Making the Americas Modern at the MFA
Edward J. Sullivan on Images of Nationhood in Latin America 1920–1950
Museum of Fine Arts Boston
February 26, 2017
New York University professor Edward J. Sullivan, a leading scholar of Latin American art, spoke to a packed auditorium on Sunday about how artists in the understudied regions of the Caribbean and Central America fused modernist visual vocabularies with distinct aspects of national identity in the first half of the 20th century to create their own version of vanguardista art. The lecture was a preview of his upcoming book.
Designed for a general audience, the lecture appropriately began with a bilingual introduction.
In the first decades of the 20th century many of the most important Latin American artists studied and lived abroad, predominantly in Paris, where they absorbed the influence of the leading European Modernist painters. Many of them then returned to their native countries where they created their own artistic language that blended Cubist and Abstract techniques with local visual references, styles and subject matter.
While most studies of Latin American art focus on hubs like Mexico City, Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Caracas, Sullivan chose to focus his lecture on the often-ignored regions of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and Central America.
In a reverse migration, Sullivan explained how Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo welcomed an influx of intellectual and artist refugees from the Spanish Civil War as part of a perverse campaign to “whiten” the population of the island country. These new arrivals helped revolutionize the local art scene.
Celeste Woss y Gil (1890–1985),the “Frida Kahlo” of the Dominican Republic.
Challenging centuries of depictions of the female nude, this stunning painting represented a nude woman of color through the female gaze of a female painter. Woss y Gil created this painting while studying in New York at the famed Arts Students League.
Jaime Colson, the “Picasso of the Dominican Republic,” incorporated the tubular figures associated with his friend, the French painter Fernand Léger, and melded them into a distinctly Dominican scene of local people dancing merengue, an essential part of Dominican culture. Music and dancing, Sullivan mentioned, is a recurring theme among regional works of this era.
Cuba had one of the richest regional cultural scenes, though, as in the other countries, it was still very much associated with the elite (something that would be upended by the Cuban Revolution). Wilfredo Lam is the most famous Cuban artist of the period, but was one of many.
Searching for “cubanidad” and a vernacular, visual language in order to break irrevocably with the past.
Carlos Mérida, a painter who spent significant amounts of time in Paris and in Mexico City always insisted on retaining his Guatemalan heritage.
Afterwards there was an elegant reception in the museum’s Bravo restaurant.
This correspondent regretfully reports back that the pão de queijo was cold, the pupusas mediocre and the crepes de dulce de leche uninspired.