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date: 28 February 2024

Modernism and the avant-garde in Latin Americafree

Modernism and the avant-garde in Latin Americafree

  • Esther Gabara

In Spanish, “modernismo” most often refers to the 19th-century literary movement inaugurated by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, which created a highly imagistic, literary language of the Americas. “Vanguardia” in Spanish and “modernismo” in Portuguese name the radical 20th-century experiments with the image, critiques of representation, and debates over the political and social role of art associated with “avant-garde” in English. Intellectuals from Latin America produced a rich bibliography about these terms that provide a periodization, as well as conceptual and aesthetic proposals, which diverge from the hegemonic cases of Europe and the United States. They distinguished artistic modernism and avant-gardes—in the visual arts, architecture, literature, and music—from progressive models of history that equated economic and political modernization with cultural advancement. From José Carlos Mariátegui and Mário de Andrade in the 1920s to more recent writing by Haroldo de Campos, Beatriz Sarlo, and Enrique Düssel, the periodization and definition of modernism has been grounded in a critique of colonialism as the original modernizing project, and a rejection of its continued violence throughout the 20th century. As colonial discourse was grounded in violent racial and gender formations, the modernist avant-gardes confronted these concepts in both the form and substance of their work.

The first phase of the modernist avant-garde (1910s–1940s) broke with the beauty and poetry of the modernistas, and produced radical compositions of social and political modernity in the region. There are three overarching forms of artistic rupture in this generation. First, a social rupture, heavily influenced by the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), took art works out of the museum and private collection and into public spaces with muralism, graphic arts, and popular education programs. In addition to the “Three Greats” in Mexico—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros—Brazilian Cândido Portinari gained so much influence that three of his murals adorn the Hispanic Reading Room in the US Library of Congress. The presence in that public sphere of women and peoples of diverse ethnicities was an important theme across the continent. Nobel Prize–winning Chilean author Gabriel Mistral contributed attention to girls’ education to this widespread dedication to pedagogy of the modern citizen.

Second, vanguardistas broke with the colonial history of art by incorporating aesthetic values of Amerindian and Afro-descendent peoples in movements known (among others) as Indigenism and “negritude.” Mário de Andrade and Oswald de Andrade conceived of this historical process as an artistic and cultural “anthropophagy,” or cannibalism, in which Brazilian artists devoured the cultures of European, Indian, and African peoples to produce their own. Fernando Ortiz invented a related concept of “transculturation” to comprehend Cuban cultural diversity and its history of violence. José Vasconcelos proposed that “mestizaje,” or the mixing of ethnic groups in the Americas, formed the foundation of Mexican identity and held the future of the entire continent. These proposals about modern Latin America are evident in the work of artists such as Frida Kahlo (Mexico), José Sabogal (Peru), Tarsila (Brazil), and Víctor Manuel (Cuba). Since many of these artists and thinkers came from families of European descent, their works combine attention to local aesthetic forms with the exoticism and racism that haunted the region. However, notable figures including Mario Urteaga Alvarado, Martín Chambí, and (later) Oswaldo Guayasamín, from Quechua-speaking families in Peru and Ecuador, and Wifredo Lam, of Afro-Cuban and Chinese descent, made fundamental contributions to modernist painting, sculpture, and photography.

The final type of rupture published in manifestos by the modernist avant-garde was a break with norms of figuration or mimetic representation. If some foregrounded the novelty of their interventions, particularly the so-called “ismos” (isms)—Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism, Estridentismo, and Ultraísmo—others elaborated a relationship between modernist abstraction and indigenous and Afro-descendent traditions of abstraction in textile, ceramics, painting, and landscape design. Artists including Emilio Pettoruti (Argentina), Armando Reverón (Venezuela), Roberto Matta (Chile), Carlos Mérida (Guatemala/Mexico), and Joaquín Torres-García (Uruguay) combined studies of Amerindian abstraction and African diasporic art with their exposure to European movements to conceive of a fundamentally different picture plane.

The second generation of the modernist avant-garde flourished from the 1950s to the 1970s. They included diverse experiments with concrete art (see Concrete art in Latin America) and geometric abstraction and kinetic art, as well as returns to figuration. Despite their visible differences, these avant-garde artists also took on central issues of modernity. Concretism, as exemplified in the work of Waldemar Cordeiro (1925–1973) and Ivan Serpa (both Brazil), explored the promise of abstraction as a universal form and valorized reason. No strict oppositions govern these avant-gardes: in Brazil, Neo-Concrete artists Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Lygia Pape (1929–2004) followed a trajectory from monochrome geometric abstraction into sculptural installations of color, and culminated in bodily proposals that invited the participation of the viewer. By the 1960s and 1970s the avant-garde saw an explosion of experiments with the body as a primary artistic support, outside of its traditional disciplines of dance and theater. These interests were shared by kinetic artists such as Julio le Parc (Argentina) and Carlos Cruz-Diez (Venezuela), whose moving machines and optical illusions heightened the viewer’s awareness of the physical act of the perception of art. Surprisingly, the figurative avant-garde of these same decades, associated to differing degrees with Pop art and New Figuration (Nueva Figuración in Argentina and Neofiguracón in Paraguay), including Raúl Martínez (Cuba), Rubens Gerchman (Brazil), Marta Minujín (Argentina), and Beatriz González (Colombia), shared this interest in a participatory viewer. They place her, however, more within the context of the mass-produced image and debates over an emergent consumer culture. This generation thus expanded—or “freed,” as Mário Pedrosa famously said—the pictorial space, sculptural form, and the viewer of art.


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