Art in the Americas


by | Dec 30, 2001

This special issue of “Art in the Americas” celebrates the opening of Geometric Abstraction: Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection at the Fogg Museum and the growing interest in Latin American art around Harvard. Above, “Catching Stones,” by Connie Lloveras, DRCLAS Latin American and Latino Art Forum.

Is there such a thing as Latin American art? Can the energies of thousands of creative visionaries, expressed in every kind of medium over a period of centuries and across a geography as varied as any in the world, be considered in a single category? To tie them all together with a string of adjectives would of course be impossible, but certain strands do run through much of the continent’s art, as Mary Schneider Enri­quez suggests in her article, “Latin American Art: From Inside Out.” (p. 10).

During the centuries when the Aztec, Maya and Inca empires were at their peak, their artisans produced some of the finest “primitive” art of all time, as pointed out by Elizabeth Benson and Jeffrey Quilter in this issue’s articles on Dumbarton Oaks, the Harvard-affiliated pre-Columbian art center. Together with the art of Africa and the Pacific Islands, these early creations have bequeathed to us many of the profound archetypes that shape modern consciousness. Much of twentieth-century art can, in fact, be viewed as an effort to recapture the emotional power that ancient cultures expressed in their paintings, carvings and artifacts.

This issue of DRCLAS NEWS examines many facets of visual art in Latin America and by Latinos in the United States. In the lead essay, Tom Cummins shows how European settlers brought their artistic ideas with them to the New World and then began to reshape them.

The continent’s first art academy, the Academia de San Carlos, opened in Mexico in 1785. Ever since then, artists in Latin America have faced a dilemma of whether to embrace the art of Europe or to confront the social, political and natural reality they find around them. This is hardly a question specific to visual artists. Latin American society has always asked its intellectuals to play a greater role than their counterparts in other parts of the world are asked to play.

Classicism and conscious attempts to imitate European styles dominated much of Latin American art until the beginning of the twentieth century. In the years that followed, many of the continent’s leading artists, liberated politically as well as spiritually, spent extended periods in Europe. There Mexico’s Diego Rivera absorbed the principles of impressionism and symbolism, Argentina’s Xul Solar became fascinated by Kandinsky, Malevich and Klee, Cuba’s Wifredo Lam was embraced by Picasso, and Brazil’s Tarsila do Amaral met Leger, Brancusi, Gris and De Chirico. Others, like Argentina’s Martín Blaszko and Brazil’s Lasar Segall, were actually born and grew up in Europe. All brought the Old Continent’s artistic perspectives with them to the New World.

The modern art that developed in Europe had an especially strong impact on Latin American artists because it proposed a new way of seeing reality, explored by James Cuno’s and Patricia Cisneros’ writing on “Geometric Abstraction.”(p. xx). The appeal of this modern art was comparable to that of the magic realist literary style that emerged several decades later. Movements like cubism, expressionism and surrealism were attempts to see past surface reality, something Latin Americans have always sought to do. They proved ideal tools for interpreting the combination of beauty and horror, loss and possibility, that Latin America has always represented.

Much of Latin America’s greatest art has used European artistic innovation as a tool to address native themes. This combination gave birth to an entirely original sensibility. One of its most spectacular manifestations was the drive to create public art, especially murals (see Richard Mora and Solomon Zavala on its latest manifestation in graffiti art on p. xx ). As early as 1923, a group of artists including David Alfaro Siqueros declared: “We reject as aristocratic the painting known as ‘easel work,’ along with the entire ultra-intellectual cadre, and we exalt expressions of monumental art for being useful to the public.” Even Siqueros soon found himself drawn back to easel painting, but the passion that lay behind his commitment resounds to this day. Half a century later, in the 1970s and 80s, artists fleeing the brutal repression that descended over much of the continent would seek to convey their experiences and feelings in ways that might help the world understand their peoples’ suffering and, perhaps, contribute to the cause of peace and reconciliation.

For Latin American artists, understanding the continent in which they lived has always been an artistic as well as political challenge. In the 1930s Rufino Tamayo wrote: “Our people, which is of Indian and mixed blood, is not a festive people; instead, it is profoundly tragic, and its preference is for a balance of sober colors, as is always the case with those upon whom sorrow weighs heavily. White, black, blue, and soft earth tones are the colors that ought to characterize our painting, because these are the colors preferred by our people. Never will full colors distinguish our painting. Warm tones, yes, but muted, sober, solemn.”

Today, as Latin America emerges from its worst nightmares, many of its artists have the freedom to choose how to express the unique panoply of emotions that makes their culture so rich. They are still seeking, and will always seek, a balance between what the world shows them and what they see and feel around them.

Winter/Spring 2001

Stephen Kinzer is a cultural correspondent for the New York Times who has written extensively about Latin America. He is co-author with Stephen Schlesinger of Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, recently re-issued by DRCLAS/Harvard University Press, and author of Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua.

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