By Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
My second favorite artwork in the “Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish-American Home 1492 to 1898” exhibit that opens at the New Orleans Museum of Art on Friday (June 20) is the huge 1780 portrait of Dona Mariana Belsunse Salasar of Lima Peru. Ms. Salasar is shown in a billowing bell-shaped blue gown intricately embroidered in gold and studded with pearls.
She toys absently with a luxurious pocket watch. Around her neck is a spectacular silver collar with a huge yellow gemstone dangling to her breast. Her earrings are chandeliers. Her fan is at the ready to chase away a warm breeze, should one have the temerity to intrude.
Everything about the painting is meant to imply wealth and status. As NOMA curator Lucia Abramovich explained, the folks you meet in “Behind Closed Doors” were the richest people in the Spanish colonies and they didn’t mind who knew it.
Abramovich said that Ms. Salasar’s family had intended her to marry a rather old and rather unattractive suitor. Instead of offering her hand, the lovely Ms. Salasar announced her intention to enter a convent. But, as luck would have it, her elderly former fiancé suddenly dropped dead, Ms. Salasar scampered out of the nunnery and married the old dead dude’s rich, handsome nephew who later became the mayor of Lima. In Abramovich’s telling the young couple spent the rest of their lives “basically being fantastic.”
“They were essentially a power couple at this time,” she said. “They were great benefactors as well as leaders in Lima’s social circle.”
The Peruvian power couple built a bullfighting ring for the pleasure of the people of Lima, where, one presumes, they spent their time lolling in the sun, sipping wine as life and death struggles took place before them. You can see the entrance to the bullring right outside Ms. Salasar’s window.
My first favorite artwork in the exhibit is an 1819 Guatemalan painting of Dona Maria Ignacio Diez, who, like Ms. Salasar, was bound for the convent. Ms. Diez is shown wearing a diaphanous lace shawl that covers her lavender dress like a sheer veil. Both the delicate lace and the fact that her family could afford an artist skilled enough to render it were demonstrations of the young woman’s wealth.
But here’s the intriguing part. To my eye, the artist wasn’t just skilled in capturing the translucent quality of lace. He was capable of capturing the translucent quality of a young woman’s character. Ms. Diez has an impish expression and, I swear, the artist emphasized her nature by giving her devil horns. They’re not literally horns, of course, but look at the angle of the rose leaf to the right and the comb handle to the left of her hair. Don’t they look like Pan’s horns? Could that be accidental? Or was the artist slyly telling us that the young woman had a devilish spirit? I think he was.
Abramovich politely declined to buy into my devil-girl theory. Instead, she proposed a more poignant interpretation.
“I kind of see it more as a capturing of a moment of time before she’s cloistered and they won’t be able to see her this way again, as this teenager,” Abramovich said.
In Abramovich’s view, Ms. Diez may not have been devilish, but she was certainly educated.
“She’s holding a book and she has a page ear-marked which is an indication of her intelligence and that she’s well read,” she said.
There are many more treasures and curiosities to be found in “Behind Closed Doors.” Here are a few worth finding.
Look for the set of mid-1700s Peruvian portraits of Inca kings from the pre-Colombian period that were meant to illustrate Native American lines of nobility, just like the portraits of the Spanish king Ferdinand VII celebrated the Old World monarchy.
Look for the completely charming early 1800s Peruvian silver Turkey-shaped candy bowl or jewelry box – no one’s sure of the exact use.
Look for the late-1600s Bolivian painting of an archangel toting a muzzle-loading gun to better defend the faith.
Look for the eerie Colombian shadowbox altarpiece from the late 1600s that depicts Christ with an odd golden noose around his neck. I’ve never seen that particular iconography before.
Look for the amazing, fragile, amber-colored Jamaican jewelry box from 1677, assembled from sheets of translucent sea turtle shell. As Abramovich said, “Somebody took very good care of that for a very long time.”
And look for the large painting of the Virgin of Loreto, in which Christ and Mother Mary are depicted with almost black skin. The painting, Abramovich said, defies easy explanation. The very dark images are part of an enigmatic iconic tradition that apparently began in Italy and spread through the Catholic world.
“Behind Closed Doors,” which I previewed in an unfinished state, is a traveling show from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, supplemented with seven paintings and artifacts from NOMA’s collection. The title tells us that the folks in Brooklyn transparently tried to impose a little sizzle on what is basically a sleepy historical overview. There’s little sex or intrigue to be found. Trust me, I looked.
In defense of the title, Abramovich pointed out a nuance to the collection. The Old-World Spanish nobility of the period probably would have frowned on portraits of Inca kings and depictions of birds found only in the Americas, such as turkeys, Abramovich said. But behind closed doors, the blending of the indigenous and invading culture in the colonies was underway.
I still think the Brooklynites were trying to channel Charlie Rich.
I’m afraid I have another small complaint. For a forty-year period in our early history, from 1762 to 1802, New Orleans was part of the Spanish empire. Yet, as best I could tell, the show doesn’t take that into consideration.
Abramovich said that one reason is there are just not a lot of Crescent City Spanish art of artifacts to be had. The French colonial period has always gotten more attention, she said. But maybe “Behind Closed Doors,” will inspire more of us to get in touch with our collective Spanish heritage.
The exhibit, Abramovich said, “is a wonderful moment to peak people’s interest in the topic.”