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October 2015

Vol. 157 / No. 1351


Reviewed by Eric Zafran

Santa Fe and Santa Ana

by Eric M. Zafran

One of this year’s most fascinating exhibitions is The Red That Colored The World, seen by this reviewer at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe (closed 13th September).1 The exhibition and its accompanying book, with essays by forty international scholars,2 reveal how the brilliant red dye extracted from the parasitic cochineal insect, discovered first in Mexico and Peru and then imported to Europe by the Spaniards, spread all over the civilised world to be incorporated in paintings, textiles and decorative arts. The aim of the exhibition is to ‘explore cochineal’s epic story from multiple angles, including art, history, science and economics [. . . ] to consider the big impact of a tiny bug on the world’s comprehension and expression of red’.

Producing a deep crimson carmic acid, the female cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus) breeds on the pads of the prickly pear cactus. This liquid is extracted from their dried bodies in boiling water. By 200 BC the Parakas people of Peru were cultivating cochineal and using it as a dye for burial shrouds. Mixing the extracted liquid with acids, such as lime juice, would turn it purple, pink, scarlet or even reddish-orange. These techniques are still applied today, as shown in a video of the contemporary fabric dyer Balmaru Perez Menzoxa from Oaxaca. Over sixty different shades of red can be obtained.

The exhibition began with a gallery showing early examples of cochineal being used on portable objects, as it was already employed for both body makeup and by the Zapotecs in the tomb paintings at Monte Alban of 600–700 AD, the earliest being a woven Wari textile from the Peruvian coast of 600–900 AD (fig.14.5). But the most striking item was a man’s tunic from Arica in central Chile dating from the fifteenth or sixteenth century, and composed of alternating panels of red and ­purple (Fig.72). The lords of Cuzco wore such garments to demonstrate their power and authority. In the same space was an amazing group of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century keros, or ceremonial drinking vessels, based on Inca prototypes and European enamelwork decorated with cochineal lake pigment (private collection; figs.4A–4.9B).

The Aztec rulers considered cochineal so valuable that they demanded sacks of the dried insects or cakes (tortillas) formed of the dried dye as tribute from their subjects, a practice that the Spanish quickly adopted following their arrival in 1519. The discovery of cochineal was reported to the Emperor Charles V in 1523; he issued a decree to control its exploitation, and it became the second most valuable import to Spain after silver. The decree laid down that luxury cloths, like silk and velvet, could not be produced in the Americas but had to be made in Spain, and by the end of the sixteenth century, tons of the dried cochineal insect were being imported through the ports of Seville and later Cadiz, and transported to Manilla and on to China and Japan. A number of vivid Asian cochineal red garments and fabrics were on display, including a stunning ceremonial firefighter’s coat from Japan (eighteenth to nineteenth century; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; figs.8.2 and 8.3).

Along with the conquistadors who discovered the red dye in textiles in the markets and homes around Oaxaca were the Spanish missionaries. In 1575–77 one of them, the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún, working in Oaxaca where cochineal was being cultivated by farmers, assisted by indigenous collaborators, wrote and illustrated a monumental general history in both Spanish and Nahuatl on all aspects of native culture. The Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España contains the first known ­pictorial representations of the cochineal creatures, then believed to be worms, and their harvesting. Judged to be heretical, the volume was sent to Europe, where it was acquired shortly before 1588 by Ferdinando de’ Medici, whose Florentine family coincidentally controlled a large share of the European cochineal trade. This codex (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence; figs.3.2 and 3.3) was perhaps the most astounding rarity in the exhibition.

The introduction of Christianity to the Americas led to pre-Columbian artistic traditions continuing in different forms, and cochineal was used in the wondrous feather paintings from Mexico.3 A seventeenth-century St Anthony (Denver Art Museum; figs.25.2A–B) is the only feather painting thus far analysed for cochineal. Also distinctive is enconchado work, in which mother-of-pearl is embedded into oil pigments and given an overlay of cochineal glaze to both imitate natural highlights and convey the spiritual nature of a subject like the Mexican Betrothal of the Virgin (c.1676–1725; Museo de América, Madrid; fig.25.6).4

Unique to the Spanish Colonial Americas was the production of casta paintings, which were intended to help categorise the multiple racial mixtures of the region. A particularly refined example of 1775–1800 depicts a pureblood Creole man (a Spaniard born in the New World) and his European-born Spanish wife with their child, also identified as Spanish (Fig.73). In their plush music room, the red-velvet damask wall covering, coloured with cochineal, denotes the family’s wealth and ­status. Even the man’s violin may have been coloured with the dye, as it was the practice of European violin makers, such as Stradivarius, to use a cochineal varnish to give lustre to their instruments.

Cochineal was also exploited by European painters. Lake pigment prepared with cochineal extract could create remarkable shades of red. In sixteenth-century Venice it was used by painters such as Titian and Tintoretto (the little dyer) to create transparent layers of glaze. While in the exhibition’s book there are reproductions of works by Velázquez, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Delacroix, Van Gogh and even Renoir that have been discovered to contain cochineal, the exhibition itself has only a few modest examples. In El Greco’s The Saviour, from an Apostle series (Museo del Greco, Toledo; figs.22.7A–B), Christ’s red silk tunic has a sheen created by layers of transparent American cochineal; it is not, however, one of his masterpieces. Even further removed from the master is the very large Zurbarán workshop Emperor Domitian on horseback (Conde de Tepa; fig.22.11), which may have originally been intended for the New World.

More informative was the selection of European fabrics and decorative arts. An armchair from the Council Room of Napoleon’s château of Malmaison by Jacob Frères (c.1800; New York Historical Society; p.141) upholstered in deep-red cochineal dyed ­fabric evokes power just as much as did the ancient Andean textiles. Fine English woollen cloth was shipped to the Netherlands to be dyed scarlet, and this material was made into the uniforms of the British army, as illustrated by an early nineteenth-century British officer’s ‘redcoat’ (National Army Museum, London; p.162).

In the Americas cochineal was used by artists influenced by European prototypes and techniques. A great example is St Augustine attributed to Melchior Pérez de Holguín, active in Bolivia in the late seventeenth century (Fig.74). The bishop-saint sits at a desk contemplating a vision of the Trinity and holding a flaming heart coloured vivid red by cochineal. According to the exhibition text the severed heads scattered on the floor around the saint are sculptures intended to show his rejection of pagan religion. Earlier publications, however, have identified them as actual representations of the founders of the early heresies of Manichaeism, Donatism, and Pelagianism.5 A much later master working in an almost naïve manner was the painter Molleno, best-known for his altar screens at Ranchos de Taos in New Mexico.6 His St James (c.1845; Fig.75) is painted on hide with water-based pigments containing cochineal, used for the saint’s garments and on the blood-soaked ground where the severed heads of his enemies are displayed. In Spanish prototypes these were Moors, but in the New World they often became Indians.7

One of the most surprising sections of the exhibition was that dealing with native American tribes. Nineteenth-century indigenous people unravelled the Spanish blankets, uniforms and English cloth and rewove them into robes, bags and blankets for their own use. The most notable example was the large, brilliant Lakota courting blanket (nineteenth century; Denver Art Museum).

The final gallery brought the employment of cochineal full circle with its use in high ­fashion. The ‘Eleonora Dress’ was created in the 1930s by Mariano Fortuny, the Spanish-born designer working in Venice. It was based upon the costume he had first planned in 1899 for the great actress Eleanora Duse to wear in the production of her lover Gabriele d’Annunzio’s play Francesca da Rimini. However, due to disputes with the poet, Fortuny withdrew from the project, which was a pity because the cochineal dyed velvet and silk dress would have made the actress a shimmering vision.8

1     The exhibition subsequently moves to the Bowers Museum, Santa Ana (31st October to 21st March 2016).
2     Book: A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored The World. Edited by Carmella Padilla and Barbara Anderson. 320 pp. incl. 350 col. ills. (Skira Rizzoli, New York, 2015), $60. ISBN 978–0–8478–4643–6. The exhibition builds on earlier works, including A. Butler Greenfield: A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, New York 2005; and E. Phipps, ed.: Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color (adapted from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 67/3), New York 2010. The exhibition makes excellent use of wall texts, and didactic visuals to present the scientific and commercial aspects of the cochineal explosion.
3     On Mexican feather painting, see L.E. Alcalá and J. Brown, eds.: Painting in Latin America, 1550–1820, New Haven 2014, p.76.
4     Ibid., p.51, fig.27.
5     See R.A. Shalkop: exh. cat. A Comparative View of Spanish Colonial Painting, Colorado Springs (The Taylor Museum of Colorado Springs) 1970, p.14, no.3. In another Bolivian depiction of the saint from the early eighteenth century, his triumph over heresy is represented by the head and body of Martin Luther. See C.L. Mo: exh. cat. Splendors of the New World, Spanish Colonial Masterpieces, Charlotte (Mint Museum of Art) 1992, p.48, no.10.
6     On Molleno, see L. Frank: A Land So Remote, Santa Fe 2001, I, pp.75–121; and C. Carrillo and T.J. Steele: exh. cat. A Century of Retablos, Phoenix (Phoenix Art Museum) 2007, pp.80–87.
7     See Mo, op. cit. (note 5), pp.58–59, no.22.
8     See M. Fortuny: exh. cat. Mariano Fortuny, Venice (Palazzo Fortuny) 1999, pp.53 and 70.