Visual Images: Magical Realism & The New World Baroque

Monsters & Martyrs:
García Márquez's Baroque Iconography

Lois Parkinson Zamora
University of Houston

Passions of the Soul | El barroco gabrielino | Notes

El barroco gabrielino

Now to the second part of my argument, el barroco gabrielino. The analogy that I'm suggesting to García Márquez is not, of course, that his fiction is religious, much less Contrareformista; what I am suggesting is that his realism is Baroque in nature, and that the magic in his realism proceeds from a view of reality allied in interesting ways to the Baroque ontology that we have just touched upon.

Consider García Márquez's characters, who are secular saints and martyrs and monsters in a Baroque mode. They are prodigious, whether prodigies of beauty or sex or evil or patience or some other fabulous obsession (little gold fishes, magnets, ice, you-name-it). I would propose that Baroque religious portraiture is their cultural precursor in its theatricality and hyperbole, and in its transcendental naturalism; this hagiographic tradition—these portraits of extravagant emotions and miraculous events—provides García Márquez with a sustained opportunity for irony, which he exploits enthusiastically in much of his fiction. Take, for instance, Florentino Ariza in Love in the Time of Cholera. His amorous excesses (and symbolic abstinence) are offered as examples of suffering in a saintly mode. In fact, martyrdom is repeatedly invoked to describe Florentino's state, and echoes of hagiographic hyperbole are everywhere unmistakable. In Baroque iconography, human and divine love are often isomorphic, as are eroticism and ecstasy. Consider this 18th century Mexican painting of St. Francis Xavier by José de Alcíbar.

Figure 20: José de Alcíbar, "Saint Francis Xavier"

St. Francis Xavier, called the Apostle of the Indies and Japan, was represented in countless New World versions, often in what the Mexican iconographer Jaime Cuadriello calls the prodigious rhetoric of ecstasy, the flame on St. Francis Xavier's chest signaling his special relation to the divine word, as the flame on the heads of the apostles gathered at Pentacost signals theirs, and as the dart aimed at Santa Teresa's heart signals hers. [5]

But José de Alzíbar's portrait is in no way ironic, as García Márquez's "Saint" Florentino most certainly is. I would, then, propose William Hogarth's 18th century parodic portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood as a more appropriate analogue; here, Hogarth's "saint" is dressed in a Franciscan habit and positioned in a "wilderness" setting typical of penitents.

Figure 21: William Hogarth, "Sir Francis Dashwood, Bt., at his Devotions" (detail )

We have seen that Baroque paintings often show the saint in a meditative posture, envisioning Christ's body on the cross as a vicarious means of experiencing his suffering. Hogarth's pseudo-saint Sir Francis visualizes a body of quite another sort, and from his halo a leering face smiles down, his visual "attribute" that is at once alter ego, demon, pagan spirit. This Hogarthian parody is a satire of saintliness that perfectly predicts Florentino's "virtue" as he suffers his martyrdom of love for Fermina Daza.

Now consider Remedios the Beauty, who ascends to heaven carrying her mother-in-law's sheets in One Hundred Years of Solitude. She is also idealized by her kinship to Baroque religious portraiture, and more particularly to innumerable Baroque levitating beauties, represented here in a series of soaring selves by the Mexican painter José Ibarra (Fig. 22), from upper left, clockwise: The Ascension, Pentacost, The Assumption of the Virgin, and the Virgin of the Apocalypse:

Of course, Remedios the Beauty's' "assumption" is a political and social matter, not a religious one, but García Márquez's textual emphasis on her billowing sheets confirms my visual analogy, for no Baroque Virgin has ever risen to heaven without luxuriant drapery unfurling around her. When flowing robes are not available, flapping sheets will have to do.

And when humans aren't flying, angels are. The epic insouciance of the García Márquez's very old man with enormous wings, in the story of that title, corresponds to any and all of a vast flock of Baroque angels.

Figure 23: Luis Juárez, "Saint Michael Archangel" (1620)

Recall that we have already seen on image by this seventeenth-century Mexican painter Luis Juárez—the placing of the cassock on San Ildefonso. Here, an old man with enormous wings is being skewered by a young man with enormous wings. Luis Juárez's angel is earlier than Ibarra's levitating figures that you have just seen; this painting is dated around 1620 and is still Mannerist in style, but its theatricality and naturalism predict the droves of Baroque angels and demons that will soon light on Latin American shores.

The trope of flying in García Márquez's story has also been convincingly linked to African oral narratives that circulate in Caribbean Colombia. [6] In his novel Love and Other Demons, as we will see in a moment, García Márquez explicitly dramatizes the interpenetration of African and Spanish Catholic cultural modes, whereas in "The Old Man with Enormous Wings," this syncretism is implicit. Nonetheless, the reader of this story senses the simultaneous operation of disparate cultural modes—in the carnivalesque energy of the story, and also in its sustained ambiguity with respect to the old man's identity—is he bird, angel, man, monster? García Márquez's transcultural narrative allows all of these options to circulate simultaneously without ever resolving into one or another.

Let's look at one final instance of García Márquez's New World Baroque construction of character. Of Love and Other Demons, published in 1994, is set during the colonial period in Cartagena; the historical moment is the mid to late-eighteenth century (allusions to Voltaire and Domenico Scarlatti suggest the time frame), and the languid city hangs suspended in Baroque decadence. From the novel's parodic dedication, "For Carmen Balcells, bathed in tears," to the theatrical martyrdom of its principal character Sierva María de Todos los Angeles, García Márquez engages the Baroque themes of sanctity and suffering, repression and liberation, to which he adds the Baroque themes of betrayal and thwarted love.

Sierva María suffers, it seems, the twin tortures of demonic possession and erotic passion, and she dies from their combined effects, or perhaps from another cause altogether: the bite of a rabid dog. The Bishop who oversees the terrible physical tortures prescribed for her exorcism insists that the devil may easily disguise himself as a case of rabies, so there can be no separation of causes. An introductory author's note, signed by "Gabriel García Márquez, Cartagena de Indias, 1994," implies that his character is based upon a legendary figure about whom his grandmother had told him when he was a boy: ". . . a little twelve-year-old marquise with hair that trailed behind her like a bridal train, who had died of rabies caused by a dog bite and was venerated in the towns along the Caribbean coast for the many miracles she had performed" (5). The novel that follows is her imagined hagiography.

Sierva María's "torrent" of hair is mentioned repeatedly in the novel, and it links her iconographically to Baroque representations of Mary Magdalene, whose own copper-colored torrent, as we have seen, is one of her identifying attributes, and who, like Sierva María, is said to have been possessed by demons—seven of them, it seems, which Christ "casts out." [7]

Figure 24: Baltasar Echave Ibía, "La Magdalena"

We have seen European examples of the Magdalene; this is a seventeenth-century American example by the Mexican painter Baltasar Echave Ibía. The style and mood are different—the suffering less formal, more deeply felt, the figure no longer coquettish but gaunt, haggard, swooning; she is ecstatic (literally, she is stands outsider herself) but her ecstasy is of a less rapturous sort. Nonetheless, the iconography and ideology are the same as our European Magdalenes: her pain and pleasure are mutually constitutive, and indistinguishable. Though Echave Ibía's Magdalene appears considerably older than García Márquez's twelve-year old marquise, she nonetheless seems to me to approximate the tone of his fictional character, whose martyrdom is not a religious matter but a political and cultural one.

Now, to conclude: I offer a final painting by Luis Juárez, "The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine," (Fig. 25) as a visual summary of my comments, while I reiterate three aspects of el barroco gabrielino that we have glimpsed here.

First: the co-habitation of the mundane and otherworldly in Baroque representation, which is consonant with the co-habitation of "magic" and "real" in much of García Márquez's fiction, and enriched by the African and indigenous traditions that are engaged, whether explicitly or implicitly, throughout his fiction. [8] Second, the instability of the Baroque self—the slippage between subject and object, self and world—which allows García Márquez to modulate the relations of "magic" and "real" in his characters and his contexts. Such "hallucinatory" scenes as the banana company massacre or the serial murder of the seventeen Aurelianos or the blood that finds its way from José Arcadio Segundo to Ursula in One Hundred Years of Solitude are contemporary stagings of this Baroque slippage. Thirdly, I would signal García Márquez's Baroque horror vacui—his Baroque "horror of a vacuum": his novels are filled to overflowing with descriptions of things, the exuberant enumeration of which gives to his fictional world a Baroque texture that is sensuous, ornate, dynamic, theatrical, sometimes magical. This affirmation of the senses, combined with a perception of dynamic, expansive spaces of invisible depth and dimension, is characteristic of the New World Baroque, and is fully present in García Márquez's fiction.

Passions of the Soul | El barroco gabrielino | Notes