24 March 2013

Roccoco Loco

© Brandon Queen, 2013
Ah, the Roccoco, or Late Baroque as some would prefer. The irony and frivolity of this French movement bridged the gap between the remnants of the Renaissance and Neoclassicism, that other French contribution to art history. While examples  of Roccoco from Europe easily come to mind, it is sometimes forgotten that the movement was in full force during the colonisation of the Americas and particularly marked the early visual culture of the Caribbean nations. These historical interconnections all come together in the person and work of Luis Parét y Alcázar, a Franco-Spanish artist that spent a very short time in Puerto Ricoin the late 18th century. One of his works is currently on display at the Museo de San Juan, a small municipal museum that presents free exhibitions that tell San Juan's story from an artistic point of view. The current exhibit, Obras Maestras, also includes work from two superstars of Puerto Rican art history, José Campeche and Francisco Oller and is a great way to get introduced to both artists, especially if you do not have the stamina for a full museum visit.

Parét y Alcázar was a court painter in Spain before he was exiled to Puerto Rico because of his libertine ways. Although only in the country for under three years, he apparently produced quite a bit of work, most of which did not survive to the present day.

What has made him well-known in Puerto Rico is his Self-Portrait (c. 1776), in which he portrays himself in full jíbaro regalia. The jíbaro is (and was considered at the time) a folkloric representation of Puerto Rican culture; the archetype springs from the early colonists who worked the land and created an agricultural plantation society on the island. Needless to say, none of these people would have worn the fine fabrics portrayed in Parét y Alcázar's   portrait, nor would their hats have been quite so decorative.

This self-portrait exemplifies perfectly the European use of portraiture to create a rapport with (and co-opt and mock) the newly formed/discovered American cultures that so amused and amazed them. This is so in that the irony of a peasant farmer posing for a portrait would not have been lost on 18th century viewers, with the luxurious accoutrements Parét y Alcázar wears deepening the sense of irony even further. This tongue-in-cheek kind of play-acting was typical of Baroque and Roccoco culture, especially in France where the nobility would go out for day-long picnics in which they would wear costumes and engage in a very theatrical role-playing game that required them not to break with character until the picnic/play was over. Needless to say, this type of carnivalesque tradition allowed an otherwise conservative society to act out any manner of secret desires and forbidden impulses and it is not surprising that Parét y Alcázar would have thoroughly enjoyed such an activity.

Considering the incongruency of the portrait's subject matter, this portrait participates in the aforementioned European tradition of making the exotic familiar and can be compared in some ways to John Verelst's series of portraits of Native American leaders for Queen Anne in the early 18th century.

I am not sure when the exhibit will end, but if you happen to be in Old San Juan and need a break from the vigorous architectural sight-seeing the area offers, the museum offers a tranquil respite and some of the most valuable art treasures of the Americas.

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