Traba, Marta. “El problema de la ‘existencia’ del artista latinoamericano.” Plástica (Bogotá), no.4 (1957): 25.
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In this text, Marta Traba considers the problem of how Latin American artists can produce art “continental” in character at a moment when realism is not the contemporary mode of expression. She introduces the problem by observing how European artists enjoy the freedom of exploring aesthetic questions without the distractions of context. In contrast, Latin American artists, she observes, work in a “much less pure context,” and are expected to create art that displays signs of their homeland or “patria.” One of the worst results is that art in Latin American depicts local themes, such as folklore or picturesque subjects, in a realist vocabulary. Instead, Traba argues, Latin American artists should free themselves up to make work that addresses the same kinds of aesthetic problems as their European peers. In this way, a genuine modern Latin American work will develop as a “local vocabulary” that expresses itself in the process of formal investigation. Mexican and U.S. painting have both suffered, she points out, because of artists’ emphases on depicting local themes over form. Part of the problem is self-perception, so that Traba urges Latin Americans to remember how they have “participated in the general conversation,” and warns that adopting a forced “continental consciousness” impedes artists from the more fundamental (and relevant) examination of their own being.
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 1956, Traba brings to the fore her wariness of the dominance of nationalist subjects and realism throughout Latin America, such as Mexican muralism. As alternatives to the “tres grandes,” Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), she points to modernists such as Wifredo Lam (1902-82), Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), and Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949) as exemplars of how Latin American artists have created new vocabularies of Latin American-inflected form. These latter figures interest Traba not only because they exhibit how Latin Americans have transformed European modernist forms into nationally-relevant idioms, but also because Lam and Torres-García participated in the development of modernism at its center, Paris. Despite her interest in how local vocabularies have informed Latin American artists, Traba seems to crave European approval. She cites André Breton and Pablo Picasso’s interest in Lam’s work as evidence of the artist’s importance, and reminds us that Torres García was widely recognized in Paris as one of America’s greatest artists.