by Mey-Yen Moriuchi. The Pennsylvania State University Press, April 2018. 180 p. ill. ISBN 9780271079073 (h/c), $99.95.
Reviewed March 2019
Popular in the 19th Century and beyond, costumbrismo involved locals and tourists in Latin America, Spain, and Mexico representing—in writing and art—picturesque versions of the daily lives of predominantly the lower classes. The focus of author Mey-Yen Moriuchi, Assistant Professor of Art History at La Salle University, in Mexican Costumbrismo: Race, Society, and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Art is art in Mexico. Although one chapter addresses literature, images from publications tie it to the other four chapters.
Antithetical to the academic style, but occasionally referencing it, costumbrista images can appear simple—for example, in being picturesque. However, as Moriuchi argues convincingly, at first glance these “slice of life” images belie the sociopolitical and racial tensions of post-colonial Mexico.
Following independence from Spain in 1821, costumbrista artists promoted national unity. For instance, they standardized elements of the vivid costumes (à la Frida Kahlo) of the female china poblana who moved from the country to the city, and whose symbolism shifted from piety to patriotism. Infusing images and written descriptions with detail made the fictional subjects seem believable, highlighted the ways in which Mexicans were distinct—and by extension independent—from their colonizers, and contributed to a national style pleasing to conservatives and liberals alike.
Interestingly, neither the costumbrismo of Mexicans nor that of travelers to Mexico can be considered authentic. Mexicans countered stereotypes of barbarism and backwardness with respectful portrayals, but they represent an ideal. Meanwhile, tourists deviated from reality by exoticizing and eroticizing subjects. The contrast is apparent in depictions of female tortilla makers. Lithographs by traveler-artists Italian Carl Nebel and German Claudio Linati show, respectively, a glimpse and full view of a tortillera’s bare breasts as she grinds corn in profile while looking demurely away from the viewer. The uneven treatment of figures within images also reveals racism: for example, Nebel depicts two tortilleras, but it’s the indigenous woman who appears sexually alluring while the other one is fully clothed. In contrast, a photo by Antíoco Cruces and Luis Campa of a single tortillera shows her grinding corn fully clothed and meeting the viewer’s gaze directly in a full-frontal pose.
This monograph is recommended for libraries collecting in the subjects of art history and cultural studies. Although a scholarly audience is clear from the depth and breadth of research, it is accessible to readers with general interest: the writing is refreshingly clear for academia, and rare is the instance when a term is unexplained (such as ‘contrapposto,’ a pose of shifted weight stemming from the Eurocentric academic system, implemented in Mexico City in 1781, which revered classical art).
Mexican Costumbrismo contains notes, an index, an extensive bibliography, and color and black and white images. An e-book edition is also available.