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In this essay Juan Ríos discusses De Manet a nuestros días, the exhibition of French painting organized by the Municipalidad de Lima in the early 1950s. His review summarizes the origins of modern French art, taking Manet’s work as its focal point. Seen as the inevitable result of the arrival of photography, the great gift of that body of work was to claim for posterity “what could still be salvaged” of Europe’s cultural legacy. However, subsequent developments led to a “non-figurative purism” that bordered on saturation. Ríos believes that, though the accomplishments of modern art should not be overlooked, “painting’s next task is (…) to create a new realism;” that is, a “transformed realism.” Though he appreciates the “victorious survival” of the French spirit in the exhibition, he regrets the “inexcusable” absences of some painters (Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne) and the unsatisfactory representation of others (Manet, Monet, and Picasso). In short, the exhibition is a disappointing combination of “hollow decorative audacities” and “incoherent contortions designed to amaze the bourgeoisie.” If contemporary French painting is symptomatic of a post-war culture in decline, “Latin Americans” should avoid embracing its “artificial, senile, and decadent” nature.
De Manet a nuestros días, the exhibition organized by the French critic Gaston Diehl (1912–99), which traveled to several Latin American countries, provided residents of Lima with their first opportunity to see a wide range of works of art that sought to reflect the origins and current status of modern French painting. This event forced local critics to express their opinions about the evolution of the avant-gardes, a process that was represented rather unevenly by the exhibition. The resulting discussion offers an interesting preamble to the enthusiastic debate about non-figurative art that dominated the conversation in art circles throughout the 1950s.
Some of the major arguments presented in that debate came from left wing intellectuals such as the writers Juan Ríos (1914–91) and Jorge Falcón (1908–2003) [“Pintura: realismo y decadencia” (doc. no. 1138271)]. While recognizing the formal accomplishments of contemporary art, these thinkers were nonetheless passionately opposed to “formalism” and non-figuration, both of which were seen as symptoms of a supposed bourgeois decadence (that was also widespread in Europe). This was something that, according to these two Peruvian writers, also applied to progressive intellectuals who had become disaffected with the PCF (Partido Comunista Francés), such as André Malraux (1901–76) and Jean Paul Sartre (1905–80). The suggested solution to this malaise, in their opinion, is a commitment to social causes (as expressed in Mexican muralism) and certain approaches proposed by Picasso (in Guernica, for example). The most meaningful response to those ideas came from the poet and artist César Moro (1903–56), who defended the idea of cosmopolitanism, though he critiqued the exhibition for what he considered its scant rigor and lack of commitment to renewal and rupture in modern visual art. [See: “Reflexiones extemporáneas sobre una exposición de pintura” (doc. no. 1138657)].