The Great Pietà of Melchor Pérez Holguin in Los Angeles

In the United States and abroad, LACMA in Los Angeles has established itself as foremost proprietor of viceregal paintings. The collection and expertise of their staff in the area of South American art has been growing steadily over the years and very recently another wonderful addition was acquired – an exceptional painting by Bolivian master Melchor Perez Holguin. The Pieta by Holguin is an amazing painting that serves as veritable document about the level of accomplishment in Bolivia in the 17th century as well as a strong and dynamic interface between South American artists and European culture. As it is often the case with great works, Holgiun’s painting is also a perfect case study of what makes outstanding religious art and as such deserves special attention.

Holgiun has produced many great paintings between the late 17th and early 18th century. Not much is known about his artistic studies, but we do know that he owned and managed an atelier that produced sought after art - mostly religious in tone, that he was accomplished, that he was renowned as ‘Golden Brush’ and that he signed many of his works with both his name and a descriptive: ‘the inventor.’ The Pieta acquired by LACMA is an intense image showing European influence but clearly unique in style and expression. Principal artists visible in Holgiun’s work are, in my view, Spaniards de Ribera and Luis de Morales, but we have documentation proving that he studied van Dyke as well. This shows that Holguin must have had access to prints. Perhaps he even travelled to Spain and other European countries. Whatever the case might be, Holguin was a master painter and it is wonderful that LACMA made an effort to purchase, safeguard and restore his Pieta.

What makes Holguin’s Pieta especially successful? A traditional yet expressive treatment of subject matter is certainly at the forefront. If anyone thinks this an easy feat to accomplish all we need to do is look at religious paintings of the last century or so and we will immediately see how far religious art has fallen off the heights it accomplished in earlier times. The expressiveness and magnetism of Holgiun’s painting are intensified by the luminosity of colors. Effective composition and nighttime context serve to lend additional dimension to an already powerful and emotionally charged narrative. Gilded detailing for the robes – the brocateado (rich brocade like effect for the clothing and halos) – also works in favor of the impact of this image and make viewing it a memorably impressive experience.

Holgiun’s Pieta is on show and can be admired, along with 90 other artworks, during the fantastic new exhibition Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800; in LACMA until October 30.

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