Chilean Art (English version)

Edwín Rojas, “Las Princesas.

Between Reality and Memory

By Beatriz Huidobro Hott

Chile's contemporary artists do not cling to any particular ideology. Rather, this new generation of artists seek to understand the recent past without a sense of guilt or victimization. They look to the future with a critical and constructive view, without hatred.

Only a few artists focus on the political and social context. Instead, some vent their criticism on the economic model, the free market and the consumer society. An example is the well-received 1999 exhibition by Bruna Truffa and Rodrigo Cabezas at the National Fine Arts Museum, Si vas para Chile (If you go to Chile), taking its title from a well-known traditional folk song and making fun of consumer culture. Later, the artists produced another exhibition, Si vas para el Mall (If you go to the mall).

While many artists mock the consumer society and the search for easy and quick satisfaction, few concern themselves with the poverty, unemployment, and social and economic inequality that is part of modern Chile. The degree of social consciousness in art in Chile has varied in intensity over time. At the beginning of the last century, the so-called Generación del 13 used painting to highlight social concerns by depicting local customs. An incipient muralist movement in the 1940s, stimulated by the Chilean sojourn of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, and the 1960s’ “art of denunciation” somehow contributed several artistic ways of interpreting the aftermath of the Pinochet coup (see below).

Yet social concerns have often been on the periphery. In addition to the contemporary mockery of consumerism, much of today’s artistic expression of social concerns deals with lifestyle and identity. The liberation of morés and customs greatly influences artistic production. Topics such as nudity, eroticism and homosexuality are no longer forbidden. There is a resurgence of conceptual art, in which theorical discourse has great relevance. These trends are supported by a great number of art schools that are very keen on new aesthetical expressions. Painting does not escape the conceptualists’ scrutiny; it is often questioned as a means of artistic expression.

At the same time, technological developments have made it possible to incorporate new elements of artistic expression. The use of interactive multimedia has attracted a considerable number of young Chilean artists who explore the possibilities of combining painting, photography, found objects and video in their installations. There is an interweaving of elements and artistic expression. A crisscross of traditional and conceptual changes occurs as a product of a globalized world.

This globalized vision may also account for a number of ecological groups that have recently appeared on the artistic scene. The clay art of Zinnia Ramírez, Ana María Wienecken, Leo Moya and Norma Ramírez reflect the increased use of organic materials as part of this newfound ecological sensibility.

In a sense, this ecological movement is a subtle return to Chile’s artistic past, but with a twist. Chilean art began with landscaping artists who worked in the European tradition with an elitist bent, as Chileans searched for their own identity in the last century. These early landscape artists showed little interest in Chile’s ancestral civilization, reflecting the relative absence of indigenous culture and pre-Columbian past compared to other Latin American countries. This attitude contrasts with some of the new ecological artists that use their art for the vindication of ancient cultures, particularly the Mapuche.

The recycling of discarded materials evokes both ecology and meager resources. The newspaper constructions of Andres Vio are a good example of this trend, creating an intertwining of contemporary art’s uncertainties and forms of expression related to Chile’s living conditions.

Other artists working with a different type of recycled materials have developed a “memory of the past” by searching for lost and found objects. Carlos Montes de Oca, for example, takes his findings out of context and presents them with poetic texts in boxes of impeccable craftsmanship. Some of his latest works have included interventions in urban spaces with small tents which reference the fragility and lack of protection of the human being.

Amid all these changes and experimentation, a very special type of inward-looking Chilean painting still persists, displaying great imagination in alluding to a dream-like world where timeless landscapes are filled with eccentric human figures and illogical objects. Most predominant among these artists are Mario Gómez, Edwín Rojas, and Lorenzo Moya. These artists recoil to a private subjective world, which they splash on the canvass with rich imagination and dexterity.

Despite its diversity, Chilean art is now only beginning to become an integral part of the international and domestic scene. The scarcity evoked by Vio and other recyclers is also an artistic commentary on the difficulty in catapulting contemporary Chilean art into established international circuits due to the lack of resources. Until the 1950s and early 1960s, Chile had been insulated from the international art world.

Within Chile itself, one can see that there is a growing relationship between art and the general public, as attendance to galleries and museums increases. Exhibition spaces—private and public—have increased as well. The opportunity for viewers to permit themselves moments of confrontation and reflection with art has greatly expanded.

However, much of the general public has difficulty understanding the complex theoretical proposals of conceptual art, neither grasping the codes nor possessing the necessary facts. As pointed out by Tomás Andreu, director of the avant-garde art space Galería Animal, some art dealers draw on the seduction of material, shock impact and the surprise element as way of attracting the public’s attention.

Nevertheless, art is becoming an integral part of the urban scene. Large scale sculptures, not only in Santiago but also in Chile’s provinces, bring art to urban spaces. Among the prominent sculptors that have taken part in these projects are Osvaldo Peña, Sergio Castillo, Francisco Gacitúa, Aura Castro, José Vicente Gajardo and Alejandra Ruddoff.

Chilean art may not necessarily incorporate a social message, but the very act of incorporating art into public life is a social statement. Within the overall cultural framework of Chile, successive democratic governments put great effort into elaborating a cultural policy, encompassing all artistic tendencies and expressions. The recently created Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (National Council for the Arts and Culture) has created great optimism within Chile’s cultural community.

Private corporations—in keeping with the current free market economic model—continue to play a major role not only in financing artistic endeavors but in the promotion and diffusion of art. The role of private enterprise in fomenting art began for the most part during the military regime when the dictatorship shied from fostering cultural expression.

During the period of the dictatorship, an art market developed in Chile. New galleries opened up and the public timidly began to acquire contemporary art. The patrons who financed exhibitions and contests were the large corporations of the private sector, looking with favor on those artists who did not overtly politicize their works. Today, Chile’s democratic governments seek a mixed participation between the public and the private sector for all sorts of art, socially conscious or not. Art expressions in today’s Chile are as diverse as the perceptions of every artist vis-à-vis his or her own life experience. Art will be the mirror that will rescue and preserve Chile’s cultural memory.



    • The Rectángulo group breaks off with the naturalist model, instead producing rigorous geometric art that never strays away from the primordial role of Chilean landscaping. This generation's main theorist Ramón Vergara Grez entitles many works in relation to the Chilean landscape.
    • Years later, Vergara Grez forms a group called Forma y Espacio. Matilde Pérez, a main figure in the Retángulo group, uses geometric structures inspired by pre-Columbian art.


  • The Signo group sees painting as an agent of change. Influenced by the Catalan abstract expressionism movement, members of the group establish a strong relationship with politics and the social issues of the time. Principal artists include José Balmes, Gracia Barrios and Alberto Pérez.


  • Street mural painting—with a heavy dose of leftist ideology—appears. Muralist brigades spring forth with energy, including the famous Ramona Parra brigade in which Chilean expatriate Roberto Matta participated. One of the most emblematic places of collective work for these brigades was the banks of the Mapocho river.


  • The military coup brings brutal repression, torture, exile and censorship. In the first few years of military dictatorship, pessimism and desolation paralyzes the artistic community. Little by little, new ideas, proposals and artistic creativity reappears, mirroring the historical context of the country. Some of these artistic expressions have been referred to asestetica de la expiación, emerging as a conscience of a sort of a collective guilt for the loss of democratic values. Still other expressions rise from the ashes—la estetica del escombro, born out of pondering on the devastated democratic scenario (Milan Ivelic in “Arte Latinoamericano del siglo XX”, Editorial Nerea, 1996, p.309).


  • A new iconography appears in the Chilean art scene. The traumatic experience suffered by artist Guillermo Núñez at his exhibition at the Chilean-French Cultural Institute is a case in point. Núñez’s installation consisted of various bird cages individually filled with diverse objects such as bread, flowers and a Chilean flag. After the opening day, the artist was detained by the police, subjected to six months of imprisonment, partially blindfolded and eventually released into exile.
  • Local artists had to develop strategies to elude censure. The social message of their work became hidden through the use of artistic metaphors and indirect language. Many artists felt that the traditional way of expressing their art such as painting, sculpture and prints insufficiently expressed what they felt and created new avenues in relation to materials, social reality, and politics of the times. Documentary photography and other new material became frequently used to express social reality. In tandem with the international trend, this subversion of traditional means of artistic expression gave way to a conceptual art experimentation such as installations, art auctions and body art.
  • CADA (Colectivo Acciones de Arte), an interdisciplinary group of visual artists and intellectuals, utilized urban space to create new circuits for the flow of art. Main figures were: Lotty Rosenfeld, Juan Castillo, Raúl Zurita, Diamela Eltit and Fernando Balcells.
  • The so-called Escena de Avanzada, composed of artists such as Eugenio Dittborn, Carlos Altamirano, Juan Dávila, Francisco Smythe, Gonzalo Mezza, Carlos Leppe and Gonzalo Díaz, ponder over what is to be a painter in Chile. TheEscena de Avanzada, a term coined by the art critic Nelly Richard (Richard, “Margins and Institutions: Art in Chile since 1973” Art & Text, Melbourne, 1986) point through their theoretical discourse to changes in the codes of cultural communication.
  • Dittborn acknowledges the precarious conditions of the country and plays around with it. He underscores the marginality of Chile in different aspects including the international art circuit. Dittborn sends his works through the mail in neatly folded packages.
  • Juan Dávila uses forms of Pop art with great irreverence and Carlos Leppe injures his own body to project his art.


  • In 1981, the first French-Chilean meet of video art occurs. In this gathering we found the works of Juan Downey and Alfredo Jaar. In opposition to the French video artists, who place great emphasis on the technology, these Chilean artists are more interested in the link between content and technology. A neo-expressionist trend emerges, influencing mostly younger artists fresh out of art schools like Bororo, Samy Benmayor, and Omar Gatica. Their work, a sort of action painting with open-minded ideas and technique, is perceived as an act of liberation against repression although no theoretical underpinning supports this body of work. It is impetuous and spontaneous with some influence by the Italian Transvanguardia movement.
  • Another group of artists, sculptors and painters base their work on a personal vision that originates in the inner soul of the artist, where fantasy's flight plays a fundamental role. Principal figures include Mario Toral, Rodolfo Opazo and Gonzalo Cienfuegos.
  • With the onset of the economic crisis of 1983, censorship became weaker. An important group of exiled artists return, including José Balmes, who spearheaded a more politicized and testimonial art. Street mural painting appears in the shantytowns, suburbs and closed spaces. In 1988, the government called for a plebiscite, and the muralist brigades became visible again in support of “No” vote to decide whether the military regime should continue in power.


  • With the inauguration of a new democratic government, the art scene changed. Young artists who did not live in a dictatorial regime took charge of the memories of their parents. The awareness of human rights violations is a recurring theme for some. Because of the recent 30th anniversary of the military coup, the mass media revisited the history of the dictatorship, helping to relive or narrate the process with more maturity.

Beatriz Huidobro Hott is an art historian and curator in Santiago.