Surrealisms in Latin America

Latin America, a different surrealist paradise

Of the movements that arose in Europe during the avant-garde period, surrealism took hold in particular in Latin America. The way in which it shook up the world and the established order attracted artists from this continent, who explored the world of the subconscious, dreams, psychic automatism and the element of chance in their works through the world of magic and fantasy. There are, however, major differences between the surrealism that emerged in 1920s’ France, and Latin American surrealism from the past and present.

Latin American artists start from a fantastic worldview to represent, in most cases, their own reality. This way of understanding surrealism has sometimes led them to dissociate themselves from the term “surrealism” itself (by definition understood exclusively as Bretón described it), but also to turn it into a timeless style without the formal, thematic and aesthetic limits we might find in artists from other styles or movements. It is precisely this variety of languages and way of understanding the style that leads us to speak of surrealisms within Latin American art, more than just surrealism in the singular.

Latin American artists were in contact with the surrealist movement of the avant-garde both in Europe and, in particular, in the United States and Latin America, due to migration to the American continent as a result of the Second World War. They therefore got to know what the Dadaists and surrealists were proposing first-hand, and saw in them a way to defend past cultures, whether American, African or Asian, a way of understanding reality far from Western philosophical and rational postulates, and, therefore, a means of expression of their own national identity. References to Latin America were included in the avant-garde discourse and a new way of understanding surrealism was developed.


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Surrealists on both sides of the Atlantic

However not all of the influence went from Europe to America. Latin American artists also influenced the final stage of French surrealism. The Cuban Wifredo Lam and the Chilean Roberto Matta met and worked with artists from the group in France, as well as sharing their destiny and fleeing after the Second World War broke out.

Roberto Matta (Chile, 1911 – Italy, 2002) and Yves Tanguy left for New York in 1929, where they were to meet André Masson, Max Ernst and André Bretón. The precepts of surrealist art continued to develop and evolve in the new capital of art.

After being involved in surrealism in the French capital, once in the United States Matta continued his self-exploration of surrealism, putting into practice techniques like psychic automatism, until developing his “morphological psychologies” or “inscape” (a reference to the representation of interior landscapes). These landscapes or morphologies achieved a high degree of abstraction, later incorporating elements and forms that were sometimes recognisable or imaginary to a varying extent.

Characteristics of Matta’s work also became the representation of anthropomorphic beings through which he structures narrations that are imaginary and dreamlike or have historical and current references. Therefore, allusions to elements and pre-Columbian cultures also appeared, which is a theme that would recur along with the exploration of the micro and macro cosmos of his inscapes.

Wifredo Lam (Cuba, 1902 – France, 1982) was the other great paradigm of surrealism in Latin America along with Matta. Above all this was due to the role he played in the final years of the movement in Paris and his contribution as a nexus between this movement and artists from the American continent, whether north, central or south.

After spending almost ten years in Spain, when he would even take part in the civil war, Lam moved to Paris in 1938, fleeing from Franco’s troops. By this point the Cuban had already made numerous works and his language had evolved, with him even presenting one of his most notable characteristics: masks. In his work, a dialogue is established between the visible and invisible, the real and imaginary, what is imposed and what people demand.

Two years later he went back into exile again, this time fleeing from the Second World War, and moved to Marseille. There he was to meet André Breton and other members of the surrealist movement, in which he would take part for a short time. He was particularly interested in collective practices and psychic automatism.

During his migration journey to America which he undertook along with members of the surrealist movement, Lam returned almost directly to Cuba where he began his work on the vindication and defence of pride in Cuban identity. He therefore moves away from the practices of automatism and (French) surrealism; his aesthetic, however, continues to be linked to it. This, along with the fantastic component of his work, means that his artistic career is linked to surrealism, even though it was not always conditioned by it – or, as we have been saying, by the concept of European surrealism within the avant-garde movement.

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Surrealists after the end of surrealism

The artists Rodolfo Opazo, Carlos Brache, Manuel Chong Neto and Jorge Ortiguerira seen in this room create individual and intimate works that explore different themes but, due to their nature, all fit within surrealism. This is a form of surrealism – or surrealisms, as we have said – that sets aside the guidelines laid out by the movement which arose in France, to be governed by its own ideal of surrealism. Using different languages, these artists represent the reality that surrounds them and their concerns in their works, all through the filter of representing the human interior, dreamlike atmospheres, the symbolic or the absurd.

Rodolfo Opazo (Chile, 1935) captures the result of his particular and intimate vision and attitude towards both art and life in his canvases. This vision has evolved throughout his artistic career, and his work along with it.

In the 1980s, criticism of contemporary society was the main subject of his work. In it, human figures with downcast, defeated faces and heads repeatedly appear, with disjointed faces. His characteristic white figures (a symbol of a man stripped of contingency) are replaced by vivid colours, in which the bodies are mere receptacles of violated men.

The artist’s personal experience, marked by a feeling of loneliness, is intimately related to his painting, from which emerges a style of painting that we could classify as complex, changing. Another constant feature of his work is the way it reflects on themes like death and Man (the miseries and wonders he faces). He also draws on elements from literature, poetry or music, which coexist in certain dimensions.

The work of Carlos Brache (Peru, 1944) stands out for his mastery of drawing, placing a great deal of importance on chromaticism. Brache deconstructs reality before reconstructing it in order to paint it. His motifs are therefore foreign to the real world, full of symbolism and fetishism, referring to themes with a racial, social, artistic and creative nature. His works take us back to the Inca Empire, but with a renewed language derived from European plastic art.

The characters created by Jorge Ortigueira (Argentina, 1941), which we can classify between grotesque and unconventional, are employed by the artist to express his sharp criticism of the society that surrounds him, with these being the result of his own diagnosis of human nature. This criticism is always done with humour and irony.

Manuel Chong Neto (Panama, 1927 – 2010) uses modern women to allude to history and human beings, forcing us to perform an exercise in historical memory to understand his references to this transfigured universe.

The representation of voluminous female figures is predominant in his work, represented in settings imbued with mysterious sensuality. The expressiveness and symbology of his figures are also seen in the representation of large almond-shaped eyes, figures with shortened necks, and distorted forms.

In addition, the expressive use of marks and the careful balance of contrasts, colours and the use of light and shadow are outstanding features of his language. His compositions are based on geometric shapes without going as far as abstraction. This compositional resource allows him to emphasise and capture the essence of the details, from where he manages to juxtapose different planes in the same piece.

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Magical realism

Magical realism is a literary and artistic movement that differs from surrealism in the way in which it represents fantasy as yet another reality, presenting it as such to the viewer, and which in turn is related to it by the fantastic component in the works.

The difference between surrealism in Latin America and that of Europe and the realistic and fantastic nature of the former make it resemble magical realism, with it even being possible to find works of both styles in the same artist. For this reason, it is almost impossible to separate it from the surrealisms seen in Latin America.

Within this aspect of magical realism we find artists like Elmar Rojas, Emilio Ortiz, Alicia Carletti, Rodolfo Stanley, Julio Silva and Armando Lara. Fantasy and imaginary characters are predominant in his work, narrating a story based on an invented reality that is presented to us as true.

Elmar Rojas (Guatemala, 1942) represents scenes inspired by stories, dreams, literature and poetry in his work, with recurring themes such as scarecrows. The paintings allude to rural, original, mestizo Guatemala, based on textures and colours that permeate the dreamlike and magical atmosphere.

Emilio Ortiz (Mexico, 1936 –1988) was interested in film, psychoanalyst literature, surrealism and Mexican folk art, which is reflected in his painting with fantastic connotations.

Ortiz’s work is characterised by the delicateness of the line in his drawing and by the expressive use of colour. He uses a figurative language to represent everyday objects and zoological beings in which the symbolism is the most noticeable characteristic.

Rodolfo Stanley (Costa Rica, 1950). This self-taught artist worked in advertising for a time and combined this with his artistic side. He was part of the Costa Rican figurative current that was predominant between the 1970s and 1980s.

He uses magical realism to represent a society undergoing continual change. The use of colour in his works is not accidental, and is conditioned and careful depending on its content.

In his works we can also find eroticism, sensuality, sarcasm, irreverence, humour, irony or denouncement, themes that he presents without neglecting the plastic components of his language.

Armando Lara (Honduras, 1959). Attracted by surrealism, Lara used it as the basis for work related to social issues. Taking an event or injustice in life as a starting point, Lara transforms it into fantastic images within a subjective atmosphere.

The artist employs colours and textures to create this desired atmosphere, as well as transmitting feelings related to his work. He uses cold colours to refer to inhuman reality and the reprehensible aspects that he sees in it. These resources, along with the allegoric facet of his representations, remove the narrative nature of his works to give way to an amalgamation of allusions and references, which, when summed together and interpreted, bring us closer to the significance of his work.

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