A sweeping international loan exhibition at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens opens on Sept. 16 to explore how the depiction of Latin American nature contributed to art and science from the late 1400s to the mid-1800s. “Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin,” presented in the Mary-Lou and George Boone Gallery through Jan. 8, 2018, features more than 150 paintings, rare books, illustrated manuscripts, prints and drawings from The Huntington’s holdings as well as from dozens of other collections. Many of these works will be on view for the first time in the United States. It is complemented by a richly illustrated book, along with an array of other programs and exhibitions, including an installation created by Mexican experimental composer Guillermo Galindo. The exhibition is a part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, an exploration of Latin American and Latino art that involves more than 70 arts institutions across Southern California.
“Despite notorious depredation of people and resources during the period, the brilliant work of a number of Latin Americans and Europeans helped to illuminate our understanding of the natural world,” said Catherine Hess, chief curator of European art at The Huntington and co-curator of “Visual Voyages.” “We aim to shed light on this relatively unexamined piece of the story—to show how beautiful, surprising, and deeply captivating depictions of nature in Latin America reshaped our understanding of the region and, indeed, the world—essentially linking art and the natural sciences.”
“Visual Voyages” looks at how indigenous peoples, Europeans, Spanish-Americans, and individuals of mixed-race descent depicted natural phenomena for a range of purposes and from a variety of perspectives: artistic, cultural, religious, commercial, medical and scientific. The exhibition examines the period that falls roughly between Christopher Columbus’s first voyage in 1492 and Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, a work based largely on Darwin’s own voyage to the region in the 1830s.
“Information and materials circulated at an unprecedented rate as people transformed their relationship to the natural world and to each other,” said Daniela Bleichmar, associate professor of art history and history at the University of Southern California (USC) and co-curator of the exhibition. “Images served not only as artistic objects of great beauty but also as a means of experiencing, understanding and possessing the natural world. These depictions circulated widely and allowed viewers—then and now—to embark on their own ‘visual voyages’.”
Bleichmar, who was born in Argentina and raised in Mexico, is an expert on the history of science, art, and cultural contact in the early modern period. Her publications include the prize-winning book Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
The Huntington’s three collection areas—library, art and botanical—all contribute to “Visual Voyages.” Its library is one of the world’s greatest research institutions in the fields of British and American history, art, and the history of science, stretching from the 11th century to the present, and includes such treasures as the first European depiction of a pineapple and a rare 16th-century manuscript atlas that includes three stunning maps of the Americas. From The Huntington’s art holdings, Frederic Edwin Church’s monumental painting Chimborazo (1864) will be on display, depicting a Latin American landscape both real and imaginary. The Huntington’s 120 acres of gardens include several thousand plant species from Latin America, including pineapple, cacao, various orchids including vanilla, and succulents.
Designed by Chu and Gooding Architects of Los Angeles, “Visual Voyages” engages visitors through an evocative installation that includes interactive media, display cases of specimens and rare materials and visually arresting depictions of botanical specimens and still life.
The exhibition opens with a display of taxidermy mounts to make vivid the rare animals that captured the imagination of Europeans and were avidly collected during the period.
“Visual Voyages” then begins with a section on “Rewriting the Book of Nature,” in which manuscripts, maps, and publications show how nature came to be reconsidered in the first century of contact. This section includes a copy of the 1493 letter Christopher Columbus wrote to the King and Queen of Spain while on the return leg of his first voyage to the New World. He writes that the region is “so fertile that, even if I could describe it, one would have difficulty believing in its existence.” This section highlights the many works by indigenous peoples to the exploration of New World nature, among them two large-scale maps painted by indigenous artists in Mexico and Guatemala; a volume from the Florentine Codex, a 16th-century Mexican manuscript on loan from the Laurentian Library, Florence; and a spectacular feather cape created by the Tupinambá of Brazil in the 17th century.
Next, a gallery called “The Value of Nature” explores the intertwining of economic and spiritual approaches to Latin American nature. Commercial interests resulted in the investigation, depiction and commodification of such natural resources as tobacco and chocolate. Indigenous religions considered the natural world to be infused with the divine, while Christian perspectives led observers to envision Latin American nature as both rich in signs of godliness as well as marked with signs of the devil—and needing eradication. Various depictions of the passion flower, a New World plant, show how the flower’s form recalled to missionaries the instruments of Christ’s Passion.
A third section, “Collecting: From Wonder to Order,” shows how the “wonder” that European collectors held for the astonishing material coming from the New World became a desire to possess and, later, to “order” this material, following systems of taxonomy and classification. On view will be a set of large and impressive paintings depicting Brazilian fruits and vegetables by the Dutch painter Albert Eckhout (ca.1610–1665) as well as 20 artful, vivid, and detailed drawings of botanical specimens painted by artists from New Granada (present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, Peru, northern Brazil and western Guyana), never before seen in the United States.
The final section of the exhibition, called “New Landscapes,” examines scientific and artistic perspectives on Latin America created in the 19th century, a period when a new wave of voyagers explored the region and wars of independence resulted in the emergence of new nations. The Romantic and imperial visions of artists and scientists from Europe and the U.S. are juxtaposed with the patriotic and modernizing visions of artists and scientists from Latin America, who envisioned nature as an integral part of national identity. This juxtaposition can be seen visually in the pairing of The Huntington’s monumental Chimborazo by Church with the equally monumental Valley of Mexico (1877) by Mexican painter José María Velasco, on loan from the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City.
Gallery text is in both Spanish and English.
“Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin” is accompanied by a hardcover book of the same title written by Daniela Bleichmar, co-curator of the exhibition. In a narrative addressed to general audiences as well as students and scholars, Bleichmar reveals the fascinating story of the interrelationship of art and science in Latin America and Europe during the period. Published by Yale University Press in association with The Huntington, the 240-page book contains 153 color illustrations. It is $50, and available for purchase at the Huntington Store and online.
Related Exhibitions and Programs
“Human Nature: Sonic Botany”
Sept. 16, 2017 – Jan. 8, 2018
Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art
A mix of audio and visuals created by experimental composer, sonic architect, and performance artist Guillermo Galindo, this installation features a series of graphic representations of musical scores inspired by the “Visual Voyages” exhibition. The installation is part of USC Annenberg’s Musical Interventions, a series of public events organized for Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA by Josh Kun, historian of popular music and recently named MacArthur Fellow.
“Visual Voyages in the Gardens”
Sept. 16, 2017 – Jan. 8, 2018
Throughout the Botanical Gardens
Visitors can enrich their experience of “Visual Voyages” by strolling through the botanical gardens in search of the real-life specimens of plants they have seen depicted in the gallery. Keep your eyes peeled for two dozen “Visual Voyages” signs, pointing to cacao, pineapple, tobacco and other plants indigenous to Latin America.
Sept. 16, 2017 – Jan. 8, 2018, weekends only
Flora-Legium Gallery, Brody Botanical Center
The two dozen paintings in this installation are the work of young adults ages 18 to 26 who are mentored by Art Division, a nonprofit organization that provides training and support for Los Angeles youth from underserved communities pursuing careers in the visual arts. The students used “Visual Voyages” as inspiration.
“In Pursuit of Flora: 18th-Century: Botanical Drawings from The Huntington’s Art Collections”
Oct. 28, 2017 – Feb. 19, 2018
Huntington Art Gallery, Works on Paper Room
European exploration of other lands during the so-called Age of Discovery revealed a vast new world of plant life that required description, cataloging, and recording. By the 18th century, the practice of botanical illustration had become an essential tool in the study of natural history. From lusciously detailed drawings of fruit and flowers by Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708–1770), a collaborator of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, to depictions of more exotic examples by Matilda Conyers (1753–1803), “In Pursuit of Flora” reveals 18th-century European appreciation for the beauty of the natural world.
Taste of Art: Visual Voyages through Latin America
Sept. 30 or Oct. 7 (Saturday)
9 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Explore connections among art, science, and the environment in the exhibition, then head to the kitchen to prepare a Latin American-inspired meal. Maite Gomez-Rejón of ArtBites leads the workshop. Tickets for members are $85, while for non-Members it is $100. Register online.
Talk and Book Signing: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
Oct. 15 (Sunday) at 2:30 p.m.
Join best-selling author Andrea Wulf for a talk about the life of explorer, scientist and early environmentalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), the subject of her most recent book, The Invention of Nature. Her talk will focus on Humboldt’s explorations of Latin America. The event is free with no reservations required.
Seeing and Knowing: Visions of Latin American Nature, ca.1492–1859
Oct. 16 (Monday) at 7:30 p.m.
Historian Daniela Bleichmar, co-curator of the exhibition, discusses the surprising and little-known story of the pivotal role that Latin America played in the pursuit of science and art during the first global era. A book signing and coffee reception will follow the talk. This event is free with no reservations required.
Curator Tour: Visual Voyages
Oct. 18 (Wednesday) 5 p.m. – 6 p.m.
Join exhibition co-curator Daniela Bleichmar for a private tour of “Visual Voyages.” Tickets for members are $15, while for non-members it is $20. Register online.
Guillermo Galindo Performance
Human Nature: Sonic Botany
Nov. 4 (Saturday), noon – 1 p.m.
Rose Hills Garden Court
Experimental composer, sonic architect and performance artist Guillermo Galindo presents a work inspired by “Visual Voyages.” The program is part of USC Annenberg’s Musical Interventions, a series of public events organized for Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA by Josh Kun, historian of popular music and recently named a MacArthur Fellow. The event is free with admission.
Conference at the Getty Center
Indigenous Knowledge and the Making of Colonial Latin America
Dec. 8 – 10
This symposium will bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to explore the role of indigenous knowledge in the making of colonial Latin America. Curator-led visits to two related exhibitions—“Visual Voyages” at The Huntington and “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas” at The Getty—will allow participants to view examples of work by indigenous artists and authors, including several rare pictorial manuscripts (codices). The symposium is organized by Daniela Bleichmar, co-curator of “Visual Voyages” and Kim Richter, co-curator of “Golden Kingdoms” and senior research specialist at the Getty Research Institute, with funding from the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute, the Seaver Institute, and the Getty Research Institute. For registration and more information, visit getty.edu.
Cochineal in the History of Art and Global Trade
Dec. 10 (Sunday) at 2:30 p.m.
Alejandro de Ávila Blomberg of the Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden and Oaxaca Textile Museum will explore the historical and cultural significance of this natural crimson dye. Used from antiquity, cochineal became Mexico’s second-most valued export after silver during the Spanish colonial period. This event is free with no reservations required.