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In this text, Robert C. Smith compares the great developments in Latin American painting since the 1920s with the mediocrity of Latin American art during the colonial period and nineteenth-century. In the first third of his text, Smith criticized colonial and nineteenth-century Latin American painting as derivative of European schools. Colonial Mexican painting, for example, essentially followed Spanish or Flemish models. Colonial painting fared better in Peru, where Incan sensibilities were visible in altarpieces, and colonial Mexican architecture was also improved by the Aztec influences of "native" craftsmen. During the nineteenth-century, Academicism dominated, and, and the “Indian” was treated poorly in the “banal” allegorical paintings of this period. This all changed with Mexico’s revolution, when the muralists, according to Smith, rejected European art, and revived the forms of Mayan and Aztec Art. Mexico’s influence spread to other Latin American countries, such as Peru, but took different forms in countries without “strong traditions of Native art.” In countries with an African population, the “Negro” influence is source, as in the works of the Brazilian Candido Portinari (1903-62). But, Smith notes, in countries with neither source—such as Chile and Argentina—European tradition, unfortunately remains. Smith ends by reminding his readers that artists “. . . in Latin America have succeeded in doing what we in the United States cannot yet claim to have done.”
Published by the Pan-American Union in Washington D.C., this text by Robert C. Smith appeared as part of a series organized by José Gómez Sicre (1916-91) and aimed at educating U.S. audiences about Latin American art. Although Smith classes much of contemporary Latin American art well above that being produced in the United States, and, although he also faults colonial and nineteenth-century U.S. with having the same problems he identifies in Latin America, his characterization of Latin American art, is, nonetheless, extremely misleading. For Smith the presence of “Indian” culture is the lynchpin that saves Latin American art from imitating European art. He also presents Mexican muralism as a radical, definitive break from European traditions, and as the definitive leader of all worthwhile Latin American art. This kind of misconception—driven, at least partly, by the visibility of Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and others in the U.S. during the period—established an enduring and erroneous framework for Latin American art in the U.S. in which Mexican muralism is the lens through which all of the art of the region was (and would be) understood.