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The Art of Collaboration

National Post, 22 January 2000

Book Review
Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, by Gauvin Alexander Bailey
University of Toronto Press, 368 pages

You’ll never win a popularity contest by being pious and learned — just ask any Jesuit. During the four and a half centuries since its establishment as a Roman Catholic order, the Society of Jesus has managed to enrage everyone from Calvinists and philosophers to not just a few Catholics. New enemies appear every generation. Think of the opening scene from Roland Joffe’s 1986 film, The Mission, in which a cassocked Jeremy Irons teaches a cluster of Guaraní children in an 18th-century South American mission to play the violin. Is this a vision of utopia? Or is it, as a modern-day multiculturalist might argue, a nightmare of cultural genocide?

Gauvin Bailey, assistant professor of art history at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., accomplishes something quite radical in Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America. By resisting the centuries-old impulse either to canonize or to demonize the Jesuits, he manages to make a powerful and convincing assessment of their cultural impact. Bailey believes that early Jesuit missions were neither entirely racist enterprises devoted to imposing a “superior” culture, nor purely altruistic efforts at cultural and religious “enlightenment.” Rather, they were “partnerships” with the societies and cultures they encountered. The Jesuits’ influence on world art was immense and pervasive, he argues, and they initiated “a more complete hybridization of the arts in a greater number of cultures than anyone else was able or willing to attempt.”

Why art? The Jesuits, after all, were a religious order, not a school of painters. But as Bailey points out, art was often the only common language between early Jesuit missionaries and their prospective converts. Plangent images of a suffering Christ, or tender ones of Mary with the infant Jesus, could express deep religious truths that were too complex to be communicated through an interpreter. And such images appealed directly to the heart. By harnessing the “expressive power and emotive capabilities” of sacred art, Bailey argues, Jesuit “missionaries could move non-Christians to abandon their faiths for Christianity — or at least respect it.”

Yet their global ambitions won limited success, and many of their most celebrated efforts ended in disaster. In Japan, Jesuits were hunted down and massacred in the 1620s and 1630s. Iroquois war parties martyred many on the shores of Ontario’s Georgian Bay in 1648. In 18th-century China, Jesuit artists were compelled to serve the Qing emperors as propagandists for royal power. And in South America, as The Mission memorably re-enacts, they were expelled with the collusion of the Catholic Church, while their Guaraní wards were massacred and enslaved by Portuguese slave traders.

But their art outlasted them, a monument both to Jesuit adaptability and to their host cultures’ resilience. Bailey has criss-crossed the globe, searching for evidence of these hybrid cultures in the archives and museums of Rome, London, India, Buenos Aires, Lima, Manila, and elsewhere. (Regrettably, Bailey doesn’t direct his formidable analytical powers toward the Jesuit missions of New France.) At times, his efforts to prove that they were far greater than the sum of their individual parts can be tentative, especially when, as in the case of Japan, so little of the original art survives.

But when he has a rich source base to work with, as he does with Guaraní sculpture, his argument shines. The Guaraní, Bailey acknowledges, adopted Western conventions of artistic realism, of which they had no previous experience. But they also maintained their earlier use of intricate geometric designs and surface patterns, incorporating them into the drapery and hair represented in the sculpture. While such forms looked abstract or merely decorative to European eyes, they had the deepest significance for their creators. For the Guaraní, God truly was in the details. Such art, Bailey insists, proves that the Guaraní “kept alive the memory of an indigenous reality” while embracing and modifying Christianity, “making it a true successor to their own religion and adding its saints to their own pantheon.”

This book is something of a hybrid itself: a weighty scholarly monograph and a beautifully illustrated coffee-table book. This means that the prose can be something of a chore — it’s hard to make meaningful (or important) distinctions between “acculturation” and “transculturation,” between “convergence” and “syncretism,” without creating a few sentences that only a professor could love. But Bailey is usually an elegant and insightful guide with an important message: Culture thrives, not by isolating itself from alien influences — even ones as politically incorrect as the Jesuits — but by being boldly promiscuous.