Xul Solar, Grafia antica, 1939. Modernism in Hispanic America
Xul Solar, Grafia antica, 1939. Photo: Malba Collection

In Latin America, modernity arrived belatedly under the pressure of the new and with the desire to affirm a new aesthetic. In Europe, the modern exalts the city, the phenomenon of solitude, almost as a celebration of another time. Jorge Luis Borges in Anatomy of My Ultra, emphasizes that aesthetics is the framework of arguments built a posteriori to legitimize the judgments that our intuition makes about the manifestations of art.

At all latitudes, the modernity it puts its tentacles on a thought that rejects tradition; However, architect and theorist Roberto Segre recalls: “Even if the Spaniards erased the footprints of early American civilizations, by destroying temples, palaces, roads, they adapted the urban grid of the new time to the original layout of Tenochtitlán, capital of the Mayans. and Cuzco, the Inca capital. Over time, some cities that have been static for centuries begin to transform under the pressure of modernity.” Latin American artists repudiate traditional canons and, like Europeans, extol the city. This restlessness spreads sparks beyond the visual arts and reaches literature, poetry, architecture, music. The daily life of large cities in the 1920s is recorded by the modernists either in figurative language or abstract, influenced by the modernism of European artistic centers, through expressionism or, from 1923 onwards, by cubism and surrealism. Some artists receive financial support from their family, travel to Europe, let themselves be influenced by what they experience.

in your book Peripheral Modernity, Buenos Aires 1920s and 1930s, Beatriz Sarlo, the expressive Argentine intellectual, contrasts Buenos Aires authors, without dissociating life and work. In the opening text: Buenos Aires, Modern City, tries to unravel the multifaceted world of paintings by Xul Solar, an icon of Argentine art and very close to Borges. “I have always seen Xul's paintings as puzzles from Buenos Aires. More than his esoteric intention or aesthetic freedom, I was impressed by his semiotic obsession, his hierarchical and geometrical passion”. For her, Buenos Aires, in the 20s and 30s, was the urban anchorage of astral fantasies. Sarlo describes the Buenos Aires avant-garde as the children of wealthy people, almost in an economic debacle, and immigrants like the painter Emílio Pettoruti, considered one of the founders of Argentine modernism. in your autobiography A Painter Before the Mirror, the artist reveals that he always wanted to know the land of his ancestors, and so he goes to Italy, where he lives in Florence, Rome and Milan, he has contact with the futurists Carlo Carrà and Giacomo Balla. Inspired by Commedia dell'Arte Italiana, paints harlequins and dedicates part of his life to still lifes. Before returning to Buenos Aires, he exhibits in Berlin, at the Der Sturm gallery, and still lives in Paris for six months. When he returns to Argentina, Pettoruti influences artists and teaches the public to see territories still unexplored at that time. In 1971, the year of his death, he was honored with a special room at the 11th International Biennial of São Paulo.

For the Argentine critic Marta Traba, the process of modernity in Latin American countries must be seen as both open and closed areas; for the Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, as witness peoples, new peoples, transplanted peoples. Or simply, as Aracy Amaral theorizes, based on the recognition of the existence of two Latin Americas: that of the Mexican, Mayan and Andean ancestral areas and, on the other hand, the one lacking a solid remote culture, such as the countries of the Atlantis area, in particular Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and part of Chile.

Decades before modernism, art theory was something that enriched conversations about cultural issues, but at its height it is a necessity. In Mexico in the 1920s, artists tried to discover the national and individual being. Muralism and graphics adhere to the national project of revolutionary claims that are slowly becoming institutionalized. Jorge Schwartz, in the book Latin American Vanguards, recalls that, while Oswald de Andrade dreams of the Pindorama matriarchy, a Mexican group has as its utopia the foundation of Estridentópolis, a daydream born of an avant-garde artistic movement, stridentism, which appears in Jalapa, Veracruz, in 1921.

Not a dreamer, the Mexican Diego Rivera emphasizes the social and political issues with which he is committed. He marries Frida Kahlo around the time he intensifies the murals with themes that reflect the world around them. He travels to Paris and there he meets intellectuals like Breton and Picasso, who are interested in his work. Desmond Rochfort, in his book Mexican Mural Painting, understands that in the years in which Rivera paints his version of the history of Mexico, the enigma to be solved is that of the Mexican nation at the moment when the Revolution is in power. For the critic, the visions of the modern world created by the three great muralists: Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, between 1930 and 1940, are situated in the context of contrasting realities. “For Siqueiros, they constituted the basis of a profoundly partial reading of the modern world. In the case of Orozco, the contrasts create an evaluative interrogation of the conflict between the ideal and reality. In Rivera's work, the dualities of the modern world are treated with a combination of contradictory positions, whether in an uncritical and mythologized view of American modernity or through the rhetoric of its revolutionary socialism. At the beginning of the 20th century, when the Mural Painting Movement emerges, muralism places as a central point the elaboration of a new history that includes the people as the main actor, as an ethnicity and class. The movement has a pedagogical bias, since a large part of the population is illiterate.

Joaquin Torres-Garcia, New York Street Scene
Joaquin Torres-Garcia, New York Street Scene, c. 1920. Photo: Estate of Joaquín Torres-García / Catalog Raisonné no. 1920.07

Uruguay contributes to the movement with a truly international artist, Joaquin Torres-García, who plays an active role both in the modernist movement in Barcelona between 1892 and 1920, and in Paris from 1926 to 1932, in addition to his protagonism in Montevideo. Inevitably, artists on the move come into contact with other local groups that influence their work. Torres-García arrives in New York in 1920, where he stays for two years. The impact that the most modern and dynamic city of the time had on his work is visceral, as he reports in his book New York. Delighted with what he sees, he registers luminous signs, advertisements, red, yellow, gray houses, floating letters on the screens. It is the radical moment of his production that overflows and is notable for its unique dynamics.

Modernism feeds antagonistic forces between updating and internalizing, between rupture and continuity. Cuban Wifredo Lam, like Torres-García and Rivera, employ Afro rituals and myths to create dynamic modernism. Rita Eder, an art historian, notes that Lam relates to Breton and Frida Kahlo by reaffirming the power of pre-Columbian cosmologies on the one hand and Africa on the other. Modernist discoveries and experiments, especially in Latin America, are ways for artists to reaffirm a new way of seeing, which the rest of society cannot understand.

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