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New York Daily News

Latino Portrait Exhibit Is Must-See


November 21, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Make sure to mark this date on your calendar: Dec. 3. That is the day when a really pioneering exhibition, "Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits," opens at El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan.

"Retratos" will comprise approximately 115 paintings and sculptures that offer an overview of portraiture, an art form with a long and established tradition in Latin America. And though it is the retratos that are being featured, the exhibit also offers a fascinating insight into the culture and habits of the times when they were created.

"For centuries, Latin-American artists have attempted to represent people that existed in a recognizable way," said Fatima Bercht, a Brazilian art historian and chief curator at El Museo del Barrio.

"There are wonderful portraits of leaders like Simn Bolvar, but also of humble people like 'El maestro' Rafael Cordero, by the Puerto Rican artist Francisco Oller."

The sponsor is Ford Motor Co., and the works included were selected by a multidisciplinary team - Bercht among them - that traveled across Latin America doing research and creating links with curators and museums.

Fifteen countries are represented in "Retratos," and the exhibition includes loaned works from private collections and institutions around the world, such as Mexico's National Museum of Art; Chile's National Museum of History; Peru's National Museum of Anthropology and History; the Museum of Art of Ponce, Puerto Rico and Madrid's Museum of America.

"We worked very hard to make this exhibition exciting and illuminating to Latinos and non-Latinos alike," Bercht said.

Just the fact that most of the works featured in "Retratos" have never before been presented in the U.S. is enough to make it a must- see.

Especially when among the artists represented are people such as Mexicans Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo, Puerto Ricans Jos Campeche and Francisco Oller, Colombian Fernando Botero, Peruvian Jos Gil de Castro and Ecuadorian Oswaldo Guayasamn.

"This is the first time that such a comprehensive exhibition of Latin-American portraiture has been done anywhere, as far as I know," said Miguel Bretos, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and one of the organizers.

"I think people will get three basic things out of it: first, it will present works of art never seen before in the U.S.; second, it will show the strength of this art form in Latin America, and third, these paintings are windows into the times when they were done."

"Retratos" also is the centerpiece of a major international project encompassing extensive educational materials in English and Spanish, outreach programs, a Web site, a catalogue, and support from committees of Latino leadership and scholarly advisers.

The exhibit will feature works by artists ranging from the ancient Moches of Peru to contemporary Latin-American and Latino individuals.

It will be divided into five chronological periods: Pre- Columbian (the art of the Moches and the Mayans), Vicerregal (portraits of viceroys and archbishops dramatizing the parallel power of church and state), 19th-Century (portraits of secular leaders and families), Modern (self-portraits - or autorretratos - like the ones so powerfully done by Frida Kahlo) and Contemporary (works by Latin-American and Latino artists, exploring such issues as gender, class, and ethnic identity).

Despite its scope, this project just begins to scratch the surface of the retrato tradition in Latin America.

"I want to stress that this is an overview," said Marion Oettinger, also an organizer and interim director and curator of Latin-American art at the San Antonio Museum of Art. "It is a representative sample of this art form, including religious and non- religious, military and civilians, old and new."

The success of "Retratos" has much to do with the leadership of several people and institutions that are exceptional in different ways - and whose diverse backgrounds complement each other. Brecht and Bretos are historians, Oettinger is an anthropologist, and Carolyn Carr, the fourth member of the organizing team, is deputy director and chief curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, and an authority on portraiture.

"The National Portrait Gallery had never done a Latin-American exhibition before," Carr said. "This is a wonderful time for us, and represents the decision of the Smithsonian Institution to look at the art of Latin America."

After El Museo del Barrio, where it will be until March 20, "Retratos" will go to the San Diego Museum of Art, the Bass Museum in Miami Beach, the Smithsonian International Gallery in Washington and finally the San Antonio Museum of Art in Texas, where it will close on April 30, 2006.

One major disappointment: Cuba is practically absent from the exhibition, despite its rich tradition of portraiture.

"The political situation being what it is," Bretos said, "they would not have loaned us any of their art, worried about possible confiscation in the U.S."

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