Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art

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Synopsis

In her essay, Marta Traba launches an argument in five parts against nationalism in recent Latin American painting. In the first part, she identifies nationalism as the main problem with regard to contemporary painting. Although it poses as a path to “spiritual independence,” nationalism is really, she argues, a form of self-imposed isolationism and an impediment to both material and cultural progress. In the second part, Traba denounces the way nationalism co-opts art for its own sake, forcing art to compromise itself by becoming a pedagogical and demagogical tool. According to her, this has resulted in two forms of equally feeble art: painting as narrative, a derivative, literary form of painting superficially based on European Modernism. In part three, Traba identifies a promising alternative route taken by some Latin American artists: they have become fluent in European Modernism, which has allowed them to insert themselves into the international field with forms of painting whose aesthetics are shaped by the American experience. In part four, Traba denounces the way false histories and cultures have been concocted by nationalist painting’s impulse to re-picture the past, in particular criticizing the superficial way pre-Colombian civilizations have been co-opted toward this purpose. In the fifth and last section, Traba calls for an end to a tradition of soft, affirmative criticism in Latin America and argues that a new brand of tough-minded criticism is needed in order to foster the growth of art and culture.

Annotations

Marta Traba (1930-83) was an Argentine-born critic and art historian active in Bogotá and San Juan, Puerto Rico. During the 1950s she advocated international modernism in Latin America, but, by the 1960s became a critic of the homogeneity of this brand of visual art when the cultural influence of the United States rose in the region. In this text from 1958, Traba demonstrates her weariness of the dominance of nationalist subjects and realism in Latin America. A notable subtext of her indictment against nationalism in contemporary painting is the problem Traba has with the government’s role in promoting official artists in Latin America. For example, Diego Rivera (1886-1957) of Mexico and Candido Portinari (1902-62)  of Brazil, both realist artists whose work was aggressively promoted by their governments during the 1940s, are both criticized by name in this text. As an alternative to the kind of Latin American nationalist painting prompted by muralism, Traba urges artists and critics to look to Latin Americans who transformed Modernist idioms into American aesthetic expressions, such as Wifredo Lam (1902-82) and Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949). Traba, likewise, wants to raise the stakes for Latin American painting by encouraging artists and critics to see themselves within a larger international context. Artists such as Lam and Torres García interest Traba not only because they brought to the fore how Latin Americans transformed European Modernist forms into American Modernist idioms, but also because they participated in the development of Modernism at its very core. Lastly, this text shows how Traba embraces Modernist concepts such as “progress” and “universalism,” and the examination of the creative process in and of itself.

Researcher
María C. Gaztambide; Harper Montgomery, collaborator
Team
International Center for the Arts of the Americas, MFAH, Houston, USA
Credit
Courtesy of Fernando Zalamea Traba, Bogotá, Colombia