Rediscovering Mexican art, one historical painting at a time

Paul Mayne // Western NewsModern Languages and Literatures professor Alena Robin is bringing the long-forgotten work of Mexican painter Antonio Enríquez back to prominence through her research and upcoming book, tentatively titled Antonio Enríquez: A Forgotten Painter in mid-18th Century New Spain.

It has taken almost three centuries for Mexican painter Antonio Enríquez to capture the world’s attention. Until now, his paintings of 18th-Century Mexico have languished, forgotten, in places all across Guadalajara, the United States and Spain.

His works have been tucked away in old churches, have gathered dust in musty attics and have lain rolled up and unremembered in wooden boxes. Alena Robin, Western Modern Languages and Literatures professor and art historian, has spent the past five years searching for, and finding, them. She is the world’s first scholar to re-discover and study Enríquez’s work.

During Enríquez’s lifetime, Mexico City, then the capital of the viceroyalty of New Spain, was home to an active school of painting – and Antonio Enríquez was amongst its most prominent artists.

“My research participates in the trend of giving a voice to regional schools of painting,” Robin said. “Guadalajara was a well defined urban center in mid-18th Century.”

Robin’s upcoming book, tentatively titled Antonio Enríquez: A Forgotten Painter in mid-18th Century New Spain, is the first of its kind to bring Enríquez from obscurity into the limelight. Her work is reacquainting a new generation of students with their cultural heritage.

In studying Enríquez’s paintings, Robin is uncovering how society, geography and religion intersected in 18th-Century Mexico – which was then still part of the Spanish Empire – to produce a distinct artistic culture.

Robin’s work is adding to a growing body of scholarship that has only recently begun to explore 18th-Century Mexican art – a period when painters like Antonio Enríquez were breaking from traditional European schools of painting and developing their own distinctive, creative styles.

As one of the few art historians in Canada specializing in Latin American art, her research goes beyond academia. She is keen on bringing it into the public sphere. Few museums in Canada have Latin American art in their collections.

“This side of Latin American history and heritage is unknown and invisible,” Robin said.

She plans to expand her work on 18th-Century Mexican artists beyond Enríquez, and to work with museums across Canada to curate and exhibit Latin American art.

“There is a big move to promote Latin American art in Canada, and London is a big part of that movement,” Robin said, pointing to the Colores de Latinoamérica Exhibition at London’s Sunfest that has been organized by Latin Canadian artists for the past 12 years.

Artists in colonial Mexico would often emulate artistic styles of Europe. Enríquez, as she found out, took those traditional influences and created his own distinctive style.

“Enríquez’s paintings represent how local painting within Mexico itself was as significant as the use of European sources in creating new and vibrant compositions,” Robin said. “Eighteenth-century Mexican painters were trying to be creative and innovative in a market that required some traditional depictions.”

For a lot of people, tradition was closely associated with religion. For example, by studying Guadalajara residents’ manuscripts, books and wills, Robin found they would commission painters like Enríquez to make religious paintings because they wanted to ensure their souls went to heaven.

Enríquez also made many religious paintings for Guadalajara’s church, including portraits of various nuns and bishops.

Religion has always played a big part in Mexican society and culture but, as Robin points out, in 18th-Century Mexico, not everyone knew how to read or write.

“People had a Bible, but it was not accessible,” she said.

Enríquez’s paintings depicting images from the Bible provided a way to tell its story to people who were illiterate.

Robin plans to hold an exhibition of Enríquez’s works in Guadalajara and here in Canada.