as terrorism, love, grief and addiction, styles range from the darkly comic to the starkly tragic.

[ more >> ] [ permalink ]

news

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Obama played cards during the Osama bin Laden raid. The intern kept losing, but wouldn’t take her bra off.

A shark ate a lady’s arm in Maui.

Death came calling for both troubled sitcom star Lisa Robin Kelly and Spain’s wealthiest woman, Rosalia Mera.

Area 51 exists.

Take a peek at Guillermo del Toro’s sketchbook.

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Shittens are now available.

Enjoy these pictures of animals wearing clothes.

Albuquerque programmer Sean McCracken wrote the first game for Google Glass. The game involves killing aliens.

Wayne Bent will remain in prison. The Alibi covered Bent’s case extensively.

Happy birthday, Robert Culp. I don’t believe I’ve mentioned I’m related to Robert Culp. Or perhaps I have!

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Workers ratchet up protests in Spain.

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Irish "anarchy," i.e., religious riots.

Kofi Annan condemns Syria after new reports of atrocities.

Iran could have nukes within 2 years, says British intelligence agency chief.

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news

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Body found this morning by Central and 114th. Then, police say, a car crashed into the crime scene.

Couple who’d already had a child die from cocaine arrested with 6 grams at a Sonic. Two of their children were in the car and the lady was pregant.

Police say man pepper sprayed while trying to rob motel customers at gunpoint. He dropped the gun and ran, then was pepper sprayed again when he returned and offered to buy the gun for $40.

Multiple deaths in Afghani riots sparked by burning of Korans at U.S. militray base.

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$2 million in gold doubloons returned to Spain from a ship that was sunk by British forces in 1804.

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news

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Sports

Hangover Sports Roundup: Spain and LeBron

Play Youtube Video

World Cup 2010

Who would have thought when this thing began, America would care even after the United States was eliminated. Apparently, soccer took hold here, and the World Cup concluded on Sunday with Spain versus the Netherlands.

Most of match was a parade of yellow cards and physical play, and Spain had most of the clean score chances. But 90 minutes was not enough; the fate of both squads was determined in extra time. In the 116th minute, Andres Iniesta kicked in the deciding goal giving Spain its first World Cup Final victory.

The Cup slowly converted this causal styptic to a soccer believer. Don't get me wrong. Touchdowns, dunks, and knockouts will always be first on my list, but there's always room for something new. Only time will tell if Major League Soccer can use the popularity of the World Cup down the road in the U.S.

NBA

Finally, the Chosen One made a decision during a live television special on ESPN. Picking Miami over Cleveland turned LeBron James from King to villain in a matter of seconds.

Through this entire process, James put his ego on full display. He’s ignored the Cavaliers and promised multiple titles for the Heat. Its unknown whether the self-proclaimed greatest trio in NBA history will produce a dynasty or even a profit for the organization.

One thing is for certain: The Heat took all the pressure off the defending champion L.A Lakers and painted a big bullseye on their own back instead.

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