A Turning Point in Modernism. (Latin American Artists Diego Rivera, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta

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THE FRESH VISION OF OUR MASTER PAINTERS SHAPED THE DIRECTION OF LATIN AMERICAN ART

From colonial time Latin American art has combined European and indigenous elements, but for centuries the former predominated. The cathedrals and churches of Peru and Mexico incorporated Indian decorative motifs, but the concepts, styles and techniques were Spanish. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European tastes continued to dictate the direction of Latin American art. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the balance between European and autochtonous styles changed radically.

Today, Latin American art is perhaps the most vital and dynamic in the world, thanks largely to the pioneering vision of four major Latin American painters whose works will be on display this June at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D. C. This exhibition, entitled Cross-currents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers, is being presented as part of the 1992 Quincentennial initiative of the Smithsonian Institution. On view will be 92 works by Diego Rivera (Mexico, 1886-1957), Joaquin Torres-Garcia (Uruguay, 1874-1949), Wilfredo Lam (Cuba, 1902-1982), and Roberto Matta(Chile, 1911- ). All four of the artists honored in the Hirshhorn exhibit studied in Europe, particularly in Paris, and were steeped in avant-garde ideas, from Cubism to automatist Surrealism. Yet, they broke away from their European models and sought inspiration in the diverse cultures of New World. The result was an innovative and unique art that, while built on European foundations, reflected a completely new vision.

In some ways, this new approach was stimulated by the avant-garde movement itself. European artists who travelled to Africa were amazed by the vibrancy, beauty, plasticity and spontaneity of the art. Painters such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were profoundly influenced by African sculpture. Guillaume Apollinaire explored the poetic dimensions of African artistic expression and Leo Frobenius collected and wrote extensively on African crafts. Latin American writers and visual artists began to explore the African roots of their own cultures as well. Writers such as Puerto Rican Luis Pales Matos and Cubans Nicolas Guillen and Alejo Carpentier created a literature that drew on the rhythms and images of the Caribbean's African past. The painter Wifredo Lam turned for inspiration to santeria, a polytheistic Afro-Cuban religion deriving principally from African cult worship. Blending images associated with santeria and elements of surrealism, Lam invented an iconography that was both uniquely his and recognizably Afro-Caribbean.

At the same time interest in Indian cultures was growing. Georges Raynaud, a famous ethnologist at the Sorbonne, translated Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Indians, and Annals of the Xahil, the history of the Cakchiqueles Indians. The Guatamalan writer Miguel Asturias, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, helped translate the French version of these works into Spanish. Inspired by this fascination with indigenous culture and by political developments in their homeland, Mexican painters such as Diego Rivera, Gerardo Murillo and Alfaro Siqueiros envisioned a new, distinctly Mexican art that would build on their country's rich native traditions.

By bringing together composition by Rivera, Torres-Garcia, Lam and Matta, Hirshhorn curator Valerie J. Fletcher provides a magnificent overview not only of some of the best Latin American art of the first half of the twentieth century, but of important developments in Western painting. Although all of these artists have had solo shows and retrospectives in the United States, this is the first time their works have been exhibited in unison. The exhibit catalogue is a beautifully illustrated book that features fascinating, informative essays by Valerie Fetcher and five guest authors: Olivier Debroise, author of Diego Rivera in Montparnasse, on Diego Rivera; Adolfo Maslach, who is completing a study on the artist, on Torres-Garcia; Lowery Sims, Associate Curator of the Department of Twentieth-Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on Wifredo Lam; and Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz on Matta. …