Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 7, 2019
Mey-Yen Moriuchi Mexican Costumbrismo: Race, Society, and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Art University Park: Penn State University Press, 2018. 180 pp.; 31 color ills.; 29 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780271079073)

Of the principal areas of study constituting Latin American art history, i.e., ancient, colonial, modern, and contemporary, the nineteenth century remains under examined. Situated precariously between the Spanish viceregal period and modern nationhood, this turbulent yet pivotal stage in Mexico’s history has lagged in terms of scholarly attention, particularly in art history. Art historians in Mexico, such as Jean Charlot, Justino Fernández, Fausto Ramírez Rojas, Esther Acevedo, and Angélica Velázquez Guadarrama have done much of the heavy lifting in terms of writing about art in nineteenth-century Mexico. Meanwhile, in the United States, Stacie G. Widdifield has led the way, with additional publications by scholars such as Magali Carrera, Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, Kelly Donahue-Wallace, and a handful of others.

In a survey of nineteenth-century Mexican art, costumbrismo, i.e., scenes of daily life and local types, stands out as one of the more recognizable pictorial genres. Among the more prominent works that examine costumbrista imagery in Mexico, we find publications by Fernández (1952), Luis Ortiz Macedo (1989), Cristina Barros and Marcos Buenrostro (1994), Widdifield (1996), María Esther Pérez Salas (2005), Carrera (2011), and James Oles (2013). There have also been entries in exhibition catalogues such as Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990) and Nación de imágenes: La litografía mexicana del siglo XIX (Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City, 1994). Mey-Yen Moriuchi’s book, Mexican Costumbrismo: Race, Society, and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Art is the first extensive study in English and the latest addition to the literature on this fascinating and still relevant subject.

In her comprehensive study, Moriuchi explores the dimensions of Mexican social and cultural production that gave shape to costumbrismo as a genre of visual and literary production. Costumbrista expressions were symptomatic of an emergent national identity that was responding to local visual traditions and foreign influences, as Mexican elites attempted to define a national identity while presenting Mexico as equal to other nations. Here, Moriuchi employs Aníbal Quijano’s “coloniality of power” through which to approach costumbrista expressions as one of the mechanisms elite Mexicans in the nineteenth century used to define their identity not only as Mexican in relation to other nations, but as racial and social elites in their own society via a process of “othering” Mexicans from lower social classes and varied racial/ethnic groups. Moriuchi states, “In my examination of costumbrismo, I investigate this dialectic between individual particularism and what can be generalized about an ‘otherized’ community . . . [given that] . . . hierarchies that had been imposed during European rule survived in the form of social and racial discrimination that is embedded in contemporary social orders” (3).

In chapter 1, “Racialized Social Spaces in Casta and Costumbrista Painting,” Moriuchi begins by recognizing correspondences between nineteenth-century costumbrista imagery and eighteenth-century pinturas de casta, a genre of late colonial painting in New Spain illustrating the myriad, categorized, mixed-race results of miscegenation between Spaniards, Indians, and blacks. She notes how the racialized social hierarchy that is referenced in pinturas de casta became problematic after 1822 when a law was passed decreeing that Mexican citizens could not be classified according to race in official documents. She adds that after independence, although all Mexican citizens were now seen as equal under the law, the traditional social hierarchy continued to exist and was reflected in costumbrista images via a “colonial gaze.” Given the identities of the artists (some foreign, all elite) and the images’ intended audiences, she states that this colonial gaze persisted although the “center-periphery” dynamic seen in earlier colonial images had been disrupted. She observes that while casta paintings underline the phenotypic variation and class differences of New Spain’s miscegenated populace, costumbrista images in Mexico present that diverse population as peacefully coexisting and intermingling, suggesting a stable, unified nation to the viewer.

In the second chapter, “Traveler-Artists’ Visions of Mexico, Moriuchi shifts her attention to the Europeans who began arriving in Mexico following its independence from Spain. Referring to the work of traveler-artists, she examines what she frames as “the paradoxical coexistence of truthful verisimilitude and constructed idealization, as it pertains to the representation of the people and customs of Mexico” (32). Her aim is to reexamine the biases and romantic sensibilities of the foreign visitors who were traveling throughout the country and documenting what they encountered. Referring to the spaces in which these artists moved and worked as “contact zones” (spaces where cultures meet and interact), she considers how marginal groups absorb “metropolitan” modes of representation, exemplified by the manner in which representations created by Europeans were absorbed and emulated by Mexican artists in their depictions of local types and customs. To make her case, she discusses four European artists: Claudio Linati, Carl Nebel, Johann Moritz Rugendas, and Édouard Pingret. Pingret, for instance, who studied in the workshop of Jacques-Louis David, produced paintings that evince the influence of French artists such as Théodore Gericault and Eugène Delacroix in their “orientalizing,” exotic treatment of Mexican subjects. Although he taught and exhibited at the Academy of San Carlos, Pingret rejected classical, historical, and religious themes, preferring to paint scenes drawn from daily life. Choosing to paint costumbrista themes at a time when modernism in art was emerging, Moriuchi suggests, makes Pingret an innovator, even while he worked within traditional modes of representation. Moriuchi summarizes this chapter when she writes, “The visual images of all four men projected European desires and fears in the guise of scientific, objective observations” (59).

Moriuchi also examines literary costumbrismo but expands on previous discussions. In chapter 3, “Literary Costumbrismo: Celebration and Satire of ‘los tipos populares,’” she writes, “Costumbrista artists and writers attempted to formulate a national identity based on notions of similarity to, and difference from, European nations” (61). She references the work of political philosopher John Plamenatz and his suggestion that there are two types of nationalism: a western form seen in western Europe and an eastern variation found everywhere else, including Latin America, that exemplifies the dynamic between former colonizers and colonized territories. In the eastern model, national identity occupies a space between acceptance of a foreign culture’s influence and its rejection. In Mexico, thinkers and other cultural producers straddled this line, given how costumbrista writers drew on European literature to prove their intellectual sophistication while emphasizing their nation’s distinctiveness.

In the fourth chapter, “Local Perspectives: Mexican Costumbrista Artists,” Moriuchi focuses on five Mexican artists: José Agustín Arrieta, Manuel Serrano, Felipe Santiago Gutiérrez, and Juliana and Josefa Sanromán. Looking at the Academy of San Carlos’s influence in art production, she notes that history painting was highly esteemed while genre painting was generally dismissed; she adds, however, that costumbrista writers and artists played a central role in defining a modern national identity by documenting racial and social types and reimagining social life in Mexico. Of special interest is Moriuchi’s decision to include the work of the sisters Josefa and Juliana Sanromán. As would be expected of women of their class, these talented artists painted what they were allowed, i.e., domestic interiors, still lifes, and religious images; as such, the elite world they inhabited became their subject, unlike the subjects of other costumbrista images. The Sanromán sisters, nonetheless, regarded themselves as artists and as agents in their own lives, and contributed to the visual representation of Mexican social life across classes. Furthermore, by underlining the status of women artists and contributing to ideas of female identity, the two sisters broke social conventions and must be seen, as Moriuchi suggests, as paving the way for Mexican women artists of the twentieth century.

Moriuchi’s book provides a broad examination of the costumbrista genre by considering a wide range of expressions, including paintings, prints, and literature as well as photography. She ties photography’s picturesque qualities to a sense of nostalgia for traditional lifeways threatened by industrialization. Importantly, she distinguishes between the ethnographic photographs taken by anthropologists (“scientific” illustrations focused on physical and biological features) and the work of costumbrista photographers (aesthetically determined representations of social and cultural values). Included in this comprehensive approach is attention not only to the production, form, and content of costumbrista imagery but also its conceptual foundations, reception, and role in processes of nation formation. Moriuchi folds critical theory into her analysis, placing costumbrismo in conversation with larger discussions related to modernity, nationalism, (post/de)colonialism, critical race theory, and indigeneity. I would have liked to have seen a more developed examination of the intersections between politics and art production. Moriuchi might have considered how politicized ideas about Mexican history and culture were registered in the art produced in institutional spaces, such as the Academy of San Carlos, and in extra-academic art production such as costumbrista images, which, in spite of divergent forms, foci, and modes of production, shared similar objectives. Also, a more formal review of the literature on costumbrismo would have helped underline the significance of this study. That said, Mey-Yen Moriuchi’s book is a noteworthy contribution that expands our understanding of a significant genre of art production in nineteenth-century Mexico and wider Latin America. Its comprehensive approach makes it a valuable resource for specialists as well as for scholars and students unfamiliar with nineteenth-century Mexican art.

Ray Hernández-Durán
Associate Professor of Early Modern Ibero-American Colonial Arts and Architecture, University of New Mexico

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