Curator Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt on “Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary”

Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt is an internationally renowned curator and scholar of Spanish art. She’s organized important exhibitions, published several books and articles, and lectured around the world on major Spanish artists like Murillo, Velázquez, and Goya, as well as work by lesser-known and unknown artists working in the Americas. She’s curated the Blanton’s exhibition Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary: Colonial Painting from South America, which is on view through June 14 and which will re-open on June 20 with a new rotation of eight different paintings. Adam Bennett, the Blanton’s manager of public programs, spoke with Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt recently about the exhibition, which she’ll be discussing at the Blanton this Thursday evening at 6:30.

Our Lady of the Pillar
Unidentified Artist, Peru, possibly Lima, Our Lady of the Pillar with a Franciscan and a Dominican Monk, 17th century, Oil on canvas, The Marilynn and Carl Thoma Collection, 2004.1

Q: You have a very diverse background—how did you come to be interested in South American colonial paintings?

A: I was drawn to working with Spanish colonial art through a long series of life events: first, when I was a child, we lived in the the Caribbean and in Mexico. So Hispanic culture generally has always been a little bit of my own. I grew up with it and I spoke Spanish. When my family moved back to the US and I went to college, I majored in Spanish literature. And then I went on and got a masters degree in comparative literature, which was concentrated on Spanish and French theatre of the 17th century.

And then, a big leap: I got married, had children, and when my children went to school, I went to graduate school in art history. And at that point I decided that my background suited me to Spanish art. So that became my field of research and work for a couple of decades, and it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I had two new opportunities: one working with a private collector, and one working on a major exhibition with the Philadelphia Museum of Art [the exhibition Journeys to New Worlds] on Spanish colonial art. And so these two new projects allowed me to dive in and reinvent myself in a way.

There are many overlaps with what I knew about art in Spain, but it’s new and different, and it’s such an open field—I’ve stuck with it and I’m still enjoying it very much.

Q: You were doing graduate studies in Spanish literature at the same time that the Latin American Boom writers were flourishing [especially Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar]. Were you interested in that movement in contemporary Latin American literature?

A: Yes, but my undergraduate degree was in the Spanish literature of the golden age: Cervantes and Lope de Vega. In the US at that time, contemporary Latin American literature wasn’t such a big deal: people didn’t know very much about it. I love modern and contemporary Latin American literature, even extending up to the novels of someone like Junot Díaz, but that wasn’t part of my academic background—it’s just something else that I’m interested in. The academic study of contemporary Latin American literature would have to wait for someone from a generation younger than me.

By Jiuguang Wang (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 es (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/es/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Basilica del Pilar by Jiuguang Wang.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Spain License.
Q: Among the works in the exhibition at the Blanton, can you point to one that stands out among others in the genre?

A: The most idiosyncratic work on view at the Blanton right now is Our Lady of the Pillar with a Franciscan and a Dominican Monk. Our Lady of the Pillar is a devotion in Zaragoza, Spain, but it’s really internationally Hispanic at this point in time because Our Lady of the Pillar is the patroness of the national day of Spain, the Día de la Raza. So she has come from being a local cult to being an international figure, very much admired today.

This particular work of art is so interesting because the painting shows the sculpture as it appears, and not in a narrative context. She’s actually appearing on a pillar and saying, “I want a church built here in my honor.” And that’s the great Basílica del Pilar today, which I’ll talk about on Thursday. So I think what interests me most about this painting is that it is so unique: in Spanish colonial art, a lot of images are repeated, but this image of the pillar is one that really stands alone.

Make sure to stop by the Blanton this Thursday, May 21 at 6:30pm to learn more about the Basilica del Pilar and Spanish-Colonial painting from Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt.

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