The Memory of a City
by Fernando Castro
Forty years later, in front of the photographs from the Eugene Courret studio at the Transco Tower, I remembered the day my mother took me to downtown Lima and I saw his studio for the very first time. So spellbound was I by the sight of the exotic building that she had to drag me away to continue shopping. "What is that place?" I asked, — but the sounds of motors and horns drowned my soprano voice. By that time, the studio had been closed for nearly 20 years and its sumptuous interiors had been dissected into small offices and tailor shops. Only its art nouveau facade gave testimony of a city quite unlike the Lima of that time.
For years the Courret studio's sheer longevity as an important studio made it an iconic mine for historians. Its photographic activity began in 1863 and lasted until 1935. An analogous interval expands approximately from the AmericanCivil War to the Great Depression; in Peruvian terms, from the aftermath of the economic boom resulting from guano exploitation to the return of the landed oligarchy to political power. Thus it is important to place the images of the exhibitMemory of a City: The Photographic Studio of Eugene Courret at least in the right decades and the right contexts to make more than visual sense of them. In fact, the compelling and often intriguing beauty of many of its images makes interpretation necessary in order to avoid trivializing them.
First, I want to make a few comments about the curatorship of Memory of a City. Because cities do not literally have memories, but rather people have memories of them, it is unclear in the exhibit who remembers what, when and whom. As it will become clearer later, this is not being fastidious. Memory in the name of the exhibit can only be adjudicated to its curator, the Peruvian photographer Jorge Deustua; he, in turn, posits remembrance on the city of Lima. But even though Lima's epithet happens to be "thrice crowned," it really has no head-to-bear headgear or contain mental states. As it turns out, the memory in the curatorial line of the exhibit reflects a certain class perspective. It is a memory that remembers selectively and with a certain amount of nostalgia — toned with only the slightest critical distance — a crucial period of Peruvian history. In the second half of the i9th century a landed oligarchy and a new class of immigrant entrepreneurs took it upon themselves to define the cultural and social contours of Peru and thereby dream up a Peruvian nation.
It is also a memory that forgets (pardon the oxymoron) that in the Courret Archives there are images of a small but thriving mestizo middle class that sought the services of the most expensive studio in Lima as a symbol of their social andeconomic success. It also forgets much of the costumbrista imagery in the archive that suggests an interesting parallel between Courret and European travelers like Johann Moritz Rugendas and Alexander Von Humboldt. The insatiable taxo-nomic appetite of these travelers sought to inventory local "types" of people throughout the continent.
The most authoritative voice on 19th century Peruvian photography including Courret, is Professor Keith McElroy, pho-tohistorian at the University of Arizona. McElroy's writings explicitly and/or implicitly spell out many of the issues involved in curating an exhibit from the Courret corpus. For example, many negatives in the Courret Archive currently housed at the Biblioteca Nacional in Lima are not by Courret or his assistants but by other studios whose negatives were incorporated into the Courret Archive. In addition, Eugene Courret himself returned to Paris, after a 4o-year stay in Peru, and left the studio in the hands of Adolphe Dubreuil — although the studio kept Courret's name. So even negatives from the Courret studio may not be by Eugene Courret or his assistants. To complicate matters, the Courret Archive at the Biblioteca Nacional was moved there only some dozen years ago. There is reason to suppose that an interesting part of the archive is in other collections. Finally, it is not clear how thoroughly Deustua inspected the Courret Archive at the Biblioteca Nacional and other known collections.
So much for a preamble that needs to end where discussion of images begins. Although there is some validity to the curator's premise that the Courret studio — being the most expensive studio in Lima — served largely a well-to-do clientele, it is not the case that the studio depicted nothing but the world of the well-off. In fact, the images in the exhibit revolve around the social world of the economic elites of the time. For example, the exhibit repeatedly shows how, given achance at many a costume party, the members of this elite, would jump at the chance to have their children or themselves incarnate i8th century European aristocrats.
It is astounding that elites in a country whose fight for independence was still in the mouths of some who participated in itwould have such cultural esteem for Europe. Especially, when as late as 1866 the Spanish fleet attacked the Port of Callao in an attempt to reestablish colonial rule. This lack of national identity explains, to a great extent, the anachronistic images of the tapa-das. According to McElroy, in the outfit of a tapada (literally meaning covered), "In the mozarabic tradition inherited from the early conquistadores, ladies of good breeding in colonial Lima covered all but their eyes when in public and viewed events in the street from behind the wooden screens of their balconies." When tapadas were photographed by Courret, they were already a nostalgic anachronistic custom yearned for as a possible source of identity in a time when such sources were few. So the whole section of the exhibit entitled Colonial Recreations reflects well the mood of cultural diffuseness prevailing in Peru during the third quarter of the i9th century. While the descendants of early Spanish immigrants longed for colonial times, the new English, French, Irish, Italian, German and Swiss immigrants dreamed aboutthe European aristocracy.
Perhaps it is not surprising at all that descendants of Europeans should have a predilection for things European. The Melting Pot surrender of national traits for the sake of a novel stew has specific reasons that make it the exception rather than the rule. However, both processes reveal how detached national projects in the Americas were from their indigenous peoples. The resurrection of autochthonous culture in Peru would have to wait until the 19205 for a context in which, curiously enough, the landed oligarchy was weakened by an entrepreneurial class who sought to construct a strong modern industrial state. Nothing is shown about that revival in this exhibit — perhaps there is nothing about it in the archives.
It is worth remembering that in Mexico, the xenophilia of the landed conservatives had a bizarre chapter when with the aid of Napoleon III, they conspired to establish in their own country a European monarchy in the guise of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian. In fact this episode of Mexican history had repercussions in South America where a waveof anti-French sentiments ensued while at the same time Limenos continued to fancy French trappings. McElroy describesthe astuteness with which the Courret's handled public relations to avoid the backlash of anti-French sentiments spurred byNapoleon's unsuccessful ploy. In the Lima Exposition of 1869, the Courret studio won a gold medal with a photographically-based painting depicting the defeat of the Spanish fleet at the Port of Callao.
Some of the most astonishing images in the exhibit are those of black and mestizo wet nurses with mamiferous Euro-Peruvian infants in arms. These images are also part of that elitist European world that marginalized the "other." WhenMemory of a City was first shown in Lima in 1994, they appeared next to a clipping from the periodical Perlas y Flechas(1884) where black wet nurses were offered for 25 soles, zambas for 20 and mestizas for 17. The ad reflects how Peru was then and until well into my childhood years, a socially stratified world, where people, like dogs, had pedigrees that determined their function and value in society.
In increasing numbers European immigrants of different nationalities arrived in Peru from the mid-ipth century on. In the exhibit, the Evans, the Garlands, the Dubois, the Rospigliosis, the Bohms, the Gasperis, the Courrets and the Dub-reuils are members of colonies that behave exactly like colonies do. Each colony had its own school, its own clubs, its own field of business. Many new immigrants like the Courrets were entrepreneurs. Others, like the English, were involved in the guano trade, and later, came as employees of the Grace Company that took over the Peruvian railway system when Peru went bankrupt in 1876. The Italians came to control the banking system and towards the end of the century were the most powerful economic force in Peru. The new immigrants swiftly displaced the more decadent landowning families of Spanish heritage. However, the newly arrived immigrants did not become integrated with the indigenous populations as the first waves of Spaniards had done. At most, they sought to marry into the families of the established landed gentry. One might venture to say that the leaders of indigenismo, who by and large were members of old Spanish families, when they sought to reevaluate indigenous culture, were partially reacting to the extreme Eurocentricity of the new immigrants.
A different kind of immigrant — Chinese coolies — came to Peru as indentured serfs to replace black slaves who had been emancipated and Native-American peons who had been decimated by years of exposure to disease and physical abuse. Coolies were used as cheap labor for building railways and in cotton and sugar plantations. There is a famous carte-de-visite (not in the exhibit) of a coolie with a leash around his neck. The intention of such an image may have been to identifythe coolie in case he ran away. What one does see in the exhibit is many prosperous Chinese who could have possibly been liberated coolies or simply later immigrants who arrived in Peru after the sale and transport of coolies was proscribed by 1873. It is important to note that when the sale of coolies was still legitimate in Peru, no Chinese women immigrated to Peru. So the image of the marriage of a mestiza to a prosperous Chinese man has special significance.
The period of Peruvian history extending between 1890 and 1919 was called by Peruvian historian Jorge Basadre The Aristocratic Republic. During this period, the landed oligarchy ruled the country through the Partido Civilista — a political party that was more like a club than a party. Many landowners had private armies that were more powerful than the government forces. In their respective regions they ruled like feudal lords ruthlessly exploiting indigenous peoples, Chinese coolies and Afro-Peruvians. In reality it would have been a better choice of words to call this period The OligarchicRepublic because these landowners were few rather than best. In spite of their economic nationalism reflected in protectionist policies such as imports tariffs, the landed oligarchy aspired to the accoutrements of a European lifestyle just as much as the new immigrants did; and the latter provided the former with them.
Even the look of the city of Lima began to change towards the fin de siecle. Inspired by the transformation of Pariscommandeered by Baron Haussmann, the urban planners of many Latin American cities sought the new Paris as an ideal modern city. In Lima, the promenades, the wide boulevards, the parks, plazas, museums and public buildings began tohave a French look. Modern life was celebrated in dozens of illustrated magazines. The Courret studio itself contributed copiously to a few magazines. A portrait of the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova appears in the pages of Mundial. One wonders if the prime motive for the other portrait of Pavlova — the one that appears in the exhibit — was photojournalism and not just tabletop portraiture.
As early as 1872 a building called Palacio de la Ex-posicion (now Museo de Arte de Lima) leads the push towards modernity. The steel structure of the building was designed by no other than Eiffel; the building itself, was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Leonard!. For the Lima Exposition of 1872, Leonardi qua juror awarded the Courret studio a gold medal for portraits with a "Rembrandt Effect."
From the flamboyant style of Courret evidenced in his self-portrait – which contrasts so markedly with that of his partner Dubreuil — one is inclined to view Courret as somewhat Bohemian. Perhaps for that reason one may be inclined to attribute to him many motivations that might be proper of a Paul Gauguin. Curator Eduardo Pineda has dug up some evidence that places Courret in Tahiti before his arrival in Lima. Still, the actual personality of Eugene Courret remains shrouded in mystery; historiography has unraveled only some of the facts of his life but little of his idiosyncrasy. The city of Lima, on the other hand, is made up today mostly of the people who would not have been able to afford the prices for portraiture of the Courret Studio except perhaps for that thriving middle class of small entrepreneurs, no longer of strictly European descent. By and large, it was those two sectors of the population that put president Alberto Fujimori in power in 1990. What is missing in the exhibit, therefore, are the roots of what most of Peru is all about today. •Fernando Castro is a critic and curator in Houston.