the RED that colored the world

the cen­turies-old ap­peal of cochineal

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The Neu­tro­gena Wing of the Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art was hushed and hu­mid as a crew metic­u­lously re­moved the front panel of a large sealed cus­tom-made wooden box that had been sit­ting in the gallery for five days get­ting ac­cli­mated to New Mex­ico. Four men care­fully slid out a painted and gilded beech arm­chair, up­hol­stered in worn red wool, and placed it on top of cush­ioned ta­bles to be in­spected. The chair was one of 28 made for Napoleon Bon­a­parte’s coun­cil room at Mal­mai­son and has been in the col­lec­tion of the New-York His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety since 1867. It is one of about 125 items that go on public dis­play on Sun­day, May 17, in an eye-pop­ping new ex­hibit ti­tled The Red That Colored the World. All the priceless pieces in the show con­tain cochineal, a rich red dye ex­tracted from a tiny in­sect that lives on prickly pear cac­tus in many parts of the Amer­i­cas and has been cul­ti­vated for cen­turies for use in tex­tiles, paint­ings, sculp­ture, and even makeup. The first loans for the ex­hibit, which was six years in the mak­ing, be­gan ar­riv­ing on April 22, first from Den­ver and Austin and then from Mex­ico City and Lon­don.

The show, which takes up both the His­panic Her­itage and Neu­tro­gena wings of the Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art, in­cludes paint­ings, tex­tiles, manuscripts, fur­ni­ture, sculp­ture, and cloth­ing from the Amer­i­cas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Many pieces were loaned by some of the most pres­ti­gious mu­se­ums and li­braries in the world. It also fea­tures many ex­am­ples from the mu­seum’s own col­lec­tion and the col­lec­tion of its neigh­bor, the Mu­seum of Span­ish Colo­nial Art. Among the items are an El Greco —

The Sav­ior, 1608-1614 — from the Museo del Greco in Toledo, Spain; a 16th-cen­tury manuscript from Florence; an early-19th-cen­tury Bri­tish red coat from the Na­tional Army Mu­seum in Lon­don; a red satin cloak from Lon­don’s Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum; a hooded cape from Ja­pan that is more than 200 years old; a 19th-cen­tury Lakota head­dress; and a frag­ment of cut silk vel­vet from the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art. From closer to home, the show in­cludes work by san­tero Felix Lopez, a map of New Mex­ico and a

retablo by Span­ish-born car­tog­ra­pher Bernardo Miera y Pacheco (who sculpted the al­tar screen for Cristo Rey Catholic Church), and a new hand-dyed red gown with beaded bodice by Navajo designer and Santa Fe res­i­dent Or­lando Dugi, who or­dered the color on the in­ter­net. The state’s own con­ser­va­tion depart­ment, which pur­chased spe­cial testing equip­ment for this project, helped con­firm the pres­ence of cochineal in the items se­lected for the ex­hibit.

A gilded beech arm­chair ar­rived with four other pieces from the East Coast in a cli­mate-con­trolled truck with air-ride sus­pen­sion to re­duce the chance that the ob­jects would be bounced around. As in the case of many of the loans, a courier was on hand for the un­crat­ing. The chair was un­packed un­der the watch­ful eye of Margi Hofer, a cu­ra­tor from the New-York His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, who had flown to Santa Fe the pre­vi­ous day. She care­fully ex­am­ined the piece, not­ing its con­di­tion. The chair, she said, was brought to Amer­ica by Napoleon’s el­der brother, Joseph, who gave it to a busi­ness as­so­ciate. His­to­ri­ans be­lieve Napoleon might have sat in it be­cause of dam­age to the left arm, pos­si­bly from a pen knife that the mil­i­tary leader was known to jig­gle when he was impatient.

The chair’s wool up­hol­stery was dyed with cochineal, a hum­ble bug that played a lead­ing role in com­merce, science, pol­i­tics, and art from the pre-Columbian era to to­day. The dye, pro­duced by heat­ing, dry­ing, and crush­ing the fe­male in­sect, was first used in Peru, where it was per­fectly suited to the coun­try’s nat­u­ral fibers, such as wool and silk. It was so val­ued that in­dige­nous peo­ple paid trib­ute to their Aztec lead­ers in cochineal. By the time the Span­ish ar­rived in Mex­ico, cochineal was al­ready do­mes­ti­cated and was even be­ing bred to in­crease pro­duc­tion of the red juice, a cen­turies-old ex­am­ple of se­lec­tive breed­ing.

The per­fect red

As early as 1523, Span­ish con­quis­ta­dor Hernán Cortés re­ported to Em­peror Charles V on cochineal pro­duc­tion, which, by the late 16th cen­tury, was con­cen­trated in Oax­aca. In 1597, English pi­rates stole 27 tons of this trea­sured pro­duce from a Span­ish con­voy. Cochineal was Spain’s sec­ond-most-im­por­tant ex­port af­ter sil­ver un­til Mex­ico’s in­de­pen­dence in the early 19th cen­tury.

In Europe, cochineal was used in mak­ing the luxury fab­rics worn by car­di­nals, aris­to­crats, and elites and by pain­ters and other artists to pro­duce translu­cent reds in can­vases. It was even used in var­nishes on Stradi­var­ius vi­o­lins. The in­sect wasn’t iden­ti­fied, how­ever, un­til the in­ven­tion of the mi­cro­scope in the late 17th cen­tury. Un­til then, many thought it was a worm.

The big­gest pro­duc­ers to­day are Peru (which makes 85 per­cent of the world’s sup­ply) and the Ca­nary Is­lands, fol­lowed by Mex­ico, Ecuador, and Bo­livia, ac­cord­ing to A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World (Skira Riz­zoli), an ex­hibit-re­lated book, edited by Carmella Padilla and Bar­bara An­der­son, con­tain­ing 32 es­says by 40 in­ter­na­tional au­thors. Cochineal ex­ists in New Mex­ico, but his­tor­i­cally it prob­a­bly wasn’t ever har­vested lo­cally to a great ex­tent, although Na­tive weavers of­ten un­rav­eled trade cloth to re­use in their work. A few years ago, Star­bucks re­vealed that it was us­ing the ground-up bugs to color its frap­puc­ci­nos. To­day cochineal is found in maraschino cher­ries, ched­dar cheese, yo­gurts, ice cream, grena­dine, lip­stick, eye shadow, and rouge.

“Cochineal, which is so color-sat­u­rated, su­per­seded other reds,” said An­der­son, one of the show’s cu­ra­tors and un­til 2012 head of the Mu­seum Re­sources Di­vi­sion of the Depart­ment of Cul­tural Af­fairs. “It was very ex­pen­sive, but peo­ple made for­tunes with it and had them­selves painted wear­ing it. It drove po­lit­i­cal wars, piracy, and then science.” And that’s why it is a good sub­ject for an art ex­hi­bi­tion, she said.

Putting to­gether the show was a com­plex process, with many dif­fer­ent lay­ers and un­cer­tain fund­ing. The idea goes back to 2008, when the movie Crazy Heart, star­ring Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyl­len­haal, was be­ing filmed in Santa Fe. Pro­ducer Robert Du­vall, who also has a part in the film, and his wife, Lu­ciana Pe­draza Du­vall, wanted to have a crew party on La­bor Day week­end and were look­ing for a venue. Mar­sha Bol was then direc­tor of the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art, and her daugh­ter was work­ing on the crew. The cou­ple booked the mu­seum for the event; as a thankyou, Du­vall’s wife gave Bol a copy of a book by Amy But­ler Green­field about cochineal called A Per­fect Red: Em­pire and the Quest for the Color of De­sire.

On a trip to Spain soon af­ter that, Bol read the book and thought, Wow, this would make a great ex­hibit. But it wasn’t the right time. In 2009, how­ever, when Bol be­came direc­tor of the Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art, the idea was reignited. She ap­proached An­der­son, a His­panic art his­to­rian for­merly with the J. Paul Getty Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les be­fore her ten­ure at the Depart­ment of Cul­tural Af­fairs. An­der­son agreed to cu­rate the show along with Padilla, a New Mex­ico au­thor and edi­tor, and Ni­co­lasa Chávez, the folk art mu­seum’s in-house cu­ra­tor of Latino/His­pano/ Span­ish colo­nial col­lec­tions. Donna Pierce, head of the New World Art Depart­ment at the Den­ver Art Mu­seum, was an early con­sul­tant. They agreed to un­der­take what be­came a mon­u­men­tal task of iden­ti­fy­ing art con­tain­ing cochineal from around the world and bring­ing it to Santa Fe. “I think this is the big­gest show, the most ex­pen­sive show that the mu­seum has done since the Gi­rard Wing opened in 1982,” Bol said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

Lay­ers of un­cer­tainty

The Red Team be­gan search­ing the world for the best ex­am­ples of cochineal. In Novem­ber 2011, Padilla and Pierce went on a scout­ing mission to Mex­ico. And in Fe­bru­ary 2012, An­der­son joined them on a trip to Madrid, where they went to look at pre-Columbian

cochineal ob­jects at the Museo de América. At the time, An­der­son said, they were hop­ing to form a part­ner­ship with the mu­seum, but be­cause of eco­nomic prob­lems in Spain, that didn’t hap­pen. “In the end, they were very gen­er­ous in lend­ing,” An­der­son said, and put the team in touch with a cos­tume mu­seum nearby called Museo del Traje, which is also lend­ing to the show.

That sum­mer the team held two “con­ven­ing” ses­sions funded by a grant from the Chicago-based Terra Foun­da­tion for Amer­i­can Art. Schol­ars in the field were in­vited to Santa Fe to talk about what the ex­hi­bi­tion might look like. Through those meet­ings the Red Team pro­duced an out­line for the book that will ac­com­pany the show and came up with ideas for ob­jects that might be in­cluded.

Chavez said the cu­rat­ing team started with items from the folk-art col­lec­tion that had al­ready been tested for cochineal. One of her jobs was to pre­pare them for view­ing. The team voted on each piece af­ter con­sid­er­ing whether it was in good enough con­di­tion for dis­play. But the cu­ra­tors soon dis­cov­ered that, de­spite all the work on cochineal, few ob­jects could ac­tu­ally be doc­u­mented as con­tain­ing the dye.

The Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art had tested some of its tex­tiles, as had the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don, but few mu­se­ums had the re­sources to do ex­ten­sive work. And mu­se­ums al­ways hes­i­tate be­fore testing ob­jects, be­cause tak­ing a sam­ple, al­beit a tiny one, risks dam­ag­ing the work. Mem­bers of the Red Team de­cided they only wanted to in­clude ob­jects that had tested pos­i­tive for cochineal. How­ever, An­der­son said, “There were only a few sci­en­tists in mu­se­ums who knew about how to test, and we clearly needed to en­list their help.”

The Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, the Mu­seum of Fine Arts in Bos­ton, and some other large in­sti­tu­tions were will­ing to as­sist. All have busy con­ser­va­tion labs, but they helped as much as they could. Mark

MacKenzie, direc­tor of con­ser­va­tion

for the Depart­ment of Cul­tural Af­fairs, de­cided to see if he could bring the job in-house. He spent time with Marco Leona at the Met and Richard New­man at the MFA learn­ing the science and study­ing their testing meth­ods. In the end he de­cided to go with high-per­for­mance liq­uid chro­matog­ra­phy, or HPLC, an old standby and the one New­man was us­ing in Bos­ton. The process, which is used to an­a­lyze or­ganic ma­te­ri­als, is also used in tests of blood­al­co­hol lev­els and adul­ter­ated food. New­man helped him put to­gether the right sys­tem (us­ing some re­fur­bished parts), and MacKenzie paid for it with some be­quests. The Depart­ment of Cul­tural Af­fairs now has the only lab west of the Hud­son River equipped to do this work, Bol said.

The stack of com­po­nents, which looks a lit­tle like an old hi-fi stereo sys­tem, in­cludes a sol­vent tray, a vac­uum de­gasser, a pump, tiny steel col­umns, and a diode ar­ray de­tec­tor, which “reads” the chro­matogram and sends the data to a com­put­er­ized work­sta­tion. Us­ing as­so­ci­ated soft­ware, MacKenzie can com­pare the “finger­print” of carminic acid, or cochineal, to the mark­ers for other reds. He said he tested as many as eight sam­ples — and as few as one or two — from 250 sep­a­rate pieces of art un­der con­sid­er­a­tion by the Red Team. Some pieces be­lieved to con­tain cochineal be­cause of the time pe­riod and lo­ca­tion of the artist did not, in­clud­ing ob­jects from Oax­aca. It didn’t show up in the fa­mous Segesser hide paint­ings in the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum ei­ther.

But MacKenzie did find it in all six sam­ples (each about the size of a large comma in a text­book) from Miera y Pacheco’s map of New Mex­ico, which dates from about 1758, also in the His­tory Mu­seum col­lec­tion. That’s the ear­li­est known use of cochineal in New Mex­ico. Miera y Pacheco used cochineal to paint a jewel on a winged fig­ure and the drap­ery on the lap of an an­gel. MacKenzie also found that the artist painted let­ters on the map in ver­mil­ion and shaded them in cochineal for a dec­o­ra­tive ef­fect. A 1780 retablo by Miera y Pacheco of Saint Raphael in the col­lec­tion of the Mu­seum of Span­ish Colo­nial Art also tested pos­i­tive.

Ne­go­ti­at­ing the loan re­quests and get­ting the ob­jects to New Mex­ico was largely the job of mu­seum reg­is­trar Ruth LaNore. She worked with Master­piece In­ter­na­tional, a com­pany that ar­ranges for pack­ing and trans­porta­tion of art­works for mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tions. Be­fore agree­ing to loan an ob­ject, the lend­ing

in­sti­tu­tion al­ways ex­pects to re­view the mu­seum’s fa­cil­ity re­port, which de­scribes the in­sti­tu­tion’s se­cu­rity and HVAC sys­tems. And each piece comes with a strin­gent set of con­di­tions that spec­ify, among other things, how the ship­ping crate must be con­structed, the tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity in the ex­hi­bi­tion space, se­cu­rity ar­range­ments in the gallery, and how long the piece can safely be dis­played.

High-value ob­jects such as th­ese are of­ten ac­com­pa­nied across the ocean — or the coun­try — by couri­ers and even se­cu­rity guards to be sure they ar­rive safely. The direc­tor of the Net­tie Lee Ben­son Latin Amer­i­can Col­lec­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Austin, for ex­am­ple, was on hand in late April for the un­crat­ing of a 1581 map of Cholula, Mex­ico, by an in­dige­nous artist. Many pieces are so sus­cep­ti­ble to dam­age by light they can only be loaned for a few months at a time. And some coun­tries don’t al­low their pat­ri­mony to be out­side their bor­ders for ex­tended pe­ri­ods, An­der­son said.

The Red Team was hop­ing the show would travel to two other venues, but con­di­tions set by lend­ing in­sti­tu­tions made that im­pos­si­ble. A smaller ver­sion will go to the Bow­ers Mu­seum in Santa Ana, Cal­i­for­nia, and be on ex­hibit from Novem­ber 2015 to March 21, 2016.

The ex­hibit also put a lot of de­mands on the de­sign staff, which built a scale model be­fore mak­ing con­struc­tion draw­ings and be­gin­ning to build dis­play cases and plat­forms. For this show, be­cause of time lim­its, about 23 of the cases are be­ing pur­chased. Oth­ers are be­ing built in­ter­nally. The cases, each of which cost thou­sands of dol­lars, ac­count for a large chunk of the ex­hibit’s cost. Se­cu­rity was also up­graded. Designer An­toine Leriche con­firmed, “This would be up there with the most com­pli­cated ex­hibits the folk art mu­seum has or­ga­nized in the last decade.”

Much of this work was oc­cur­ring be­fore the Red Team knew the mu­seum would have the money to pay for it. The cu­ra­tors kept as­sur­ing Bol that they could al­ways cut back, she said, but, “This show did just grow and grow as we saw what the pos­si­bil­i­ties were.”

Be­sides the Terra Foun­da­tion grant, the Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Foun­da­tion had raised nearly $140,000 for the ex­hi­bi­tion. But it wasn’t un­til last sum­mer, when the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Hu­man­i­ties an­nounced that the mu­seum had been awarded a $400,000 grant (the largest avail­able), that the team could re­lax a bit. The mu­seum also re­ceived sup­port from pub­lisher Skira Riz­zoli for the ex­hibit’s com­pan­ion book, which in­cludes in­for­ma­tion not pre­vi­ously pub­lished out­side of sci­en­tific jour­nals.

While the de­sign­ers and cu­ra­tors build the ex­hibit it­self, other mu­seum em­ploy­ees are pre­par­ing ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams as­so­ci­ated with it. Among them are dye­ing work­shops dur­ing the sum­mer and a se­ries of lec­tures. “Of­ten what hap­pens is Santa Fe is put in this pre­cious lit­tle place,” Padilla said. “This [ex­hibit] shows our place in the world.”

Left, El Greco: The Sav­ior (from the Apos­tles se­ries), Toledo, Spain, circa 16081614, oil on can­vas; Museo del Greco, Toledo, IPCEGRE-GS1(CE00001); photo To­mas Antelo, In­sti­tuto del Pat­ri­mo­nio Cul­tural de Es­paña, Madrid

Above, clock­wise from top, cochineal in­sects, dried cochineal bugs, and cochineal on prickly pear cac­tus, Santa Fe, New Mex­ico, 2014; pho­tos © Ad­di­son Doty Op­po­site page, top, José An­to­nio de Alzate y Ramírez: In­dian Col­lect­ing

Cochineal with a Deer Tail, 1777 Op­po­site page, bot­tom: work­shop of Ja­cob Frères: arm­chair (fau­teuil) from the Coun­cil Room (Salle du Con­seil), Mal­mai­son, France, 1800, painted and gilded beech; orig­i­nal un­der-up­hol­stery and red wool show cover (silk, vel­vet, and gilded sil­ver trim); New-York His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, gift of Louis Borg, 1867.438 © New-York His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety

Or­lando Dugi: evening gown (from the Red Col­lec­tion), Santa Fe, New Mex­ico, 2014, hand-dyed silk duchesse satin, silk or­ganza, and silk thread; cut-glass and ster­ling-sil­ver beads, French coil, Swarovski crys­tals, vin­tage beads, and crys­tals; lining of duchesse satin and tulle; col­lec­tion of the artist; photo by Blair Clark Op­po­site page, left, artist un­known: Por­trait of a Young Woman

with a Harp­si­chord, Mex­ico, early 18th cen­tury, oil on can­vas; Den­ver Art Mu­seum, gift of Fred­er­ick and Jan Mayer, 3.2007; photo cour­tesy Den­ver Art Mu­seum Op­po­site page, right, fire­fighter’s hooded cape (shōbō zukin), Ja­pan, 18th-19th cen­tury, Edo pe­riod; Wool with gold- and silk­thread em­broi­dery and ap­pliqué; John C. We­ber Col­lec­tion; photo John Bigelow Tay­lor

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