Exhibit shows how colonial trade routes influenced art in Spain, Portugal

If you want to talk global economy, trade expansion, outsourcing and growing new markets, don’t look at the present or even the future.  It all started as far back as the 16th century, when Spain and Portugal ruled most of the world.  

The far-reaching impact of this imperial dominance, beginning with Columbus, can be traced through art works in the new exhibition “Journeys to New Worlds” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The exhibition, continuing until May 19, is based on Roberta and Richard Huber’s vast collection. It all started when they discovered Spanish colonial art at a small museum in Buenos Aires. Immediately, they were hooked by the beauty of the paintings and sculptures — and their revelations of a rich, complex history that spoke of power, religion and global commerce.  

For Richard Huber, an American international banker and entrepreneur based in New York, it was also a way of understanding how colonial cultural trade worked and he uses one example.

“In the late 16th, 17th century, you had a home in Madrid, and you wanted a virgin for your home altar, you could rip a page of one of those famous Flemish books of engravings or you could have a guy around the corner who drew pretty well draw a sketch,” says Huber by way of example. “That would be given to a guy that would take it to Seville.”

Global networking

From the port of Seville in southern Spain, he says, a galleon would transport the drawing and all sorts of other goods to the thriving Spanish Caribbean port of Havana. Another ship took it to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. Next it was transported by mule across Mexico toward the Pacific Ocean port of Acapulco.

“In Acapulco, it would go on a galleon, and it would be one of the newer galleons that would go from Acapulco to Manila every year — 250 years, they didn’t miss a year,” he said. “In Manila, it would be farmed out to one of the workshops in the outskirts of Manila, which was totally manned by ethnic Chinese.”

The sculpture was carved, put back on the galleon for the return trip. Four and a half years later, it would arrive in Madrid.

“The equivalent of the FedEx man in the 16th century knocked on your door and said, ‘Madam, here’s your virgin. Just sign here.'”

In the case of the Portuguese empire, the journey would start in Lisbon, head to Rio de Janeiro, around the Cape of Good Hope to the port of Goa in India, into the hands of traditional ivory carvers and, finally, back to Lisbon.

Voyage of transformations

Along the route, says exhibit co-curator Mark Castro, art work commissioned by Europeans and wealthy colonial families would take on both subtle and obvious cultural influences from the countries where they were being made.

“We know that missionaries were asking native craftsmen to make objects,” said Castro. “They would show them one sculpture of the Christ child and say, ‘Can you make us more sculptures of the Christ child that are like these?’ And although on the one hand, formally, they do share a lot of similarities with Western sculptures, they use Asian facial features — and the use of some of the stylistic techniques that you see in early Buddhist sculpture is again kind of this sign of how people are taking a common theme and then imprinting on it their own circumstances.”

That  transformation is evident in many of the 130 art works in the exhibition, including ivory figurines. One painting in particular exemplifies this, said Richard Huber. It portrays Jesus, Mary and Joseph resting on their flight to Egypt. It could be a traditional Flemish painting, “but the background is this exuberant tropical jungle; very powerful,” said Huber.

Visitors to the show are welcomed by a large archangel slaying a grotesque monster. He’s painted in exquisite bright colors and wears warrior’s clothing made of lace and weavings of fine gold and silver.

After all, silver from the Bolivian mines of Potosi financed most of the Spanish Empire.

A social and political subtext permeates the art work at the exhibition, speaking of the empire’s mighty power, the prominent role of the Catholic Church, the opulence of the South American aristocracy and the exploitation of indigenous people.  

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