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Volume 62 / Humanities


19th and 20th Centuries

FÉLIX ÁNGEL, Curator and General Coordinator, Cultural Center, Inter-American Development Bank

THE PRESERVATION OF CULTURAL PATRIMONY in Latin America was, for a long time, an effort led by concerned individuals and organizations, rather than a well-established cultural policy. In the majority of the region's countries, it is a practice that barely spans three quarters of a century. Efforts were concentrated heavily on the precolumbian legacy, followed by colonial art and architecture. Careful preservation has not, however, characterized the most recent past, our modern life, in its physical and intellectual aspects.

Turn-of-the-century architecture has been obliterated in most Latin American cities, and replaced by questionable, unregulated, and out-of-control urban development that favors the interests of land speculators, many of whom lack vision. When it comes to the arts, few museums are equipped to promote and preserve their collections, although that is their fundamental mission. Many works from the early days of modernism have ended up being neglected, and many of the documents and testimonies corresponding to those years have been forgotten or lost.

A few of the many factors affecting Latin Americam cultural institutions today are limited government resources, deficient or unprofessional administrative infrastructures, faulty market strategies implemented at the urgency of self-sustainability, and inconsistent behavior from a public that is not yet educated to provide support through membership or volunteerism. The generosity of the private sector, when manifested, usually carries with it a requirement to satisfy agendas other than educational and technical, leaving little room for strictly academic and intellectual endeavors. Public visibility and technology are becoming priorities for institutions wishing to remain current, but not necessarily relevant. Research is becoming a luxury that few are willing to pay for in light of a renewal of paternalistic populism more concerned with entertainment than discipline. Mailing costs have soared leaving many institutions stranded in their efforts to disseminate their findings or document their discoveries. Fewer serious publications are being printed and received in libraries all over the region, and when they arrive, they must compete with an avalanche of trivial, commercially motivated material.

After reviewing the 2005 publications, it is not surprising to see they are fewer in number than in previous years. Among them, however, it is gratifying to discover several books dedicated to preserving and documenting the conservation of important artistic and historical pieces. Un patrimonio protegido (item #bi2004003788#) documents the restoration of a group of paintings owned by the Castagnino Municipal Museum in the City of Rosario, Argentina, including 25 works by Argentine artists from the 19th and 20th centuries. The original condition report, the technique used by each of the artists, and the restoration processes are all described in detail, setting a good example in the area of preservation. Ejercicio Plástico: El Mural de Siqueiros en la Argentina (item #bi2004003783#) details the rediscovery and subsequent conservation work done to recover the only mural executed by David Alfaro Siqueiros in Argentina, in 1933, at the invitation of Natalio Botana, the eccentric owner of the newspaper Crítica.

Within the same spirit, but in the area of intellectual preservation, it is worth noting a work on José Clemente Orozco that documents the entire graphic oeuvre of the most elusive of the "three great" Mexican muralists. Images in the work are accompanied by recorded data and printing history (item #bi2004003880#). The Covarrubias Circle: Nickolas Muray's Collection of Twentieth-Century Mexican Arts (item #bi2004003604#) is interesting mostly for its description of the implicit relationship between Mexican and US modernisms during the 1920s and 1930s, as a result of the interaction between artists living in New York and those in Mexico City. Julio Prieto: dormir solo para soñar (item #bi2004003778#) is an unusual monograph for Latin America, since it is dedicated to the work of a stage designer from Mexico, an artistic field still underappreciated and underdeveloped in some countries of the region, when not completely absent.

Related to the same concept of intellectual preservation is Al filo de los años veinte: exposiciones y crítica de la pintura en Venezuela (item #bi2004003767#), a revealing compilation of articles documenting the exercise of art criticism between 1910 and the early 1920s. The articles document the beginning of an art market, the preference for landscape painting, and the role of literature in a climate literally fueled by the beginning of the oil industry in Venezuela. Retablos de Ayacucho: testimonio de violencia discusses the impact of the teachings of the Maoist Shining Path, on traditional folk expressions, the retablo above all, in the region of Ayacucho, Peru (item #bi2004003762#). Lastly, Arte y política en los '60 (item #bi2004003794#) examines the circumstances around the so-called "boom" of Argentine art between the years 1958–73, years in which the world went through painful changes, and Argentina went through one of its most successful periods with its artists becoming internationally positioned.

In a moment in which Latin America appears to be reentering a period of political readjustment and ideological exasperation, all the books mentioned and several others included in this biannual review may serve as a reminder that it is important to persist in keeping alive in the collective memory the work of all those individuals and cross-cultural influences that have contributed thus far to making Latin American art and culture the most satisfying of all its realities.

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