The past two decades have seen an extraordinary surge of studies on nineteenth-century art, from Argentina to Mexico. It speaks to the division that today separates art-historical production North and South that the same has not happened in English-speaking countries. It would be a subject onto itself to evaluate the divergent paths of our historiography, yet for a long time Stacie Widdifield's study of nineteenth-century Mexican academic painting spoke virtually alone for a period caught between the intense debates marking colonial art history and the wave of interest in twentieth-century art. There are indications that the tide may be turning. Mey-Yen Moriuchi's survey of Mexican costumbrismo is a significant sign of this change.
Conceived as an introduction on the subject for English-speaking audiences, the book is organized in five chapters covering different aspects of costumbrista imagery, spanning the production of foreign and local painters and printmakers, academic artists, photographers, writers, and editors. Its temporal scope broadly spans the long nineteenth century. One of the book's strengths is precisely the way it traverses periods and genres to draw a larger picture of a group of works that has until now been studied through focused in-depth monographs or case studies, published mostly in Spanish.
For a publication that covers so much ground, it is surprising to find that it crucially omits what could be considered one of costumbrismo's most influential forms, the wax figurines of types that were produced throughout the nineteenth century, a typology that was unique to Mexico. Like Huamanga stone carvings in Peru, these small sculptures appear to have developed from nativity scenes, evolving out of their religious context to assume new secular functions. Study of the genre could have opened new perspectives on the central issue of the transition from eighteenth-century representations—specifically casta paintings—to nineteenth-century costumbrismo, a transition the author discusses in her first chapter. Further, the production of these figurines was well established by the time Claudio Linati, Carl Nebel, and other foreign travelers arrived on the scene after independence. As with other forms of early costumbrismo in Latin America, the genre flourished to serve the demand of foreign travelers. María José Esparza has shown their importance for artists like Nebel, who carried a group of types by Zeferino Hidalgo back with him to Paris, or the painter Lucas Vischer, who took another set with him to Switzerland in the early 1830s (María José Esparza Liberal and Isabel Fernández de García Lascurain, La cera en México. Arte e historia, Fomento Cultural Banamex, 1994, 79–85). It is clear that they were significant models for the foreign artists and editors discussed in the second chapter, and the author later in fact mentions in passing—but does not further explore—the tradition of wax figures as a precedent for photographers Désiré Charnay and François Aubert, the latter himself a collector of these works.
Sustained study of these and other connections could have contributed to a more nuanced deployment of Mary Louise Pratt's notion of transculturation, which the author simplifies to describe a one-way imposition of European models on Mexican artists (32, 79, 81–83, 129–130). The issue is not to claim the priority of Mexican works but to pose the question of how circulation in the global market of images clearly confounds direct relations of cause and effect. Moriuchi's narrative draws a clear division between an outside and an inside of the nation, which does not seem pertinent for the study of a genre formed in the broader web of the global market for images. As I have argued, the challenge of studying costumbrismo requires alternating a double perspective that takes seriously the discourses of nationhood that it constructs but also sees through the arbitrary nature of the borders it establishes.
Moriuchi remains within the traditional insularity of the region's national histories and scarcely discusses the many contributions to the study of Latin American costumbrismo that could have served to frame and contextualize the Mexican production (many publications cited in the bibliography are not taken into account or directly referenced). It also remains bound to more traditional forms of art history, centered on the individual artist, and on notions of originality, expression, and style (32). In this regard, it is telling that though the chapters are organized around larger themes, they are internally structured as individual entries, so that connections and differences are often lost. The underlying logic of art history contributes to a perspective that ignores more commercial vehicles for the diffusion of the genre. It is significant that the book should end by pointing forward to Mexican muralism rather than to postcards, cigarette labels, and other products that were to give new life to early costumbrista imagery at the turn of the twentieth century.
Although the chapters are largely framed by media, there is scant attention given to the specific conventions and discursive frameworks that regulate the production of images. Photography is a case in point, where the sequences of types are always already set in that larger international system of images that Deborah Poole incisively studied (Vision, Race, and Modernity: A Visual Economy of the Andean Image World, Princeton, 1997). The specificity of the forms of production and the audiences envisaged by each genre are not taken into account, so that the substantial differences between printed and photographic imagery and the works of painters discussed in the fourth chapter like José Agustín Arrieta, Manuel Serrano, Felipe Santiago Gutiérrez, and Juliana and Josefa Sanromán, many of whom exhibited regularly in the salons organized by the Mexican Academy of San Carlos, are left open to discussion.
Can Gutiérrez's academic studies or the domestic interiors of the Sanromán sisters in fact be counted within the scope of costumbrismo? Perhaps, but only if we understand the genre as the generic synonym of a descriptive visual rhetoric, much like the opening definition of costumbrismo offered by the author as “a cultural trend” representing “local types, costumes, and scenes of everyday life,” that offers “a powerful statement about shifting terms of Mexican identity” (1–2). Yet these works would have to be excluded if we were to follow a second, more restrictive definition also offered by Moriuchi, one that sees costumbrismo as a form that “created a propagandistic, nationalistic language of representation that chronicled and celebrated nineteenth-century Mexican culture and traditions” (62). Seen in the light of this second definition, the Sanromán sisters' paintings would reveal rather the emergence of a new bourgeoisie, which expressed its modernity precisely by taking distance from the local traditions costumbrismo documented (though they may have simultaneously identified with their discourse of Mexicanness).
Had Moriuchi placed more emphasis on the function of images and their forms of circulation, it would perhaps have allowed a more nuanced evaluation of their role in Mexican society in a way that could transcend general, at times rather instrumental, projections. “Harmonious, picturesque images” the author concludes, “romanticized the lower classes and placed them ‘under control,’ while negative, hostile pictures distanced and exoticized them” (130). Consideration of changing significance over time would also have been helpful. For although the sequence of chapters follows a loose chronological order, it is difficult to gain a sense of historical evolution, as if the early and later images had the same meaning and function, when in fact the effects of modernization rapidly and profoundly affected the genre.
Many of the questions suggested in this review may not have been posed in the absence of an overarching narrative like the one established by Mexican Costumbrismo. The challenges and the strengths of the book derive from its bold attempt to account for a subject that defies the demarcation of a fixed field of study. And it is only from within this larger perspective that one can bring into dialog works that are not usually discussed together. The contribution of Moriuchi's book is precisely that it forces a largely segmented historiography to confront broader, more integrated narratives.