Cristóbal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, July 25–October 15, 2017 Catalog of the exhibition by Jonathan Brown, Ronda Kasl, Juana Gutiérrez Haces, Clara Bargellini, Pedro Ángel
Cristóbal de Villalpando:
Mexican Painter of the Baroque an exhibition at the Palacio de Cultura Citibanamex–Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, March 9–June 4, 2017; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City,
July 25–October 15, 2017.
Catalog of the exhibition by Jonathan Brown, Ronda Kasl, Juana Gutiérrez Haces, Clara Bargellini, Pedro Ángeles, and Rogelio Ruiz Gomar. Mexico City: Fomento
173 pp., $25.00 (paper)
Jonathan Brown, in an essay adapted for the catalog of the exhibition of the work of Cristóbal de Villalpando at the Metropolitan Museum, warns us against the use of the word “colonial” in connection with Spanish-American painting of the period 1550–1700. Colonial, he says, “carries the burden of second-class status.” It “implies the domination and subordination of a territory and its inhabitants, who are dependants of the conquerors.” Once you start in this direction,
the path is clear; the final stop becomes “derivative” and thus inferior. “Center” and “periphery” are also insufficient, with their implication of hierarchy. Equally, “hybrid” has its flaws, for the hybrid is set implicitly into opposition to the pure and unadulterated.
So: New Spain (of which Mexico formed a part) was not a colony. It was not dominated by or subordinated to Spain. Its art was in no way derivative or inferior to anything European. Nor was it in any sense hybrid. Although the definition of hybrid—the offspring of two animals or plants of different species—seems not unhelpful when we contemplate, for instance, those rifle-toting angels of the Cuzco school in Peru. They are winged figures of clearly Christian derivation. But they are inconceivable in the setting of any European church. Something else is at work, something very powerful, to give us angels with rifles.
This kind of marked difference is of course what excites us, and what we hope to find in the art of the Mexican baroque. And for my part I feel that it is better, when displaying paintings of this sort, to keep them well apart from European works, as here, to avoid comparison. The experimental, haphazard mixed hang that museums sometimes go in for does them no favors. They are in danger of looking folksy and repetitive and crude. If saying this implies that such works are vulnerable to such juxtaposition, so be it. Paintings are vulnerable. All paintings are. Each needs its own special consideration. In São Paolo recently I saw an old master collection rehung in a radical way: each work was suspended in midair, without the benefit of any wall. The labels were attached to the reverses of the frames. So one could walk past a row of European old masters without reading a single label, guessing at authorship, or one could treat each oil painting as an object with two sides, and think about the qualities of canvas,
stretchers, and labels old and new. What was eliminated was what most of the artists involved would have expected to be present: a sense of a stable color-field background.
It seemed a dreadfully cruel way to treat an interesting collection of paintings. One man who would particularly have hated it would have been Degas, who was an extremist in this matter. He loathed seeing that familiar works had been moved to unfamiliar places in the Louvre. He thought paintings in the Louvre should be like altarpieces in a church, each in its permanent allotted place.
It is good to see Cristobal de Villalpando’s huge altarpiece at the Met placed at the very center of the Robert Lehman wing, where it can be admired from two levels, top-lit by daylight. At just over twenty-eight feet high by fourteen feet wide, it benefits from isolation, both from the objects in the Lehman collection and from the small selection of lesser works by Villalpando exhibited in their own gallery nearby. The lower half of the crowded composition
depicts Moses raising the Brazen Serpent; the upper, the Transfiguration of Jesus.
What we are not shown is the way it is displayed in its permanent Mexican home (for which it was painted) in Puebla cathedral. The chapel that it dominates was restored in the nineteenth century, so perhaps no one knows exactly what the original interior was like. Its function, however, is clear. A sculpture depicting Christ at the Column had been placed on the altar, and was credited with miraculous cures during one of the epidemics that periodically affected Puebla. Before this altar one was supposed to meditate on the sufferings of Christ (his being scourged at the column prior to crucifixion), to confess one’s sins, and to show contrition, especially during Lent, as a prelude to receiving communion on Easter Sunday. The sacred image was probably not large, for we learn that it was placed behind glass in a niche, and that the column was embellished with silver and a filigree scourge.
The theme of Christ’s suffering was paired with that of God’s wrath, as in the upper and lower parts of Villalpando’s altarpiece. Meditate on the suffering Christ, show contrition, and—as long as the bishop of Puebla allowed it—you might receive His Body and be saved. The bishop “painted with most vivid colors the beauty enjoyed by the soul in a state of grace and the ugliness and horror suffered by the condemned soul.”
This ugliness and horror had been depicted in the Old Testament in the Book of Numbers, where the continual backsliding of the children of Israel is punished in various ways—notably by God’s refusal to allow either Moses or Aaron to enter the Promised Land. God commands Moses on Mount Hor to remove Aaron’s robes and to put them upon his son Eleazar. This results in Aaron’s death on the mountain. There follows a vicious interlude in which God helps the Israelites massacre the Canaanites and destroy their cities. But now the Israelites come to Edom, where they are much discouraged, and complain to Moses: “Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread [meaning manna].”
This enrages God, who sends fiery serpents among the people, many of whom die. The Israelites realize they made a mistake in speaking against Jehovah and they ask Moses to intercede on their behalf, whereupon God does something rather unexpected (in a religion that forbids idolatry): he instructs Moses to make a fiery serpent of brass or bronze, which he sets upon the standard. Anyone bitten by one of the snakes has only to look upon this serpent and he is cured.
Quite how this story of a miraculous snake image resonated among a seventeenth-century Mexican congregation (in a land where the snake deity had taken many different forms) can only be guessed. Villalpando lets his imagination rip. The snake is huge and has wings, and it is coiled around the standard, whose form echoes the cross of Christ in the upper register (the depiction of the Transfiguration). Less visible at first are the malignant fiery serpents around the feet of the onlookers, prominent among whom are Moses, in resplendent armor, and a high priest who must be Eleazar, wearing the robes that had been removed from his father.
An angel flies above the Israelites bearing a shield with an inscription from the Gospel according to John: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The brazen serpent in the lower register is thus the prefigured Christ of the upper register.
The catalog is lavish in its praise of Villalpando, referring to “the artist’s conscious assimilation of the Flemish impetus of Rubens, incorporated entirely and visibly in his personal language.” This would represent a remarkable achievement for any artist working in Europe and able to study Rubens at first hand. Villalpando, in
Puebla, had access only to engravings after Rubens, and he does not benefit from this kind of exaggeration. He borrows one detail in reverse from an engraving of Rubens’s depiction of the same subject: it is the upper torso of a naked woman. But one would not otherwise say that the Flemish master had been consciously assimilated.
An evident unease in the catalog surrounds the question of drawing. We are shown no examples of Mexican baroque drawing by Villalpando or anyone else. We learn, however, that “although Villalpando was trained in the discipline of drawing, it did not take long for him to loosen his brushstroke, freeing it from harsh outlines.” This seems to see drawing as a matter of outline alone, rather than a question of design. The same author later tells us: “In response to weaknesses in drawing, the artist’s conception predominated and became the vital breath that seems to have brought his euphoric brush to life.” But the design of such a painting is the conception. Finally, it is claimed that “Villalpando, who embodied technical expertise and the pure pleasure of painting, represented the purest essence of great Spanish painting”—that after the death of Murillo in 1682 he was the last of the great Spanish baroque painters left working. This kind of rhetorical recklessness does the subject no service. There must be a path to tread between gross overpraise and prejudicial dismissiveness. There must be a way of acknowledging that one thing can be better than another, that there is no comparison between the skills of Murillo or Zurburán and the crude but fascinating notations of Villalpando—those bulging eyeballs, those repetitive noses, those fiery serpents.
with the Luftwaffe over the Channel. One RAF pilot (Jack Lowden) ditches in the sea, from which he is rescued by Dawson and his son. As they then approach the beaches amid a throng of such craft, a colonel on the Dunkirk mole (an old term for a pier or jetty) asks the Royal Navy’s Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) what the boats mean. Branagh offers a performance as the elegant, unruffled naval officer that Noël Coward—who played Captain Kinross, based on Lord Mountbatten, in that notable wartime weepie In Which We Serve—might identify with. Bolton answers the colonel laconically: “Hope.” In the cinema where I saw the film, at that moment the audience burst into applause.
The small boats, including Dawson’s, load up with soldiers amid worsening perils—oil from a sunken minesweeper blazes on the water—before setting course for home and a heroes’ welcome. Commander Bolton gallantly lingers on the mole to ensure that some French soldiers can also get away. He remarks wryly that it has been not a bad fortnight’s work to rescue 338,000 British, French, and Belgian troops, when at the outset it was thought that no more than 30,000 could be taken off. Back home, the rescued Tommy reads in a newspaper Churchill’s heroic words to the nation, concluding with the vow that Britain will never surrender.
Most of us would agree that no work of art, whether novel, play, or film, has a responsibility to represent history accurately, any more than Shakespeare did, or David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan opens with a thirty-minute portrayal of the 1944 D-Day landings that is as vivid and realistic as anything we are ever likely to see on screen. Thereafter, however, that film deteriorates into routine Superman stuff that bears no relationship to anything that happened to US soldiers in Normandy. The miniseries Band of Brothers is a superb piece of filmmaking, probably the best ever made about Americans in World War II, but it is suffused with the romanticism that colors all of Spielberg’s work as well as much of that of Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the book from which it derives.
Nonetheless, for the record, we shall consider how far Nolan’s film tells the Dunkirk story like it was. There is no historical background to explain why the British army found itself on the beaches. On May 10, 1940, Hitler invaded France and the Low Countries. The British army, together with a substantial French force, promptly hastened north into Belgium, expecting the Germans to reprise their 1914 Schlieffen offensive.
Instead, however, in fulfillment of the only authentic personal inspiration of Hitler’s career as a warlord, the Wehrmacht’s main thrust pushed through the Ardennes, meeting the French army where it was weakest and bursting across the Meuse. The British found themselves falling back, fighting desultory actions but chiefly making haste to avoid encirclement. When the panzers reached the Channel coast, cutting off the British, the Belgians, and the French Seventh Army from the bulk of France’s forces further south, evacuation became the only plausible, though immensely difficult, option. The first miracle of Dunkirk was that the German army scarcely interfered with the evacuation, partly because Hermann Goering assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe could dispose of the British, and partly because Churchill’s contingent was marginal alongside the forty-three divisions of the French army still in the field further south. There was no ground fighting in the town or port, so Nolan’s opening scene is spurious.
In the film, all the big ships seeking to rescue troops are sunk in dramatic circumstances, leaving small craft to do the business. This is a travesty. The Royal Navy sent thirty-nine destroyers to Dunkirk, of which only six were sunk, although many were damaged. Two thirds of all the men brought home sailed in big ships, notably including the destroyers, just one third in smaller ones.
The film shows air battles low over the Channel, whereas many soldiers came home full of bitterness toward the RAF because they never saw its aircraft: combat took place thousands of feet above, invisible to those on the ground or at sea. On the British side, it was dominated by Hurricanes, not Spitfires. Nolan shows a fighter floating for some minutes after ditching, whereas the huge Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in its nose would have sent the plane plunging to the bottom within seconds.
The character of Dawson may owe something to Charles Lightoller, a former officer on the Titanic who at the age of sixty-six took his boat Sundowner to Dunkirk, accompanied by his son and a friend, and brought home 120 men. Commander Bolton’s role at Dunkirk was fulfilled in reality by Captain Bill Tennant, who did a superb job as senior naval officer. Oddly enough Tennant, as evidenced by his diary, later became a bitter critic of Churchill’s war leadership.
Onscreen, endless British soldiers perish. Michael Korda suggests that the British army’s rate of loss was “comparable to that in the bloodiest battles of the First World War or the American Civil War, and an indication of just how hard the fighting was.” Yet what was remarkable about the real event was how few men died. In the entire May–June 1940 campaign, including Dunkirk and later episodes, just 11,000 British troops were killed, compared with at least 50,000 French dead.
A further 41,000 British troops were taken prisoner by the Germans, but alongside the 193,000 brought home, the “butcher’s bill” was small. General Sir Harold Alexander, who commanded the rear guard, told Anthony Eden on his return: “We were not hard pressed, you know.” This remark is sometimes cited as an example of his bent for heroic understatement, but was no more than the truth.
Cinema audiences are left to assume that after Dunkirk, the British sat down on their island and prepared to resist the Nazis on the beaches. In truth, in one of Churchill’s more spectacular follies, he promptly insisted upon dispatching another two divisions, one of them newly arrived Canadians, to
Normandy and Brittany to show the French government and people that Britain remained committed to fight on at their side.
His chief of staff, Major General “Pug” Ismay, gently suggested to the prime minister that it might be wise for these troops to proceed slowly toward France, since it was obviously doomed. “Certainly not,” replied Churchill angrily. “It would look very bad in history if we were to do any such thing.” Few great actors on the stage of world affairs have been so mindful of the verdict of future generations. On June 13, four days before the French surrender and nine days after the Dunkirk evacuation ended, British soldiers were still landing at Breton ports. By yet another miracle, within days of arrival in France their commander, Lieutenant General Sir Alan Brooke, persuaded Churchill that they must come home. This time there were no beaches— they embarked through the ports. Many prisoners, tanks, and vehicles, including the entire 51st Highland Division, fell into German hands and there was a spectacular disaster when the liner Lancastria, carrying over three thousand men, was sunk by air attack. But thanks to Brooke, the prime minister was spared from evil consequences of his reckless gesture. Some 144,000 British troops, together with 24,352 Poles and 42,000 other Allied soldiers, were brought to England. Only historians are much aware of this “second Dunkirk,” and it seems ill-natured to make much of the fact that of 100,000 French soldiers brought to Britain, even De Gaulle at his most sanguine admitted that only one third agreed to serve with his newly created Free French forces, while the remainder preferred repatriation to France.
As for the British people, for the rest of 1940—the mood turned sourer in the following year—they did indeed display a stoicism and even euphoria as irrational as today’s Brexiter exultation. The MP Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary on June 15:
My reason tells me that it will now be almost impossible to beat the Germans, and that the probability is that France will surrender and that we shall be bombed and invaded . . . . Yet these probabilities do not fill me with despair. I seem to be impervious both to pleasure and pain. For the moment we are all anaesthetised.
The writer Peter Fleming, then an army staff officer, wrote in a similar vein:
It was as though the whole country had been invited to a fancy-dress ball and everybody was asking everybody else “What are you going as?” A latent incredulity [gave] . . . problems connected with invasion the status of engrossing digressions from the main business of life .... The British, when their ally was pole-axed on their doorstep, became both gayer and more serene than they had been at any time since the overture to Munich struck up in 1937.
Among countless reasons for revering Churchill’s performance in 1940 is that he himself never for a moment succumbed to such silliness. Though he justly described Dunkirk as a deliverance, he also warned the House of Commons and the nation that “wars are not won by evacuations.” He knew that while the men had been brought home, almost all their weapons and equipment had been lost: the British army was effectively disarmed. Thereafter he and his nation set the world a magnificent example of defiance. But it was an impotent defiance, from which both Britain and democracy were redeemed only by the belated arrival of allies. It was 1944 before Churchill’s soldiers, aided by huge infusions of American men, matériel, and especially tanks, were fit to face a major European battlefield.
In the intervening four years, relatively tiny British forces fought the Germans in North Africa and Italy, and a large imperial army surrendered to the Japanese at Singapore in February 1942. Contrary to persisting British delusions, Hitler’s enmity and ambitions always focused on the East. Because of his invasion of Russia, the British and later the Americans were granted the priceless luxury of being able to prepare at leisure for the belated June 1944 liberation of northwest Europe: the band of brothers of the US 101st Airborne Division, for instance, spent almost two years in uniform before hearing a shot fired in anger. Michael Korda suggests that thanks to the final triumph in 1945, “Dunkirk was, and remains, perhaps the greatest British victory of World War Two, that rarest of historical events—a military defeat with a happy ending.” This assertion stretches a very large point, not least because Churchill himself regarded the outcome of World War II as anything but happy, since Britain’s voice in the world, not to mention his own, had become so much diminished.
It would be unreasonable to demand that Christopher Nolan should have injected more than a fraction of these realities into his Dunkirk. The most absurd assaults on the film come from India, where critics complain that he does not feature the two companies of Indian service troops who were present on the beaches. This is comparable to the British wailing when Saving Private Ryan appeared that their soldiers were absent without leave from the screen. I wrote at the time that if any nation wants its part in any conflict glorified, it must make the films for itself.
Nolan seems to deserve congratulations for declining to include even a token American, for decades a prerequisite for securing a US audience for a British war movie. Indeed, this imperative so intimidated many British directors and their screenwriters that gallant American characters were often depicted showing the stupid English how battles should be fought.
This latest epic represents a version of history little worse than The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, or The Guns of Navarone. Some of us are grateful that so many schoolchildren are going to see it, because they will at least discover that in 1940 there were beaches, the rescue of an army, and sacrifice and considerable fortitude by their forefathers. Britain’s grown-ups, however, should have been forcibly denied entrance to cinemas at this moment when we are threatened with embarkation upon one of the most self-indulgent, willfully foolish acts of self-harm in the nation’s history.
For all the charm of Michael Korda’s personal reminiscence of 1939–1940, he is on much less sure ground in his narrative of the big events, partly because he is obviously a romantic, and partly because he relies heavily on elderly sources, including the British official history of the campaign in France, much of which is tosh. He is surely right, however, to conclude his book by comparing the emotions of the modern Brexiters with those of the British in June 1940: “There was a national sense of relief . . . at leaving the Continent and withdrawing behind the White Cliffs of Dover.” After Brexit takes place I fear that this time around we shall be unable to rely upon the Russians to stage a grand diversion in the East to spare us from the hideous economic, social, cultural, and political consequences of attempting to fight on alone, without the impeccable justification that Hitler has forced such a course upon us.
Cristóbal de Villalpando: Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus, 1683