For the first time a textbook now exists incorporating the art history of Latin America from the earliest Indian clay and stone representations to the most recent movements in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Previous surveys, almost all by outsiders, have concentrated on national art histories or, when they attempt a continental scope, on either the pre-Columbian (e.g. Bushnell, 1965) or the Colonial (Angulo Íñiguez, 1945-1956). Some writers have dealt with both epochs as independent studies (Kelemen, 1943, 1951, 1969; Kubler, 1962; Kubler and Soria, 1959). No one has ever published a unified art history of the National period, although Catlin and Grieder’s catalog (1966) of the Yale traveling exhibition provides the material for such a history.
A new book by Leopoldo Castedo, written in Spanish but first published in translation, brings together this previously separated material into one small book. Although an outsider by birth (Spaniard), he is a Chilean citizen, and thus can see both the similarities and differences among the traditions of the various republics. His background with the diplomatic corps has not only endowed him with intellectual agility and verbal facility, but has also graced his work with a refreshing lack of pedantry.
Now chairman of the Art Department at Stony Brook (S.U.N.Y.), he is an exciting and witty teacher, whose book gives the impression of a series of lectures, transcribed verbatim and peppered with lively but imprecise descriptions and stimulating but unproved relationships. Virtually every statement in the book is a challenge to thought; yet hardly a paragraph passes without some debatable point. One soon tires of the injudicious superlatives: most famous, best, first, greatest, etc. But used as counterpoint to the lectures of a competent professor, Castedo’s text might effectively stimulate student discussion and inquiry.
Perhaps a tendency to oversimplify is an inherent weakness of a short survey on such a complex subject. That failing is most acute in Castedo’s first section on pre-Columbian styles, since many of them were essentially unrelated and defy easy characterization. The Iberian conquests absorbed the indigenous diversity into a relatively unified culture, making possible Castedo’s second and best section, on Colonial art history. In the final section, on Latin American art since Independence, the complexities caused by political fragmentation occasionally obscure the similarity in artistic styles uniting the vast region. Throughout the post-Conquest period, Latin American art is unintelligible without a knowledge of Western artistic trends, which are scarcely mentioned in this brief book.
The leitmotif of the text is the persistence of Indian styles, themes, and techniques throughout the history of Latin American art. An interesting thread to follow, it helps tie together many seemingly unrelated periods and regional styles. However, the apparent victory of mestizaje over Iberian artistic imperialism chronicled in this book is largely a triumph of Castedo’s agile mind over qualities common to provincial art. Notwithstanding the book’s defects, none of which is serious, its low price and 224 illustrations, many in color, guarantee its wide acceptance as a textbook.
The second book under review, by Francisco Bullrich, could form an addendum to Castedo’s last chapter on the new architecture. In fact, many of Bullrich’s references to prewar buildings and architects force the reader to consult other books such as Castedo’s. Yet the limited scope of the Bullrich book allows more detailed coverage of the material and more carefully shaded observations. As a native Argentine, Bullrich is aware of the great differences among the various Latin American countries, yet he tries to “present the architects and their works, not according to their nationality, but in relation to the problems which are now being confronted in this area of the world” (p. 11). Nevertheless, he correctly stresses the dynamic architectural milieu in Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina. As a practicing architect who designed one of the illustrated buildings in partnership with his lovely late wife Alicia, the young author has an accurate sense of the personal decisions faced by each designer and the complex interrelation of theory, precedent, and personal inspiration which leads each individual to a particular solution of a specific problem.
Bullrich relies a great deal on the 125 handsome black-and-white photographs to present the range of architectural solutions to problems and show many facets of a particularly important building The spare text, squeezed in among the illustrations, comments critically on specific works of architecture and planning, but it lacks a single thread to tie together the various national and iconographie themes. History in the making is always the most difficult to write, and Bullrich is too close to the living reality of architectural creation to force the many works from many lands into stylistic compartments.