Jorge Romero Brest and the Coordinates of Aesthetic Modernism in Latin America

Article excerpt

Both influential and controversial, the sixty-year art-critical practice of Jorge Romero Brest (1905-1988) was fundamental not only for the introduction of the idea of modern art in Latin America but also for the problematization of its crisis. Romero Brest is usually associated with the culminating point of his public career, when he directed the Centro de Artes Visuales (CAV) of the InstitutoTorcuato DiTeIIa (ITDT) in Buenos Aires during the 19605. This center for cultural and scientific experimentation was noteworthy in Latin America for its exceptional interdisciplinary approach integrating advanced research in fields such as the visual arts, music, theater, economics, and medicine. Romero Brest's directorship of the CAV during those years helped crystallize aesthetic thought that had been intensely shaped by the political and intellectual history of the period.

Although trained in physics and law, Romero Brest decided early on to dedicate himself to the study of art history, which he complemented in the 19305 with his first trips to Europe and extensive readings in philosophy. Argentina's political situation during that period triggered his own interest in politics. He soon approached the work of Marx, Engels, and Lenin but would not join the Socialist Party until 1945, and then only in response to the rise of Peronism.1 In 1937 he published El probleme del arte y del artista contemporaneos: Bases para su dilucidacion critica [The Problem of Contemporary Art and Artists: Bases for their Critical Analysis], in which he addressed the social agency of art.

Romero Brest's role as an educator and lecturer in different Latin American countries had an influential, formative role in the art criticism of those nations. Between 1939 and 1947 he taught at the Universidad de La Plata, until he was fired due to his opposition to Peron's government. In 1941, he created the class "Orientation and Artistic Research" at the Colegio Libre de Estudios Superiores de Buenos Aires. In the 19305, he also lectured at Montevideo's Universidad de la Republica.

Romero Brest did not produce art criticism in a systematic manner until 1939, when he came to see it as a way of shaping public criteria for historical and aesthetic valorization. His essays appeared regularly in the socialist newspaper La Vanguardia (1939-40), the antifascist periodical Argentina Libre (1940-46), and the well-known magazine Ver y Estimai (1948-5-55), which he published with the collaboration of students such as Marta Traba and Damián Carlos Bayon, and a network of international correspondents such as Mario Pedrosa, Fernando Garcia Esteban, Mathias Goeritz, LionelloVenturi, and Max Bill, all of whom were themselves extremely influential. This magazine, characterized by its support for modernization in the visual arts, had a central role in the formation of postwar art criticism and in the dissemination of the idea of modernism in Latin America.

In 1952 Romero Brest published La pintura europea contemporanea (1900-1950) in a popular and amply disseminated edition. This history of European modern art, written in Spanish by a Latin American, not only explained the poetics of each movement but also pointed out its successes and limitations according to a formalist paradigm that indicated a progressive evolution toward abstraction. Both the book and Ver y Estimar implicitly supported a project of renewal for Latin American art and its advancement in the evolutionary map of modernity that Alfred H. Barr, Jr., had defined in 1936. For Romero Brest such progress was represented by abstraction.

The years of Peronism were for this Argentine critic particularly regressive and marked by international isolation. Once Peron was deposed in 1955, however, Romero Brest became the director of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, curating exhibitions that advocated the future of art as residing in abstraction. In this regard, both his exhibition of Brazilian painting and of Victor Vasarely's work functioned as legitimating spaces for abstraction. …