By Pablo Vásquez
In Peru, we all know that pictures of the Cusco School deserve a very important place in the discussion, research and trade of local art. But little is known of its history, importance and contributions to universal art.
Even though pre Hispanic American cultures developed a rich tradition in the handling of form and color, they did not use the form of canvas or picture as a way of expression. Although ceramics, goldsmith’s or silversmith’s trade, architecture, wall paintings and pre Columbian textiles, contain a wide variety of colors and forms, abstract as well as representative, it was only with the arrival of Spaniards, that the European concepts of “canvas”, “picture”, “artist”, painter”, technique” or “school” were imposed, as well as the relations among them.
More than one hundred years had to pass in order that the difficult interaction of both worlds – native and European – would give birth to the Cusco School, which is considered by many, as the first expression of American cultural syncretism.
Although the pre Columbian American culture was a mix of various and heterogeneous cultures, at the arrival of the Spaniards, the Inca consolidation process had succeeded centralizing in Cusco the best artists of the region, those who provided the royal coffers with the objects that – with art, light and color- enhanced their magic, political and religious power.
It is not surprising that it was precisely there, in Cusco, where the fusion of the native and European cultural traditions, had its origin. But the process took more than one hundred years until the beginning of the 17th century. In comparison with the speed of current technology, in the past everything went in a slower pace.
The so called Cusco School, was completely established by the 18th Century, as an original and firm American culture, expressed in wall paintings as well as in partitions and particularly, in canvas. Even though the artists who developed this culture did not come only from Cusco, that city was its cultural center par excellence, as Vienna was so for the classic music. They took from here to America and Europe, these canvas which, in spite of keeping the undeniable European baroque influence, they exhibited important local innovations in the materials, techniques, icons and subjects, to a limit that many times it defied in a tacit but firm manner, the Spanish power of those times.
Originally named as “mixed painting”, its first recognized artists were Gregorio Gamarra (from Potosí, now Bolivia), Francisco Padilla and Luis de Riaño (from Lima). As it was usual in those times, they did not use the perspective technique (an example is The Burial of Christ, which is at La Merced Convent, in Lima), but they were already beginning to include representations of children au naturel, in clear opposition to the angels of European origin.
Paradoxically, an unfortunate circumstance was the great opportunity for artists of the Cusco School. It was the 1650 earthquake that destroyed several Cusco churches and art works. The ecclesiastic authorities, in the midst of their evangelizing work, were faced with the need of replacing lost works, investing a great amount of resources for this purpose. Workshops flourished throughout Cusco. The competition among painters, a classic motive in art history, increased the need to search for new techniques and thematic solutions, thus strengthening the creativity and findings. Not all the artists were born in America. Some were Italian, like the Jesuit Bernardo Bitti (of strong influence on native artists), or Spanish, like Juan Espinosa de los Monteros and Martin de Loayza, also contributed to the new school with works, like a full-length portrait (in a canvas of more than 10 m long) of 800 famous Franciscans, and other excellent canvas, like The Conversion of Saint Paul and Saint Eustace.
But perhaps the most interesting emerged from the artists that were born in America, like Diego Quispe Tito, Basilio de Santa Cruz Pumacallao, Juan Zapata Inca, Mateo de Sinchi Roca and Marcos Rivera (besides of the above mentioned), who knew how to incorporate their autochthonous roots, particularly those linked to the pre-Columbian religiosity. The careful observer might discover in those canvas, plants, decorations, birds and foods of undeniable native origin.
Even if the theme of the picture was mainly of catholic assignment, the cult to the Pachamama, used to be present even in icons as emblematic as Virgin Mary, whose wide silhouettes many times suggested the contour of the Apus (magic religious beings of the Andean cosmo vision), or showed reddish cheeks provoked due to the dry and cold weather of the Peruvian sierra.
Presently, people interested in seeing pictures of this school can visit the Lima Art Museum– which has a special room for these paintings (canvas), mainly donated by the Maecenas Pedro de Osma, and museums of other cities inside the country, especially in Cusco, where the Inca Museum and Casa Garcilaso gather important collections.
Churches and cathedrals of colonial origin, in the coast as well as in the sierra, also store pictures of this school and allow guided tours to their installations, provided visitors maintain the necessary behavior within this kind of places.
As usual in these cases, the great success and prestige of the Cusco School, have also contributed to the deterioration of its historic patrimony. Besides the smuggling of these paintings, inside and outside the territory, it has to be added the saturation of local market forgeries, which make almost impossible to distinguish the copies from the originals. To the technological limits, inherent to the Peruvian market, it also has to be added the bad habit of not signing the paintings, which also helps the smuggling and black market.
Many times, authentic paintings get out with the appearance of copies, or vice versa: copies are sold as originals to neophyte buyers, not very meticulous. This situation comes to the point that people, dedicated to the promotion and sale of Peruvian art, prefer not to work with these pieces.
It continues being difficult to live together between our American and European roots, but attainments like those of the Cusco School, demonstrate to all of us, Peruvians and citizens of the World, that living together is not only possible but essential, to promote creativity, talent, and passion, all virtues which have demonstrated to be the backbone on which all nationalities are built. Peru is not the exception.