Rishel discusses religion, identity in Lee Frank Lecture

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Yesterday, Joseph Rishel gave the Lee Frank Lecture in the History of Art in the LPAC Cinema. The Gisela and Dennis Alter Senior Curator of European Painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rishel spoke on work “in progress” for an exhibition scheduled for the fall of 2006, “Latin American Art: 1492-1800.”

The exhibition, sponsored by Getty Trust, will focus on the dynamic intercultural exchange between the diverse ethnic groups affected by intercontinental movement, such as colonization and the slave trade. Though the diversity and range of material is immense, stretching the whole of the Spanish empire, Rishel stated that coherence could be found in similar instances of interplay between divergent cultures.

The first part of Rishel’s talk focused on hybrid forms of religion. An immense Atrial Cross (c. 1556) was an example of the fusion of Christian and Aztec iconography by early Franciscan monks. The cross, located outside the Basilica Guadalope, obfuscates images of sacrifice in Christianity and the Aztec religion – such blends, he said, are the touchtone of imposed religion. Rishel spoke on the process defining identity in the so-called New World, a site of immensely complex ethnic relations, between Native Americans, Europeans, Africans, and Eastern Asians. Though Spanish and Franciscan iconography is prominent in much art, its Creole nature is obvious behind European pageantry, and artists were exploring and creating ideas of race and social order. Rishel noted that it was largely capitalistic impulses, such as the silver rush in Bolivia, that were responsible for bringing all these cultural forces together, but he stressed that theories of dominance and subversion were not an adequate vocabulary to describe the vast and complex exchanges taking place.

The second half of the lecture dealt with the formation of identity relative to social Others. Though European print-makers attributed socially unacceptable behavior to Americans, such as cannibalism, the large majority of art coming from the New World to Europe was influenced by objective, empirical theories of the Enlightenment and directed its study to indigenous specificity, in garments, nature, and custom. In art meant to remain within the Vice royal empire, Europeans defined themselves against indigenous peoples, retelling narratives of conquest. Important Indigenous or Mulatto persons often appropriated Spanish regal style to affirm their place on top of the hierarchy of power.

Rishel closed by briefly discussing European export of native art, such as feather mosaics, commissioned extensively by the church, and textiles. Then, in a brief question and answer session that followed his talk, he attempted to explain Madrid’s Prado Museum’s resistance to bringing the exhibition to Spain, citing both a complex of guilt and defensiveness for atrocities committed in the Americas and an opposition to displaying works still largely considered to be “anthropological.”

Rishel, a former professor at Worcester College, has been at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1971. He is also the curator of Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum and a Fellow of the Academy of the Arts and Sciences. After its debut in Philadelphia in 2006, the exhibition will also travel to the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, and then likely to museums in Central and South America.

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