Puerto Rican art
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With the country's ethnically diverse background, Puerto Rican art reflects many diverse influences.
When the Spanish first arrived in Puerto Rico, one of their primary tools in converting the indigenous Taíno population were statuettes, known as Santos, depicting the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and other Catholic icons (the practice of religious sculpture already existed on the island through the Taínos’ use of zemi figures). As there were not many churches and missionaries during the early years of Spanish occupation, Santos were crucial in establishing the Catholic faith in Puerto Rico, as the converts would use the Santos in domestic settings for various religious purposes. Early craftsmen of these Santos, known as santeros (or santeras, if female) would primarily create the figures by using Spanish Cedar wood, clay, or stone, and applying oil paints, and were heavily influenced by the Spanish Baroque style, with the early Santo figures being elaborately detailed with dramatic expressions. Many Santos were adorned with aureolas (halos), though depictions of Jesus exclusively used a three-pointed halo referred to as the Tres Potencias. In the years after Spanish Colonialism, Santos moved away from the Baroque style and into roughly 2 categories: Autoctono and Contemporary. Autoctono (Naive) is characterized by local Puerto Rican colors and simple, childlike features, while Contemporary is a broader category reflective of Santos that are made without necessarily having a direct mystical or religious influence. Santos vary in size, but are usually around eight to twenty inches tall. Over the years, Santos have become a very personal and important tradition in many Puerto Rican households: they are housed in special wooden boxes called nichos where people pray for assistance and protection, and families often pass down collections of Santos (for instance, depictions of the Nativity Scene) for future generations to add new figures and restore old ones. After the 1898 United States Invasion of Puerto Rico, Santos as a handmade craft somewhat reduced in popularity, as Protestant missionaries called for converts to dispose of and destroy the figures, and general modernizations on the island led to a reduced interest in this long-standing tradition. As a result, plastic, mass-produced statuettes of Catholic figures have become more popular as an alternative to traditional Santos craftsmanship.
Caretas, masks are worn during carnivals, are also popular. Similar masks signifying evil spirits were used in both Spain and Africa, though for different purposes. The Spanish used their masks to frighten lapsed Christians into returning to the church, while tribal Africans used them as protection from the evil spirits they represented. Puerto Rican caretas always bear at least several horns and fangs, true to their historical origins. While they are usually constructed of papier-mâché, coconut shells and fine metal screening are sometimes used as well. Though red and black were originally the typical colors for carnitas, their palette has expanded to include a wide variety of bright hues and patterns.
Perhaps the strongest Spanish influenced on Puerto Rican arts was in painting. During the colonial period, native-born painters emulated classic European styles. The first of these artists to gain international acclaim, José Campeche, learned techniques from both his father, who was also a painter and exiled Spanish artist Luis Paret. His work concentrated on religious themes and portraits of important citizens in Spanish Rococo style. Still regarded as the most important 18th-century painter in the Americas, Campeche is also credited with creating the Puerto Rican national painting.
In the 19th century, Francisco Oller followed in Campeche's footsteps. He studied in both Madrid and Paris, which greatly influenced his work. Although his paintings often show an Impressionist or Realist style, he altered his style with each piece to suit the subject matter. Landscapes, portraits, and still lifes were all among his works. After moving back to Puerto Rico in 1884, Oller became interested in portraying Puerto Rican subject matter. He also founded an art academy and wrote a book on drawing and painting the natural world.
By the end of the 20th century, painting no longer defined Puerto Rican art as it once had. "A group of contemporary artists who came into maturity in the 1990s broke away from nationalistic agendas so crucial to previous generations of artists from Puerto Rico," according to curator Silvia Karman Cubiña. "Instead their works are informed by more personal issues, as well as broader topics such as gender, consumerism, world history, film, and literature." The importance of artists such as Allora & Calzadilla, Daniel Lind-Ramos, Rosado Seijo, and Arnaldo Morales was "their social dimension and the potential for interaction with others." For others such as Manuel Acevedo, Javier Cambre, Nayda Collazo-Llorens, and Carlos Rivera Villafañe, it was their multi-media and site-specific installations that expanded on the "nontraditional modes begun in earlier generations, by artists such as Rafael Ferrer and Rafael Montañez Ortiz, and then Antonio Martorell, José Morales, Pepón Osorio." and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz.
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- Silvia Karman Cubiña, “Notes on Neoconceptualism from Puerto Rico” in None of the Above: Contemporary Work by Puerto Rican Artists (Hartford, CT: Real Art Ways, 2004), 22.
- Silvia Karman Cubiña, “Notes on Neoconceptualism from Puerto Rico” in None of the Above: Contemporary Work by Puerto Rican Artists (Hartford, CT: Real Art Ways, 2004), 23.
- Deborah Cullen, “Here and There: Six Artists from San Juan” in Here & There / Aquí y allá (New York: El Museo del Barrio, 2001), 12.
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- The art heritage of Puerto Rico, pre-Columbian to present. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and El Museo del Barrio. 1973.