The Legacies of the European Avant-garde across Latin America

At the turn of the century, the European avant-garde movements influenced prominent Latin America artists who were traveling back and forth between these two regions. Rather than copying avant-garde styles, however, artists such as Diego Rivera, Anita Malfatti and Joaquin Torres-Garcia, fused the styles of European movements into Latin American art culture and developed unique movements of their own regions such as Constructive Universalism, the Mexican Muralist movement and the varieties in Modernism in each region. Their artworks, unlike their European artwork at that time, were political in nature and meant to use as educational tools for their citizens.

Diego Rivera was a key figure who helped change art in the 1900s. Rivera received a scholarship from the Mexican government to study abroad in Europe. He lived in Paris where he met Picasso and David Siqueiros. Rivera was affected by Picasso and Georges Braque with their style of African primitivism and Cubism. He learned more about composition, how shapes and forms relate to each other, as well as how light and textured create different forms (Barnitz, 2002). For example, Picasso used Cubism in his subject matter, which is formed by combining different angles of sight (Cartwright, Sturken, 2001, p. 166). Siqueiros and Rivera were passionate about creating murals to be displayed for the benefit of the Mexicans and encouragement a Mexican revolution for the people. Rivera traveled to Italy to get a better understanding of the Renaissance and was interested in frescos. When Rivera returned to Mexico he played a huge part in the creation of the Mexican Mural movement which according to Edward Sullivan, was meant to create insight to ‘patriotic values’ in Mexico and in indigenous races (Sullivan, 1996, p. 22). He also traveled to see ancient Mexican sites to study mural paintings. Rivera used his art to display his political opinions through art.

Like in Mexico, Brazil was experiencing political change which was reflected in such movements as Modernism. Cannibalism was a term used to denote when aspects of European movements were altered into a different concept. The term “antropofagia” which translates as “cannibalism,” was created by Oswald de Andrade and it meant that “Brazilian culture should be able to devour all external influences, digesting, transforming and creating its own meaning and vision” (Sullivan, 1996, p. 202).  De Andrade was one of the first artists to use this concept in relation to Modernism but, it was Anita Malfatti that began the Brazilian Modernist movement. Malfatti was a student in Germany at the school of Bishcoff Cukn and was lead by Lovis Corinth. Her work was easily recognizable because of her conventions of form, colour and emphasis to subjectivity. Malfatti experimented with expressionistic elements along with Cubism and Futurism. Conservatives were shocked and would not acknowledge Cubism and Futurism as movements at that time. Her work was considered bold and rash. Malfatti lessened the European avant-gardes visual elements and created work emphasizing female forms (Sullivan,1996, p. 203). Her work was revolutionary for many young artists for it represented the times. It helped emerging artists step away from the traditional ways of the art academy. In 1922, Brazil marked its independence from Portugal. According to Edward Sullivan in his book Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century, even though the European avant-garde was the basis for Brazilian Modernism which affected music, literature and art, artists, Brazilian artists created an original “Brazilian form of expression that would embody the country’s cultural diversity” (Sullivan, 1996, p.205).  In turn, “The avant-garde in Sao Paulo celebrated with Modern art week, an event that Brazilian artists used to declare their artistic independence from Europe” (Cothren, Stokstad, 2005, p. 1070). Sullivan also points out that, “The influence of French Cubism, Italian Futurism and German Expressionism, the modernist group was committed to incorporating national elements” that, “express(ed) an awareness of Brazilian Identity” (Sullivan, 1996, p. 205).

Joaquin Torres-Garcia was born in Uruguay and lived in Europe most of his life. Torres-Garcia created the most important movement in Uruguay called Constructive Universalism. He created a school in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, and it was called ‘School of the South’ (Cothren, Stokstad, 2005, p. 1073). When he was young he moved to Barcelona where he experienced the avant-garde movement. He experienced different movements such as Art Nouveau, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism and Symbolist styles. In 1916, he was exposed to Cubism and Futurism. He was interested in the geometric forms, which is apparent in his work when he had an exhibition that featured Vibrationist work which consisted of a geometric modern style (Mujica,1992, p. 31). In 1926, Torres-Garcia moved to Paris where he was experimenting with geometric forms and dynamism that would become the basis for the movement he created, Universal Constructivism. He explored the pre-Columbian art that inspired Picasso, Braque, and Rivera. His art was revolutionized by pre-Columbian art. But Torres-Garcia did not see his new style as an affirmation of national cultural identity like Rivera did (Mujica,1992, 32). In 1934, he returned to Uruguay to establish the school he created. He returned home after the war and his art was influenced by the indigenous art of the Inca. Torres-Garcia’s movement, Constructive Universalism was a mix of abstraction modernism and Inca imagery which he learned about through his travels (Cothren, Stokstad, 2005, p. 1073).

In conclusion, the European avant-garde influenced Latin American art. Diego Rivera was influenced by Cubism, for example. However, while European movements affected Latin America, individual artists took key elements and transformed it into their own original idea. Rivera’s helps us understand this. European art movements are reflected in his work. Rivera was interested in Cubism and fresco. In his work, he combined both modern and ancient artistic techniques and this new found knowledge of the European avant-garde which helped to bring about the Mexican Muralist movement. Diego Rivera, Torres-Garcia and Malfatti’s work demonstrate the process by which the European avant-garde influenced Latin America. Mendonca Teles and Muller-Bergh stress how quickly information was obtained in Latin America, “It was fascinating to witness how attentive Latin Americans were to European cultural developments and how quickly European ideas and writings were disseminated and translated” (Mendonca Teles and Muller-Bergh, 2004, p. 664).

Evelyn Sorochan-Ruland

Works Cited

Barnitz, Jacqueline. “The Avant-Garde of the 1920s: Cosmopolitan or National Identity?.” (2002): 42. (accessed November 22, 2011).

Mendonca Teles, Guilberto, and Klaus Muller-Bergh. “The European Avant-Garde in Latin America.” The European Legacy 9, no. 5 (2004): 663-666.

Mujica, Barbara. “A Turning Point in Modernism.” Americas 44, no. 2 (1992): 23-37. (accessed November 22, 2011).

Spiegeman, Willard. “Opening Our Eyes to Latin American Art.” The Wall Street Journal (2004): 10. (accessed August 22, 2011).

Stokstad, Marilyn, and Michael Cothren. “Modern Art in Europe and the Americas 1900-1950.” In Art history: portable edition. Fourth ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, 2005. 1070-1074.

Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. “Realism and Perspective.” In Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 166,168.

Sullivan, Edward J.. “Brazil Uruguay Mexico.” In Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century. London: Phaidon Press, 1996. 202-205 266-268 18-24.

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This entry was posted in Cubism, Diego Rivera, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Malfatti, Mexico, Oswaldo Andrade. Bookmark the permalink.

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