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Volume 60 / Humanities


19th and 20th Centuries

FÉLIX ÁNGEL, Curator, Cultural Center, Inter-American Development Bank

IN GENERAL, THE REGION IS MAKING A SPECIAL EFFORT to upgrade art institutions, but some countries in particular are transforming their museums in the areas of management, conservation, exhibitions, and educational outreach. This development is relatively new for Latin America and the Caribbean. Art institutions have been accustomed to receiving subsidies from the state, with little involvement from civil society. When the private sector has become proactive—with the best of intentions, one assumes—the potential participation of the middle class has not been taken into account, thereby depriving it of the opportunity to enjoy the practice and appreciation of the arts.

The new directions taken by the world economy have forced us all to reevaluate the concept of sustainability in many ways. Art institutions and museums in general have not escaped the debate; quite the opposite: their effectiveness has been questioned and their societal role scrutinized, since money does not seem to abound these days.

Most countries have made progress in their efforts to determine the kind of resources needed to preserve cultural patrimony. There is, however, still much strategizing and planning to be done to make museums and similar institutions self-sustainable, and at the same time, effective vehicles of social change. Collectors, other than the state, do not trust the fact that they must disclose their holdings; there is a generalized feeling that in doing so the items themselves will be in jeopardy, risking confiscation or additional taxation, and not necessarily for the benefit of the majority. Some of them might be right. Others feel that because of the lack of reasonable legislation and incentives to keep their treasures inside the countries, either for private or public enjoyment, the best way to protect their investment is to dispose of the artworks in the least conspicuous way. That is why, in part, some of those treasures are eventually smuggled out of the country and offered for sale on the international market, with the earnings going into an offshore account.

Due to the economic boom at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Argentina boasts many artistic treasures. Catálogo de la Pintura Española en Buenos Aires, by Ana María Fernández García (item #bi 00004814#), is a good example of taking the first steps to identify the country's resources. The work is a revelation; it documents a wealth of Spanish painting covering nearly six centuries. One wonders how many people are aware that the works are in Argentina. The author states that many more works were not possible to inventory.

Entries such as Juan Mauricio Rugendas: pintor y dibujante (item #bi2001005169#), registering the artist's drawings in the Guita and José Mindlin Collection of Sao Paulo, or Rafael Troya 1845–1920: el pintor de los Andes ecuatorianos (item #bi2001005153#), and La escultura en Venezuela durante el siglo XIX y la presencia italiana (item #bi2001005105#), are symptomatic of the need to be more rigorous in deciding how those art works that are part of the artistic evolution of the countries, molding their cultural identity and creating traditions, can be made more accessible, either by research or display.

The 20th century art collection of Argentine businessman Eduardo Constantini, previously annotated in HLAS 58 and again now in Claves del arte latinoamericano (item #bi 00004749#), went public in 2001 at MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires). The museum might have been considered an exemplary case of private entrepreneurship where individual vision and everything else is shared with the public at large. The difficulties faced by the beautiful new museum offer hard lessons for similar ventures. Financed by the millionaire himself, the museum fell victim to the turbulent economic times only a few months after its glorious inauguration.

The truth is that Argentina has always been a country in which art has had a prominent social and intellectual role. Memoria de una galería de arte: Archivo Witcomb 1896–1971 (item #bi2002004687#) documents the history of the Witcomb Gallery, the first commercial art gallery established in Buenos Aires (and probably one of the first in Latin America). The gallery is credited for introducing to Argentina some of the most well-known European artists of the day, and later for promoting some of the most progressive ones, such as with the controversial Pettoruti exhibition of 1924.

As well-known as Argentine 19th and 20th century art may be, La herencia olvidada: arte indígena de la Argentina (item #bi2002004877#) focuses on 12,000 years of esthetic production by Argentina's aboriginal cultures, a subject practically unknown outside archeological or anthropological circles. In a similar vein, Tableaux Kuna: les molas, un art d'Amerique (item #bi2002004514#) is at once a sensible, enjoyable, and revealing book about the traditional weavings of the Cuna Indians from Panama, and attempts to dissect the Mola as an object bearing multiple meanings within the context of Cuna culture.

It is now accepted that the US achieved indisputable prominence as a promoter of international visual languages during the second half of the 20th century. Vanguardia, internacionalismo y política (item #bi2002004511#) offers a fascinating profile about the state of the arts in Argentina during the 1960s, a period in which the country achieved unparalleled international prominence through the arts, especially in the US and France. The book reconstructs the conditions and strategies that made it possible for Argentina to achieve a reputation in the US as a country with progressive art, while most of the other countries in South America had to rely on individual figures.

Mexico, as always, continues to produce insightful art publications that confirm the belief of many about how much art matters. What distinguishes Mexico from the rest of Latin America is the devotion with which the intelligentsia, as well as the private sector, dedicate time and resources to increase the collective awareness of the country's artistic achievements, at every level. Good examples to illustrate this point are Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art (item #bi 00004727#); Misiones culturales: los años utópicos 1920–1938 (item #bi 00004810#), which focuses on the Vasconcelos era; and Los ecos de Mathiaz Goeritz (item #bi 00004782#), which analyzes both the historical and critical context of the contribution of the German-born artist to Mexican art.

Art will always reflect society, with its contradictions and assertions. Artists do not work in a vacuum, although characters like Reveron and Andrés de Santamaría may lead us to think the opposite. This biennial brings a new book, Entre andamios y muros: ayudantes de Diego Rivera en su obra mural (item #bi2002004696#), which helps us understand the thematic, esthetic, ideological, and technical contributions of the many artists who assisted Diego Rivera; these artists form the context from which Mexican muralism emerged, and gives due credit to those who were, literally, on the scaffolding making it possible for the Mexican giant to execute many of his magnificent murals.

The reader will also find revealing Venezuela's Galería Nacional Lewis Brian Adams: retratista del romanticismo paecista (item #bi 99000075#), which is carefully researched and worthy of interest, in line with some of the ideas previously expressed.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Latin America and the Caribbean witnessed the creation of many biennials, and then saw their disappearance after the corporations that supported them experienced economic trouble. Several biennials and art fairs have resurfaced and changed their scope to mostly local artwork. One can only wonder why more resources are not dedicated to cultural events that advance the arts and in turn help to mobilize other resources that benefit local economies.

That is why it is uplifting to see the catalogs of regional biennials such as the Bienal del Istmo Centroamericano (items #bi2002004864# and #bi2002004865#), the Segunda Bienal Iberoamericana de Lima (item #bi2002004839#), and the first Bienal Nacional de Lima (item #bi2002004699#). It is going to take a while for Latin America to close the digital divide. While that happens, biennial events and the publications they generate are of fundamental importance to scholars interested in the development of the visual arts.

Cultural tradition, identity, and customs seem to be in jeopardy in light of new globalization. The discussion is pertinent since some scholars question the authenticity of some modernist movements in Latin America. For example, Modernidad y postmodernidad (item #bi2002004855#) allows for the revision of a decades-old discussion about how much Venezuela, and Latin America too for that matter, should acknowledge the artistic traditions it developed in the 20th century.

Cuba's pre- and post-revolution art continue to fascinate, regardless of one's political orientation. Cuba siglo XX: modernidad y sincretismo (item #bi2002004518#) is a robust color-illustrated and annotated exhibition catalog with a complete critical and historical revision of 20th century Cuban art. Por América: la obra de Juan Francisco Elso (item #bi2002004525#), is an excellent publication about the work of an artist who tried to overcome the paradoxes of Latin American culture.

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