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Long Distance Affair: Latin American Artists in the “City of Light”

Interview with author Michele Greet

By David Ebony

At the turn of the twentieth century, Paris was electric in many ways. Electric street lights replaced gas lamps, and the hyper-energized “City of Light” was the indisputable center of the international art world. Throughout the first decades of the new century, artists of all stripes flocked to the city from afar to immerse themselves in the pulsating, intensely stimulating creative milieu of the avant-garde. Among the goals of ambitious foreign artists were knowledge, inspiration, helpful social contacts, and, perhaps above all, recognition. To be acknowledged in France as a viable, serious, and collectable artist—via Parisian exhibitions and positive reviews—meant certain acclaim at home, and the likelihood of a long and prosperous career.

For Latin American artists, Paris was an especially important hub, a neutral gathering place, far from the political tumult that marked the post-colonial era in Central and South America. In Paris, one could comingle with likeminded compatriots, freethinkers, and intellectual adventurers. A successful career launch in Paris could almost guarantee a Latin American artist lifelong respect, and perhaps even a reliable livelihood at home, that is if the artist opted to return home. Many of the most successful artists stayed.

The immigration of Latin American artists to Paris in the years between World War I and World War II was particularly dramatic and intense, and is explored in depth in Michele Greet’s new book Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Paris Between the Wars. A professor of art history at Virginia’s George Mason University, Greet covers a phenomenon infrequently examined in studies of twentieth-century Latin American art. Her story unfolds through an extensively illustrated and vividly written narrative following the Paris adventures of some of Latin America’s most celebrated artists, such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Roberto Matta, Xul Solar, Antonio Berni, and Wifredo Lam.

Antonio Berni (1905–1981). The Eiffel Tower in the Pampa, 1930. Tempura and collage on paper, 19 1/4 x 21 1/4 in. Private collection, Buenos Aires.

Also featured in the book are artists currently in the spotlight in New York, including the Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral, whose long-overdue retrospective, on view at the Museum of Modern Art through June 3, has drawn enthusiastic crowds, as well as a bit of controversy. And a fine survey of works by Uruguayan modernist pioneer Joaquín Torres García, another major protagonist of Greet’s book, recently opened at Acquavella Galleries [through June 29], following his well-received MoMA survey last year. Transatlantic Encounters is infinitely useful for U.S. readers as a source of information on many under-known Latin American artists.

Joaquín Torres García, Constructive Painting, 1931. Oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 21 2/3 in. Fundación Cisneros, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, Caracas.

As with two other important recent books in the field of Latin American modern art, Making the Americas Modern: Hemispheric Art, 1910-1960 by Edward J. Sullivan [Laurence King, London, 2018], and Abstraction in Reverse by Alexander Alberro [University of Chicago, Chicago and London, 2017], Greet thoughtfully addresses one of the most crucial, hot-button issues in the field today: Latin American identity. What is “Latin Americanness”? In a recent telephone interview, I discussed with Greet this key question, as well as a number of others related to Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Paris Between the Wars.

David Ebony I don’t remember reading anything quite like Transatlantic Encounters. It’s such a complex, multifaceted subject. Was there a precedent? Has there ever been a major treatment of the theme, or was it something you realized was necessary to explore?

Michele Greet I realized that there was a gap in this area that needed to be filled. Part of the impetus for the project is personal. I had been living abroad, in Belgium, and in Ecuador, so I had both languages needed for the project. And I spent quite a bit of time in Paris. I knew from previous research that so many biographies of Latin American artists say that so-and-so spent time in Paris, and held exhibitions there; and so it was something that had been percolating in my mind for quite a long time. But there isn’t a comprehensive study of the impact of Latin American artists in Paris, or the contributions these artists made to the Paris art scene, particularly in the interwar period. There are, however, several related studies of the post-war period.

When I started, I thought that I’d find maybe fifty artists to write about, but it just ballooned into a huge project that became so much bigger than I’d imagined. Some names I knew, but many I did not, and I realized that this was not a minor incursion of Latin American artists into France, but a major movement.

Ebony Did you spend a long time combing through libraries, and museum- and gallery archives in Paris? I was amazed that you found so many reviews of exhibitions from the period that you translated and included in the book.

Greet It was a ten-year project. I started with a research grant in 2008 from the Phillips Collection. Most of the early research began in Washington, D.C. But both the Library of Congress and the National Gallery have incredible treasure troves of European journals. So I started by keeping a list of these journals from the period, and their contents. I spent days and days combing through them cover to cover, and finding reviews of many Latin American artists. Later, I spent a summer doing research in Paris, working in the Bibliothèque nationale, as well as in the Pompidou Center archives.

Ebony Early in the book, you devote a section to French modernist André Lhote—his work, and the school he founded in Paris, the Académie Lhote. I always thought he was such an interesting figure of the period, and an underrated artist. But I was not aware of the great influence he had on so many Latin American artists, as you discuss at length in the book.

Greet Lhote is certainly a fascinating figure. This past December, I attended a conference on André Lhote and his international students, at the Technical University in Istanbul, sponsored by the University of Innsbruck and the Austrian Science Fund. They’ll be publishing a volume on Lhote and his global students. I’m currently working on the Latin American component of that publication.

As an artist, Lhote distinguished himself through his involvement with Cubism. But rather than a major, innovative artist, he became a much stronger teacher. His teaching was theory based, a unique approach in the studio that allowed classicism to be integrated into modernism. This idea appealed to a lot of international students in Paris, since he encouraged access to modernist concepts but did not completely reject tradition. It was a method that embraced tradition within the avant-garde, and showed continuity with the past. It was different from the other art schools in a number of ways, including the fact that you could pay a daily, weekly, or monthly fee to attend. Lhote’s academy became a magnet for students from all over the world, not just Latin America. After World War II, in the 1950s, he opened a school in Brazil.

Ebony You highlight in the book two organizations or institutions founded in Paris in the early 1920s—the Académie Internationale des Beaux-Arts, and the Maison de l’Amérique Latine—which were engaged with promoting Latin American art and culture in Europe. They organized exhibitions featuring the whole range of Latin American art, from Pre-Columbian to contemporary works. They also aimed in some way to establish or define Latin American identity. The institutions remind me somewhat of an organization like the Americas Society and its activities in the U.S. today.

Greet I think there is a similarity. From my research it became clear that there was a large influx of Latin Americans in Paris in the 1920s due to a variety of circumstances. As I describe in the book, it was not so expensive to live in Paris in the 1920s; and France’s immigration policy was relatively open. It was not just artists who came; there was a wide range of culturally engaged individuals—diplomats, writers, musicians, students, and intellectuals. That situation spawned the creation of these Latin American institutions in Paris, which really only lasted less than a decade. They faded out by the early 1930s, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. The Maison de l’Amérique Latine did, however, reemerge after World II, and still exists today, but in a different form, and not directly related to the original organization.

Ebony I was surprised to read that for a time, Paris was seriously being regarded as the capital of Latin American art.

Greet That was the opinion of just one of the Maison de l’Amérique Latine founders; the crux of his argument was that we can’t name any one of the major cities as Latin America’s capital because of obvious rivalries. But Paris was a capital in the sense of a place of convergence, and of a major Latin Americana diaspora, that would serve as a cultural gathering place and a cultural leader. The thought was that the Latin American artists would eventually bring back to their homelands the innovative ideas they acquired in Paris. It was the symbolic capital.

Ebony In this context, you bring up the very serious question, or problem, that I often come across in reading and writing about Latin American art, and that is the danger of segregation of Latin American artists, and the classification of Latin American art as “other,” as you put the word in quotes. You talk about how some of these early shows were panned because the Parisians wanted and expected exoticism and primitivism from Latin American artists who were earnestly trying to absorb and respond to the most progressive experiments of European modernism.

Greet That is one of the essential research questions I explore in the book. What kind of strategies did Latin Americans use to survive, or thrive in the European art world? They saw themselves as already having a strong European heritage, and wanted to learn from, and be inspired by European artists. But when they showed their works, they were told that they were being derivative, and that they ought to look to the heritage of their native lands instead of Europe for inspiration. So they were constantly confronting the Parisians’ expectations of exoticism.

The artists dealt with this problem in many different ways. Some of them took this idea to an extreme level; often they spoofed or parodied these Europeans expectations. Others had a totally opposite strategy, deliberately avoiding any reference to their homeland; so you never see a palm tree or Native American in these works. Each artist adopted a different strategy, or sometimes multiple strategies. They were expected to be this voice of the “other.” It’s one of the big questions I think about when looking at these works—how did the artists express inclusiveness, otherness, or simply frustration?

Ebony Another issue of the moment that you address, and in fact devote an entire chapter to is the position of Latin American women artists in this period. You discuss Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral, who played off Parisian expectations of exoticism in a fantastic way; and the Argentine sculptor Carmen Mazilier, whose work gained notice only after she abandoned classical subjects in favor of images of a gaucho. You call the chapter “Exhilarating Exile.”

Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973), Shantytown Hill, 1924. Oil on canvas, 25 3/8 x 30 in. Hecilda and Sergio Fadel collection, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Rômulo Fialdini.

Greet The title is in quotes because it’s a Linda Nochlin statement from her 1996 essay, “Art and the Conditions of Exile,” in which she proposes, as I mention in the book, the notion of “exhilarating exile,” a heightened awareness of cultural difference that inspires creativity, as a framework for understanding the work of women artists living and working abroad. It’s the idea of inspiration and exhilaration as these women artists enter a new country with different opportunities and new ways of seeing the world.

I felt that the four artists I highlight in the chapter—Tarsila do Amaral, Anita Malfatti, Lola Velázquez Cueto, and Amelia Peláez—had made major impacts in Paris, and were definitely in the forefront of the Parisian avant-garde in what they were proposing in their art works. They overcame barriers and restrictions for women in their home countries that were very different from what the male artists faced.

Anita Malfatti, Interior (Monaco), ca. 1925. Oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 23 2/3 in. BM&F Collection, São Paulo

Ebony Tarsila is certainly getting a lot of attention lately, especially with her survey, which was at the Art Institute of Chicago this past fall and is now at the Museum of Modern Art [through June 3]. What is your opinion regarding the controversy surrounding her painting The Negress (1923), which appears in the show, and is reproduced in your book? There are those who question whether the image is racist, and ask why the curators did not address the issue in some way. Some observers wonder what Tarsila’s attitude was toward race, and race relations in her homeland.

Greet It’s such a complicated and loaded topic. The thing I try to do in approaching this is to remember that the work was created in a period long before the Civil Rights era, and pc language. On one hand the image could be viewed as racist, but on the other, it pushes boundaries in a very interesting and progressive way. It’s an incredibly conflicted image for me. Tarsila was certainly from an upper class background, and would not really have direct access to the inner workings of the Afro-Brazilian mind. She was pressured by her Parisian audiences to somehow address the primitivism of Brazil, as many Europeans imagined it to be.

She responded with this amazing image that refers to Léger and to Brancusi; but there is also a lot of ambiguity in the painting, in terms of skin tone, and in ways of reading the image, with its allusion to the early modernists’ fascination with African art; and then she tries to reframe the image in the new context of Brazilian identity. It caused no controversy when it was first shown; but an art work signifies differently over time. Certainly the reception and perception of The Negress in Paris in 1923 is vastly different from its re-contextualization in New York in 2018.

Ebony Your book introduced me to so many new artists whose works I probably should have known, like Rómulo Rozo, Carlos Alberto Castellanos, Angel Zárraga, Vicente do Rego Monteiro, and Lola Velázquez Cueto. What were some of the surprises for you—artists you discovered and fell in love with while working on this project?

Vicente Rego Monteiro (1899–1970), Tour Eiffel, in Quelques visages de Paris (Paris: Imprimerie Juan Dura, 1925). Estate of Vicente do Rego Monteiro.

Greet Interesting that you mention Rozo and Castellanos, since those were two artists I had never heard of before I started this project. Cueto, and some of the women Surrealist artists, such as Nina Negri, were also discoveries. There is much more research to be done on their works, which definitely merit inclusion in the discussion of Latin American art’s evolution. Some of the artists you mention, such as Zárraga, are currently enjoying a resurgence of interest in their works. There was recently a major retrospective of Zárraga’s work in Mexico City at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes (2014). His problem was that he spent a very long time in Paris, so he was regarded as not Mexican enough for Mexican art-historians, but not really French enough for Europeans.

Carlos Alberto Castellanos (1881-1945), Spaniards Surprised by Indians, n.d. Oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 55 1/8 in. Musée Municipal de la Coutellerie, Theirs, France

Ebony This brings me to the key question—or maybe it’s a trick question: How would you define Latin American art? What are its attributes? What is “Latin Americanness,” as you have it in the book?

Greet This was one of the biggest challenges for me in writing this book. Should we look at these artists in terms of their place of origin, as an essentially geopolitical situation of the work? For me, it is helpful to use the term “Latin American” in art history. We need to identify first, and achieve a certain level of parity with European modernism before the nomenclature can fall by the wayside. We have not yet achieved the parity of recognition. But I don’t want to fall into this essentializing trap. One of the things I discuss in the book is the idea that there is no such thing as a Latin American esthetic. And there really is not such a thing as a Latin American identity, as all of the artists are pushing against or challenging those barriers. There are however, some identifiable commonalities. They have to do with common language, cultural heritage, the history of colonialism, the imposition of Catholicism, etc. There are many things that link these artists together. But I think the links are experiential rather than esthetic. One of the things I tired to explore in the book is the idea of Paris as a place of art-historical interconnectedness, not being limited by national boundaries. Rather than talking about a nation defining an artist’s outlook or presentation, it is a city that is the commonality here, a place of contact, the city of Paris.  

Michele Greet is associate professor of art history and affiliated faculty in Latin American studies and cultural studies at George Mason University.

David Ebony is currently a Contributing Editor of Art in America magazine. Among his books are Beatriz Milhazes (2018), Arne Svenson: The Neighbors (2015); Anselm Reyle: Mystic Silver (2012); Carlo Maria Mariani in the 21st Century (2011); Emily Mason (2006); Botero: Abu Ghraib (2006); Craigie Horsfield: Relation (2005); and Graham Sutherland: A Retrospective (1998). He lives and works in New York City.

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