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Screen with the Siege of Belgrade and Hunting Scene (Brooklyn Biombo)

The folding screen from Mexico, created around 1700, showcases a unique blend of Japanese, European, and Mexican influences. Known as a biombo, it features a battle scene on one side and a hunting scene on the other. The screen was owned by Viceroy José Sarmiento de Valladares and displayed in his palace, reflecting the wealth and power of the Spanish colonies. The biombo enconchado technique, using mother-of-pearl inlays, adds a captivating touch to this fascinating piece of art.
Circle of the Gonzales family (artist)
, c. 1697-1701, Mexico, oil on wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, 229.9 x 275.8 cm (Brooklyn Museum and Museo Nacional del Virreinato - INAH, Tepotzotlán)
Speakers: Dr. Lauren G. Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Lauren: We're standing here in front of a folding screen from Mexico made about 1700. Steven: This is just wild. This is one of the most complicated objects I have ever looked at. Lauren: It's actually a really unique object. This folding screen is inspired by Japanese folding screen and we call it a biombo and so a biombo actually comes from the Japanese word for folding screen. Steven: But this is a word that would have been used in the Spanish colony that is now Mexico. Lauren: Right, at this point in time Mexico is part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, comprised of parts of the southwestern United States, Mexico and down through Central America. The viceroy is actually the administrator for the king. Steven: You have the king in Spain, his colony in the new world, and they're looking to Japan for inspiration. Lauren: Exactly. Early in the 17th century there's this interest in Japanese objects that are coming to Mexico from the Philippines, which is also controlled by Spain at this time. Steven: So why was there trade with the Philippines, what was being traded? Lauren: The types of objects being traded included folding screens, lacquerware boxes, ivory goods and other luxury items. Steven: I'm seeing at the base and at the top, black that looks very much like Japanese lacquer. Lauren: As these lacquer boxes are coming into Mexico, there's this kind of craze for Japanese goods or Japanese inspired goods and so what we see here is actually a Mexican artist who has created something in the guise of a Japanese lacquerware box. And so the bottom elements have these beautiful Japanese landscape elements and then you get the decorative floral elements bordering the entirety of the screen. Steven: So this must have been fabulously expensive and the height of what was in vogue at this moment. Lauren: Absolutely and in fact we know who owned this object. It was the viceroy himself, José Sarmiento de Valladares. Steven: And we know that at that moment there was tremendous money being generated by these colonies. Lauren: At this time you have huge silver mining industry, raw goods like cochineal, tobacco, various other types of things that are all being sent back to Europe and so people like the viceroy are able to acquire these types of goods and put them on display in their homes. Steven: Let's take a look at the screen itself. Most striking, at least from this side, is this battle scene. Lauren: Half the battle scene. This biombo is actually only half of the original. The other half is in a museum in Mexico City. We're presented with this really chaotic scene between members of the Habsburg empire, the Spanish empire at the time, and the Turks. Steven: So the Habsburg's were the family that ruled Spain and was in control of so much of the new world but was also in control of central Europe. Lauren: The scene that it's showing is taking place not long before this object is produced and so this battle is actually very contemporary. Steven: We're seeing the Battle of Belgrade, between the Ottoman Turks encroaching into central Europe but here we are in Mexico and this is a Japanese screen. It's just mind blowing. Lauren: Mexico being in the middle of all these networks of exchange, the transpacific exchange, objects being traded from Asia, going through Mexico back to Europe, objects being traded from Europe that are then going through Mexico to Asia. Steven: And it really blows apart the way in which we're usually taught history. Lauren: Stylistic categories can often break down when you see things that speak to so many different cultures. Steven: So let's look really closely at the styles in this screen. What I'm seeing is not only this delicate, very thin painting, which is almost like drawing, but I'm also seeing these areas that are just brilliantly illuminated and it's shell. Lauren: So this object is truly unique because this is not only a biombo, but this is part of the only known surviving biombo enconchado. Enconchado means shell inlay so this is a shell encrusted biombo. So it's a combination of oil painting and mother-of-pearl that's been placed into the screen itself. Steven: I can see it in the helmet which is making the helmet seem to shine and it's probably most prominent in floral motifs that are at the very top that frame the battle scene. Lauren: You have to imagine when this is placed in a room how different parts of it would grab your attention because of the flickering candlelight. We don't know exactly who the artist of this biombo was, but what we do know is that it's being made locally. So it's made by an artist in New Spain at the time for the viceroy. Most likely to be placed inside of his new palace in Mexico City. Steven: So who would have seen this? Who was the intended audience? Lauren: Each side of the biombo were intended for different audiences. So the side with the battle would have been intended for the viceroy, people coming to visit the viceroy, important individuals. People who he's bringing into his reception room, essentially. Steven: So this would have a political use as an expression of his power. Lauren: This particular viceroy has come from Spain to rule over this colony and so this would assert the dominance of the Habsburg in Mexico. Steven: And globally since this is also the Habsburg's victory over the Ottomans. I want to go see the other side. This is completely different. This feels so much more relaxed, it feels much more decorative. And the way that the decorative border hangs, it looks like it's textile. Lauren: It's a hunting scene but it really is showcasing the artist's ability to display for us this beautiful landscape scene. I agree with you that this side looks like this beautiful Asian inspired tapestry that might be hanging in someone's room, someone of this wealthy status. Steven: We know that the design, at least for the hunting scene, came from a Medici tapestry that was made in France. Lauren: The tapestry was then copied into a print and that's how it appears here in Mexico. And the same thing with the other side with the battle scene, it was also based off of a print coming from Europe. Steven: I really love this side of the screen. You have, again, a footing which is reminiscent of lacquerware from Japan but then above that is a very dense botanical motif with all of these blossoms. Creating this frame that allows us to look into this deep space, into this really spectacular landscape. Lauren: The hunting scene that we have a kind of feast for the eye in terms of landscape elements and beautiful brushwork on display here. Steven: It's almost hard to remember that we're in the new world when we're looking at this side of the screen. The motif seems so European. Lauren: On both sides of the screen there's actually a lot of classicizing elements, the swags at the top held in the mouths by lions. This is a very classical element that you see in the Renaissance that's coming from ancient Rome. So this side of the screen was actually intended for a very different audience than the battle scene. The battle scene was intended for the individuals the viceroy would be receiving and this actual side of the folding screen would have been largely viewed by women. So imagine that this is essentially the room where the viceroy's wife and perhaps friends, et cetera, would gather to have hot chocolate, to smoke which is very common at this time, and to engage in conversation. So an interesting biographical fact about the viceroy that speaks to this interesting historical moment is that his first wife was actually a descendant from the line of Montezuma the Second who was the Aztec ruler who died during the Battle of Tenochtitlan during the Spanish conquest. Steven: And so what's fascinating then is that that older royal lineage, even though they were conquered, remains important. Lauren: You see that throughout the Spanish Americas where indigenous peoples who can trace their lineage back to rulers are given certain benefits that other indigenous peoples are not. It's complicated and it's hard to know where to situate the objects but that's also what makes it so exciting and engaging. (piano playing)