Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 2020
Maureen G. Shanahan and Ana María Reyes, eds. Simón Bolívar: Travels and Transformations of a Cultural Icon Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017. 288 pp.; 16 color ills. Paper $35.00 (9780813054490)

How does a revolutionary figure, an individual who demands fundamental and radical change in political organization, become the symbol of political order? And what is the impact of rebellion and authority coming together in a single visage? These questions framed my own investigations of Emiliano Zapata, general of the Southern Forces of the Mexican Revolution (1910–19), whose image has multiple and often oppositional meanings. Zapata, the most wanted revolutionary figure in Mexican history—someone labeled a barbarian and bandit during his lifetime—has become a global symbol of Mexico. Similarly, according to Maureen G. Shanahan and Ana María Reyes, editors of this volume, Simón Bolívar functions “as a complex discursive field of contested meanings for many interrelated ideas” (17).

Every student and scholar of the history or art history of Latin America encounters Bolívar, the protagonist of epic tales of nation building in South America. Bolívar is celebrated as the liberator from Spanish rule of a large portion of South America, including what became the nations of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, and Bolivia. His role in gaining independence is intertwined with the stories of nationhood. Although Bolívar’s ideology and constitution “sided with centralist authoritarianism [and] patriarchal militarism, and [expressed] a distrust of the masses” (2), his image has been engaged to critique political systems he himself helped to establish. As symbols of revolution, independence, and nationhood, Bolívar’s images continue to multiply and conflict in the meanings of their representations of the state, the people, and Bolívar himself. The editors and writers who have contributed to Simón Bolívar: Travels and Transformations of a Cultural Icon, accordingly, “illuminate the complex dynamics of cultural grammar and complicate cohesive national mythologies” (2).

Not intended as a comprehensive study, the collection includes an eclectic selection of essays that highlight the diversity of meanings found in the material culture that invokes Bolívar. Cultural studies provides a framework to examine representations of Bolívar as “signs engaged in a dynamic and contested field of power and meaning” (11). The authors engage material culture from multiple vantage points—including the historical and contemporary as well as the national and international—and across a broad range of media. The book spans over two hundred years of history, allowing for broad assessments and observations. Organized chronologically, three sections of essays divide along the centuries: part 1, “Emergence and Consolidation in the Nineteenth Century”; part 2, “Disruptions and Unhingings in the Twentieth Century”; and part 3, “Re-Anchoring in the Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries.” While sites typically associated with Bolívar—Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru—are the context for much of the book, discussion extends to include unexpected sites of cultural Bolivarianism, such as archives in Cuba, operas in the United States, and a Slovenian architectural complex. The essays address manifestations of Bolivarianism in visual culture, performance, music, archival investigation, and architectural design, as well as in weaponry and in the treatment of the cadaver of Bolívar himself, to reveal a network of material culture that is interconnected historically and referentially but distinct in terms of time, place, context, and purpose.

In their role as editors, Shanahan and Reyes pay homage to their predecessors who have analyzed Bolívar in terms of his historical contributions and the common narratives surrounding him. The volume begins with a prologue by Germán Carrera Damas, who outlines his own extensive research on the historiography of Bolívar, the person and the writer. This brief synopsis of the earliest and most important work provides an overview of years of research on Bolívar and, more importantly, sets the stage for the distinct contributions of this new collection, focused on the material culture that has contributed to the development and maintenance of the cult of Bolívar. Moreover, the editors link their book to Carrera Damas through the methodology of cultural studies, as reflected in his own work on the cult of Bolívar. In their introduction the editors continue the review of the scholarship. A consideration of more recent works focused on images and material culture establishes their own deep understanding of the subject while introducing the reader to the visual field of Bolivarianism. While the editors thus anchor themselves to a tradition of scholarship, the volume nevertheless offers a fresh approach in its interdisciplinary perspective, expanding the data for consideration in understanding the meanings of Bolívar, especially through their inclusion of diverse and contemporary art.

The first part is an overview of the initial development of the image of Bolívar. The transformation of persons into political icons relies heavily on representation, and Emily A. Engel discusses some of the earliest images, approximately 150 portraits made during the military leader’s lifetime, including drawings, paintings, sculptures, and engravings. In particular, Engel traces the “iconogenesis” of Bolívar with particular attention to the visual canon of colonial-era rituals and traditions. Her detailed examination of the portraits extends to a wider survey of portraiture in Europe and South America and also highlights how Bolívar was an astute and active agent in the construction of the iconography of nation building. Innovating the study of Bolívar, Juan Francisco Sans presents a history of dance as a site for negotiating social position and political power. Sans brings to light the dark side of balls and soirées held during the fight for independence at sites of the execution of enemies of the host, making clear the intertwined nature of politics and culture.

Shanahan opens the second part of the book with her essay on international operatic manifestations of Bolivarianism, the impetus for her own investigation of the historical figure as well as for this book. The essays in this part capture “both attacks upon an iconic Bolívar and the polyvalence of Bolívar as a cultural sign beyond the Latin American context” (13). The discussion concludes, in part 3, with a focus on current political figures and turmoil in South America. Alejandro E. Gómez Pernia provides the political history of Bolívar’s swords, which have become venerated relics, and highlights how Bolivarianism works to link the present leadership with the heroic past.

The essays in this collection are for scholars of Latin American (art) history, colonial (art) history, Latin American literature, and Latin American music and performance. They deal broadly with themes of nation building, war, and revolution. This book is useful to students of art history also for its application of iconography, a method of reading symbols and constructing meaning. Taken together, the contributions are essential for any who seek interdisciplinary avenues between history and art, as well as for those who focus on independence movements and reconstructive nation building. And the collection is extremely useful as a tool for the study of Latin American history, politics, and art combined. Finally, as a study of Bolívar, it is exemplary in terms of how to conduct nuanced analysis of an iconic and mythological figure.

The celebration of military, particularly male, leaders is common in history. Narratives and rituals commemorate what we are told are great deeds, and soldiers of war evolve into heroes. Bolívar was the hinge that unified South America after independence. The book’s introduction, “Bolívar Unhinged,” clearly asserts the intent of the editors to break with traditional practices and unhinge Bolívar from oversimplified readings. “Unhinging” suggests the setting of something in motion, and to become unhinged as a person suggests instability. Part 2, “Disruptions and Unhingings in the Twentieth Century,” continues with the theme, and with this framework the editors conjure the unstable and volatile nature of Bolívar as symbol. Evoking the effects of hinging and unhinging simultaneously, the book hinges together two hundred years of material culture about Bolívar while simultaneously unhinging the various significations of the man, the myth, and the symbol.

Theresa Avila
PhD, California State University Channel Islands