Some comments on Russo, casta paintings, and the New World as a heterotopic space

The Untranslatable Image

The Untranslatable Image: A Mestizo History of the Arts in New Spain, 1500-1600. Amazon link here.

I still haven’t finished reading Russo’s book, but it’s a measure of the value it has for me that a quick perusal of the last chapter persuaded me to ::sotto voce:: copy it.  It was either that or incur the wrath of the good people at the U. of Kansas’ Watson Library’s interlibrary loan department for being late in getting their book back to them.  Anyone who likes Serge Gruzinski’s book The Mestizo Mind (an important book for Russo’s work) and/or is looking for a very different way of looking at and thinking about the artistic production of New Spain in its first century will want to look at this book.

Given that Russo’s book’s coverage ends where it does, she does not mention casta paintings.  However, as I have thought about her close, attentive discussions of maps serving as not only accurate renderings of physical space but also as their indigenous or mestizo makers’ attempts to make new, conceptual sense of their home, which, now that the Spaniards have arrived, has caused their land to be turned upside-down (a phrase she quotes at least two indigenous and mestizo chroniclers as using), it occurs to me that we could also discuss casta paintings in those same terms.  They, too, were made mostly by mixed-race people; they, too, were the visual records of a Crown-sanctioned attempt to impose order on a bewildering variety of racial combinations; and/but they, too, they seem to be about more than the business of reinforcing the Crown’s legal, political, and social hierarchies.  (This seems especially true of the paintings done toward the end of the colonial period.)  In other words, the casta paintings can be said to serve as kinds of maps, as well, complete with “directions” (in the form of the names of some of the different castas), that also reflect at some level their makers’ own sensibilities as they paint people whose racial types they know–indeed, as they occasionally paint their own racial types–types, moreover, that didn’t exist before the arrival of Europeans and, later, people of African descent.

Below the fold, I have examples of three casta paintings that I hope will help illustrate what I am getting at.

Casta Painting, ca. 1750

Unknown artist, casta painting, ca. 1750. From Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 36.

First, some quick background: casta paintings were painted either on a single canvas that has been divided into a sixteen-square grid, as you see in this first painting, or as sixteen separate paintings (the second painting on this page is from one such set).  However, whether as a single canvas or as separate paintings, each square or canvas depicted parental pairings and the racial category, or casta, under which their offspring would fall.  Ilona Katzew, in her important survey of the genre, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico, notes the similarities between the single-canvas casta paintings and the “cabinets of curiosities,” popular in Europe at the same time, that displayed exotic items from the Americas and other non-European regions.  These new racial types were likewise curiosities to Europeans, and the paintings attempted to assuage their owners’ curiosity.  Surely, though, those who lived within this system would have read these paintings, if they ever saw them (the vast majority of them were made for Europeans), in a rather different way: They would would have located themselves and their possible matches on the chart to determine their children’s “destination”–just as one does when reading a map.  To be sure, what the viewer navigates via these paintings is not a physical space but rather a racial and social one, previously unimagined by either Europeans, indigenous people, or people of African descent, projected onto a landscape that likewise had not been imagined by Europeans or Africans before the Encounter, and now had to be re-imagined by Mesoamericans in the wake of the Encounter.

Juan Rodriguez Juarez casta painting

Attributed to Juan Rodríguez Juárez. “De mulatto y mestiza, produce mulatto es torna atrás” (Mulatto and Mestiza Produce a Mulatto “Turn-Back”), c. 1715.

The second painting, we can deduce, would have appeared somewhere in the middle of the larger set to which it belongs; I discuss how I arrived at this deduction, and much more about this painting, in this post at my old blog.  In that discussion, I note that by law a mestizo/a, if s/he married someone of Spanish birth, and their offspring also married someone of Spanish birth, their offspring would then be considered to have pure Spanish blood (though still of lesser political and social status by virtue of having been born in this hemisphere rather than in Spain).  This purifying of blood could take place because Spaniards considered indigenous people to be a pure race.  Such dispensation was not accorded to people of African descent, however: no number of succeeding generations of marriage with Spaniards would purify the family bloodline if someone in that bloodline were black.  Thus, in the particular instance of this painting, we have in the naming of the offspring of the mestiza and mulatto a didactic element–or, in keeping with my suggestion that sets of casta paintings (not individual paintings within the sets) can be read like maps, a directional element, or even a command.  In the name “Turn-Back,” we find a bit of ambiguity: Is the name assigned to the offspring directed at the couple contemplating marriage (that is, “Turn away from this match–don’t make it!”), or is it a descriptor of the child himself (another translation for atrás is “backward”), the name thus suggesting a social regression rather than an advancement?  At any rate,  it is nevertheless the case that the castas that follow this one offer those who fall within them no opportunity to raise their children’s standing via “marrying up.”

LA PINTURA DE CASTAS Ilona Katzew Pg. 195

Luis de Mena, Casta Painting, c. 1750. Museo de América, Madrid. Click on the image to enlarge. Image found here.

This painting by Luis de Mena, from about 1750 (the same date as the first painting), is remarkable for two reasons.  The first is that, whereas in the first two paintings the castas are separated from each other by either the lines of the grid or the frame of the canvases, in de Mena’s painting the castas are labeled but the boundaries between them are less distinct.  I do not pretend to know why this is, but I do think it is clear that de Mena’s painting’s subject is not exclusively the depicting of castas but, rather, something like a celebration of the riches of New Spain.  (By comparison, the first of the paintings has the feel of a textbook illustration on the subject of the castas.)  Whereas the casta system had been created as an instrument of the Crown to control who could hold what bureaucratic and guild offices, with an assist from the Church to keep track of (and advise against certain) marriages, by the mid-point of the eighteenth century Mexico’s diversity of people had actually become a point of pride that, in another 60 or so years–that is, by the end of the Revolution–could legitimately be called a point of national pride.

The following is from a longer comment on this painting that you can find here:

[E]specially when compared to other casta paintings, it becomes pretty clear that Mena wants to insist on a more benign interpretation of these different castas by placing their depiction within a context in which Mexico’s other virtues are submitted for our admiration. The castas occupy the middle two registers of the painting; they are framed, below, by a depiction of native fruits and vegetables (it is no accident that the costumes of the figures in the casta paintings are in the same colors as the produce–as if to suggest that these many-hued people are likewise the fruit of the same Mexican soil) and, above, by the Virgin, her basilica [on her right] and [on her left] Ixtacalco, a popular place to visit on the southeast of the capital known for its canals. The painting’s overall message is that of exuberant variety that is clearly and distinctly Mexican, a variety, moreover, presided over approvingly by the Virgin herself.

It is this last observation, regarding the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance here, that is this painting’s second remarkable feature: of those casta paintings still known to exist, de Mena’s is the only one known to depict the Virgin.  It was no secret that the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 as a mestiza who spoke Nahuatl to him, but for reasons of propriety there was little direct association of her mixed-race appearance with the phenomenon of the castas.  The Virgin, of course, is a symbol of purity; meanwhile, Juan Diego, the story goes, had been worthy of the Virgin’s appearances to him because he and his wife, after having heard a sermon on chastity, had taken vows to lead chaste lives.  On the other hand, while racial intermixture was not exactly sanctioned in New Spain, neither was it a punishable offense except via the prohibiting of certain members of castas from holding certain positions in the government, Church, and guilds; yet the very existence of (and felt necessity for) the casta system was due to what was regarded at some level as not-entirely-proper sexual behavior.  However, on May 25, 1754, Pope Benedict XIV declared the Virgin to be the Patroness of New Spain, and this approbation soon led to an increased evocation of the Virgin as both synecdoche and affirmation of the people of New Spain:

Not only did her apparition to Juan Diego come to represent the promise of a renewed Christendom in Mexico and a kind of collective baptism of its disparate populations, but members of clergy incorporated it into a vision of New Spain as a product of two spiritually unsullied communities: one brought the Catholic faith; the other was redeemed by it. Within this vision, it was the latter community, the indigenous people, that at a symbolic level was the more important. The Virgin’s appearance on the hill of Tepeyac had accelerated the eradication of idolatry, thereby sacralizing both the land and its original inhabitants; she had made Mexico into the new Holy Land and the Indians her chosen people. (María Elena Martínez, Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico,  252)

It would be no accident that Miguel Hidalgo in 1810 would choose as his flag for his army of rebels against Spain a banner with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it.

Russo mentions again and again in her book’s discussion of maps from the early decades of the 16th century that their indigenous and mestizo makers were tasked with making maps of landscapes that would be acceptable as accurate renderings of that land and yet also show signs of their makers’ having to reconceptualize their homeland in order to render them so that they would make sense to the makers themselves.  Their own home had become a heterotopic space, just as the lands of this hemisphere had been to Columbus, insisting as he did on reading the land in terms of accepted knowledge, even as those readings would make less and less sense when read through that frame.  Likewise, race–or more precisely, the ever-more-complicated mixings of races–became, for everyone in New Spain, another heterotopic space that had to be mapped even as it kept creating itself.  Its names and its rules–which is to say, its language–had to be invented here, and by everyone, because this space of race had not existed before, anywhere–or certainly not to the extent that it would come to exist in New Spain.

Seen from this perspective, Edouard Glissant’s argument that the land is a crucial element in Caribbean (and, by extension, New World) culture begins to make more and more sense.


One thought on “Some comments on Russo, casta paintings, and the New World as a heterotopic space

  1. Pingback: Book-project Progress | Domestic Issue

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