For thousands of years portraits have been a favored vehicle for trumpeting the virtues of the rich and famous, lionizing our fearless leaders, and at times letting the air out of history's biggest windbags. "Portraits have been used to preserve the memory of the deceased, provide continuity between the living and the dead, bolster the social standing of the aristocracy, mark the deeds of the mighty, advance the careers of politicians, record rites of passage, and mock the symbols of the status quo," observes Marion Oettinger, director of the San Antonio Museum of Art. He is the project director and one of four curators who organized "Retratos: 2000 Years of Latin American Portraits," a groundbreaking exhibition at the Bass Museum of Art.
The traveling exhibit features 115 paintings and sculptures culled from leading museums across Latin America, Europe, and the United States, as well as from prestigious private collections. Having taken three exhaustive years in development, the show is chronologically divided into Pre-Columbian, Viceregal, Independence, Modern, and Contemporary sections, and includes many works never before presented in the United States. "This is the first PanLatin American portrait exhibit ever, and it really helps further an understanding of the social, cultural, and political history of the region," Oettinger says. One of the Pre-Columbian sculptures, a mass-produced ceramic piece from the Peruvian Moche culture, dates back to almost the time of Christ and demonstrates an early example of the cult of personality. "I like to draw an analogy that if you walk into a post office in Miami, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C., you are going to see an image of President Bush. It was the same back then; it was done to let you know who the jefe máximo was," Oettinger explains.