By Oscar Guillermo Peláez Almengor
In 1952, the Presidential Information Secretary through the initiative of Luis Cardoza y Aragón contracted the Mexican engraver Arturo García Bustos, to organize an engraving workshop in the National School of Plastic Arts, sponsored by Guatemalan Magazine and the Saker-Ti Group (Amanecer). García Bustos had earlier set up a Mexican Popular Graphics Workshop. In that workshop, the Mexican Revolution had been the principal theme, and a great part of the artistic production was aimed at supporting revolutionary changes with a clear popular-didactic purpose, bringing the masses closer to the revolution and the changes it involved.
The Mexican artist arrived in Guatemala at a key moment in the country’s history. The government was attempting to carry out a series of economic, political and social changes for the benefit of the Guatemalans. The revolutionary effervescence of the moment provided inspirational themes for the young artists and was used for political propaganda for the government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán (1951-1954). Contests were held and scholarships awarded, as well as contracts for the elaboration of revolutionary posters. Guatemala was filled with posters made in the Free Engraving Workshop.
Engraving as a technique uses a chisel over a surface to sketch out a slogan, a figure or a representation of any object. It can be made on metal, wood, rock or rubber plates used to print or stamp with pressure or rubbing to obtain several copies of the work.
Through its realistic expressionism, Guatemalan engravings acquired the character and form of propagandistic posters, serving as a vehicle for aesthetic-functional information. The engravings are political propaganda that respond to a moment in history. They were inspired in the agrarian reform, anti-imperialism and advocacy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of Guatemala, social struggle and the economic aspirations aroused by the Atlantic Highway and other new means of communication. The revolution was besieged by its enemies, the coffee oligarchy, the Catholic Church, powerful Guatemalan interests and the United States. Thus, it used the posters to publicize its achievements and to defend itself against the aggression to which it had been subjected.
In 1954, after Arbenz was overthrown, Guzmán suspended the engraving school, but it started up again under Enrique de León Cabrera in 1957 with the introduction of new techniques. However, many of the former students did not continue their studies because of political persecution. The legacy of the Free Workshop of Engraving forms part of an important period in the political and social life of Guatemala, a period frustrated by the overthrow of Arbenz, but which defended its achievements in many ways—even through the art of engraving.”
Oscar Guillermo Peláez Almengor is the DRCLAS Central American Visiting Scholar, and Professor of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, University of San Carlos, Guatemala.
Special thanks to Julio Galicia Diaz, director of the Archivo General de Centro America; Vitelio Castillo, director of the Division of Publicity and Information of the Universidad de San Carlos; Gladis Barrios, Director of the Museum of the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala and Rogelio Chachon, photographer of the Universidad de San Carlos Guatemala and Oscar Pelaez for making the publishing of these engravings possible.