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This brief interview with Fernando de Szyszlo took place upon his return to Lima after having lived in Paris—which he calls “a fountain of life”—for a number of years. With enthusiasm, he describes the stimulating cultural milieu of the French capital. He speaks of German painter Hans Hartung, both in terms of that artist’s influence on his own work and of his decisive support in publicizing de Szyszlo’s first show in Paris, which was held at the Galerie Mai. Furthermore, de Szyszlo explains, Hartung put him in touch with the most important artists and intellectuals of the time, among them Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, Spanish artist Joan Miró, and French writer André Breton—who praised his painting for bringing together two extremes (“your painting is abstract, but it has a very Peruvian form of expression.”). De Szyszlo calls the home of the leading Surrealist “a temple” due to the energy given off by the works, both contemporary and primitive (including pre-Incan ceramics), in it. After speaking of his friendship with Tamayo, the Peruvian painter reiterates his admiration for Hartung whom, in his opinion, “universal criticism will come to consider one of the geniuses of contemporary painting.” Hartung’s work goes beyond “cold and mechanic abstraction” insofar as it implies “a language, a message that goes straight inside the human being.”


In early 1951, Peruvian painter Fernando de Szyszlo (b. 1925) returned to Lima after having spent almost two years in Paris. His time in the French capital proved decisive to a turn towards Abstract Expressionism in his work, largely due to the influence of German artist Hans Hartung (1904–89). In May 1951, de Szyszlo exhibited his most recent works at the Sociedad de Arquitectos in Lima, in a show held under the auspices of the Agrupación Espacio, a group that spearheaded innovation in art and architecture in the country. [For further reading on that group, see the following text in ICAA digital archive: “Expresión de principios de la Agrupación Espacio” (doc. no. 1126309). For texts written by the group, see “Polémica” (doc. no. 1137823), “Prescindir o no prescindir” (doc. no. 1138933), and “Polémica: ¿hay pintores en el Perú?” (doc. no. 1139402). See as well the following texts by Samuel Pérez Barreto: “El Perú y la cultura: Sentido y expresión de las formas” (doc. no. 1138491), “Polémica: ‘polémica Espacio’” (doc. no. 1137916), and “Pintura: la guerra de los pintores: plumas por pinceles” (doc. no. 1137839)]. 


De Szyszlo’s show was, generally speaking, favorably reviewed, though influential Peruvian critic Carlos Raygada (1898–1953) did have some reservations [see “De arte: exposición Szyszlo” (doc. no. 1150738)]. The overall belligerent tone of de Szyszlo’s rebuttal was overshadowed by his now-famous statement in La Prensa newspaper: “there are no painters in Peru” (doc. no. 1137793). His open contempt for contemporary art from his country gave rise to an irate reaction from Peruvian artists and intellectuals and earned him a leading role in the first debate in Peru on non-figurative art. [For additional information, see the following articles: (unsigned) “Pintores peruanos hay, lo que aún no hay es pintura peruana: dice Juan Ríos y agrega que la pintura abstracta es pobre e inhumana” (doc. no. 1137808); (unsigned) “Cristina Gálvez opina que sí hay pintores en el Perú: citó a cuatro: ‘Hay que ser muy intelectual para ser abstracto’ dijo y añadió luego ‘Szyszlo no es intelectual’” (doc. no. 1150897); Sérvulo Gutiérrez’s “Qué arte abstracto ni que nada, el arte es esencialmente uno... lo que debe hacer el pintor es ‘pintar’” (doc. no. 1150851); (unsigned) “Gran problema del arte peruano es la falta de críticos: ‘Xanno’: Alejandro Romualdo Valle agregó que los que escriben sobre arte son improvisados o huachafos” (doc. no. 1150928); Federico Costa y Laurent’s “La ‘polémica de los pintores’” (doc. no. 1150866); (unsigned) “‘Julia Codesido y Sabogal son buenos pintores’: Aquilles Ralli cree, además, que muchos sólo buscan la fama por medio de la publicidad” (doc. no. 1150882); Juan Ríos’s “El debate sobre pintura: carta del Sr. Juan Ríos R.” (doc. no. 1150912) and “Balance de una polémica: cuatro preguntas fundamentales” (doc. no. 1137882); and Ángel Guido’s “A los pintores peruanos” (doc. no. 1150943)].


Though intentionally provocative, the statement “there are no painters in Peru” made reference to the lack of local points of reference for any artist interested in participating in the most recent international trends. The most ornery issues in the debate were the terms that should be used to define local modern art, suggesting early differences among Peruvian progressive intellectuals. By defending “earthly abstraction” as the sole option for Peruvian art, critic Samuel Pérez Barreto (1921–2003) found himself up against fellow former members of the Agrupación Espacio, a group that vehemently rejected any partisan and totalizing view that identified “the national” with “the Andean.”

Ricardo Kusunoki
Museo de Arte de Lima, Lima, Peru
Courtesy of Family Genaro Carnero Q./Semanario Peruano 1949-1951.