Latin American Art: Severing Ties to Europe

Article excerpt

`LATIN American Artists of the Twentieth Century" at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is a show that needed to happen. The exhibition, which contains 300 works from 1914 to the present by 90 artists, is like walking through a history of modern art. Major movements like Cubism, Expressionism, and Social Realism, appear. What's new is how these paintings, sculptures, and installations give unfamiliar twists to familiar styles.

Latin American artists absorbed avant-garde trends originating in Europe, but they added elements from their own cultures to create a hybrid modernism. This art blends innovative 20th-century techniques with pre-Columbian traditions and New World political concerns.

A key painting that illustrates how Latin American artists both used and transformed lessons from foreign culture is Tarsila do Amaral's "Anthropophagy." The title, which means cannibalism, refers to the need to devour Old World conventions and refashion them into a distinctively Brazilian art. Her solid nudes and simplified tropical landscape are reminiscent of the tubular shapes of Leger, with whom Amaral studied in Paris. Yet the painting's setting and distorted figures announce an aesthetic rooted in another continent, which - while hardly Edenic - is lush, raw, and vigorous.

Diego Rivera, too, began as a clone of the Parisian avant-garde, with early work re-imagining Cubism. (He once said, "I do not believe in God, yet I believe in Picasso.") "Zapatista Landscape" might be a generic Cubist still life, complete with trompe l'oeil wood-grain effects, except that his subject is the Mexican revolution and includes elements such as a rifle and serape.

Rivera's mature art, like his Social Realist frescos, broke with Europe to glorify Mexican peasants and their cultural heritage. In his quest for nationalistic purity, he even experimented with indigenous cactus juice as a painting medium and consciously based his style on ancient pre-Hispanic art. In his stylized paintings of peasants, figures have the cylindrical monumentality of Mayan carved gods.

Besides Rivera, the other Mexican muralists of the 1930s, known collectively as Los Tres Grandes - the three great ones - are also here:David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. Their art was revolutionary in more than just aesthetics. They used murals to stir the populace to support land reform. The epic scale of Orozco's fresco, "Divebomber and Tank," and the aggressive style of Siqueiros's "Echo of a Scream" greatly influenced Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

A common thread in this chronological exhibition, crossing boundaries of time, geography, and style, is political commentary. From the glorification of peasant laborers in Candido Portinari's "Coffee" (1935) to Rafael Ortiz's powerful denunciation of the holocaust in "Children of Treblinka" (1962) and Frida Baranek's exuberant assemblage of discarded United States Defense Department weapons, "Unclassified" (1992), Latin American artists criticized tyranny in many forms. …