Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, April 24, 2018 through July 22, 2018
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, May 10, 2018 through October 8, 2018
You’d never guess it from her portrait, but at the age of sixteen the Mexican aristocrat Doña María Tomasa Durán López de Cárdenas entered the Convento de Santa Brígida in Mexico City and professed vows as a Brigittine nun. The painting is one of the most striking in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit, Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici, one floor up from the popular Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. As the Mexican artist Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz has rendered her, María Tomasa might have felt right at home with the celebrities at the Met Gala. Posing before a blue velvet curtain by a large window in three-quarters profile, she wears fine fabrics of black and gold with lace trim, red roses, pearls, rings with precious stones, powdered white hair, and artificial beauty marks (known as chiqueadores). Yet her piercing stare is at odds with her fashionable dress. As if anticipating her future in the monastery, María Tomasa seems to be questioning the value of the riches that adorn her. Is haute couture at odds with religious decorum? What is the relationship between visual beauty and God?
Though it’s received far less attention than the show just downstairs, Painted in Mexico likewise immerses viewers in the Catholic visual imagination, albeit in a quieter, less flashy way. The exhibit, with more than a hundred objects (mostly paintings, but also a few large prints and rare books), debuted last year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before traveling to New York City earlier this spring. It mounts a comprehensive survey of eighteenth-century Mexican “viceregal art,” so called because the country was then part of the Spanish Empire. Deemed at once too conservative, derivative, and sentimental when compared with European painting of the same period, viceregal art has until recently received scant attention from art historians and American museums. Its baroque repertoire of portraits, landscapes, and Catholic devotional imagery, the argument goes, lacks the raw creativity and revolutionary fervor of modern Mexican masters like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco. It’s an unfortunate prejudice, one that the curatorial team of Painted in Mexico is eager to refute. The exhibit’s seven sections, each boasting an “unimaginable wealth of images” discovered in convents and churches across the country, energetically reveal eighteenth-century Mexico as a center of artistic, intellectual, and spiritual flourishing.