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    Members’ Reports

    Oscar E. Vázquez
    Center 41

    Oscar E. Vázquez

    The Body of Work: The Practice and Politics of Life Drawing in Latin American Academies of Art


    Gérard Audran, Les proportions du corps humain: Mesurées sur les plus belles figures de l’antiquité (Paris: Joubert, 1801), 27

    Western academies of art, before the proliferation of photography in the later 19th century, were historically the single most important authority for the social construction of the visual field. Academies were not simply for the training of techniques; they were disciplinary institutions that instructed students in how to properly represent the world according to the needs of patrons, elites, and, later, wider markets. The rapid multiplying of academies of art—almost 100 in 18th-century Europe alone—manifested an epistemic shift toward the institutionalization of the training and production of artists.  

    European-structured academies were replicated not only within nations but across international borders including those of Latin America. Like their European counterparts, academies in Latin America must be understood as the application of an orderly, Enlightenment-era apparatus linked to the demands of managing increasing numbers of students, producing artists through a centralized system of instruction based on visual copying, with an eye toward normalizing the human body. The human body was placed—both literally in terms of space and figuratively in terms of power—at the center of the curriculum. Accordingly, there was a direct relationship among the material infrastructure of academies, the studio pedagogy of artists trained to represent the human figure, and the performance of elite power. In my book, I examine copying not only on the material level of creating an ideal human figure on paper, but also copying in terms of its various cognates of emulation, replication, reproduction, mimicry, and reification at an institutional level. 

    The standardization of training did not, however, preclude expressive or formal differences in students’ artwork, or the teachers’ resistance to regulations. My book project reveals previously unexamined critical differences, as expressed in both the formal construction and political uses of the body, among several Latin American academies of art placed in dialogue with their European models. 


    Jesus Obregón, Dancing Faun, 1852, charcoal pencil on colored paper, Collection of the Faculty of Arts and Design, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City. Photo: Eduardo Acosta Arreola

    While many Latin American academies adopted similar teaching methods and administrative structures, their geographic and sociopolitical conditions, as well as the ethnic-racial makeup of their student populations, engendered differences in artworks and regulatory documents, revealing dissonances between European institutions and their colonial counterparts. For example, the governing documents of the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City were copied almost verbatim from Spain’s royal academies in Madrid and Valencia. Yet, the extraordinary powers of corporeal punishment, incarceration, and control of students’ bodies given to the directors of San Carlos—ones not found in Spain’s regulations—suggest that the colonial “periphery” demanded additional policing, or at least adaptation, in order to successfully transplant the art institution. 

    Differences are also evident in Latin American academies’ control over the representation of normative bodies in terms of race and gender, even after independence from colonial powers. While Native models, and on occasion enslaved people (in Brazil), were used in early drawing classes, their ethnic or racial features often did not appear in finished paintings or sculpture through the early 19th century. By the late 19th century, however, nationalist indigenist currents produced an inversion whereby previous works based on plaster casts of antique Greco-Roman statuary were replaced by Indigenous subjects. Historians have attributed these shifts to stylistic transformations or the political context, however this does not clarify the continued use of similar antique models in many academies, the uneven chronological development of curriculum in others, nor the pictorially different responses to political shifts of individual countries.  

    Thus, the issue of copying the human body is not simply an “academic” question of pedagogic routine, but one that embodied the labor and economy of these institutions. My book analyzes the body of work in terms of labor within the drawing classroom and its administration. The production and replication of the human figure was the work of the institution. The differences and similarities among these institutions—discerned in terms of pedagogy, artworks, and academic regulations—are the focus of my book. Scholars who have published comparative studies of academies of art have stayed largely in Europe and, in several cases, have argued that it is unnecessary to examine in detail academies beyond Rome, Paris, and London, since those institutions created the template replicated across the globe. Yet, I argue that to ignore individual academies with radically different populations and histories, such as those in the Americas, would be to dismiss the far-reaching distinctions in the political context and the critically diverse meanings of local policies and administration. 

    My fellowship at the Center has allowed me to draft two chapters. Further, I’ve been able, with the benefit of fruitful conversations with colleagues and colloquia participants, to advance and deepen the questions for the remaining two. My work over the next year will greatly depend on the availability of access to archives.  

    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellow, 2020–2021 

    Oscar E. Vázquez will return to his position as professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and will continue with the work on his book begun at the Center.  

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