Breaking Ground: 20th-Century Latin American Art at the Norton Simon Museum

In celebration of Hispanic and Latino Heritage Month, the Museum is presenting an exhibition of works from 20th-century Latin American artists. Spanning the period from 1931 to 1985, the featured artworks demonstrate how artists broke new ground, leaving behind or drastically altering artistic conventions to explore diverse forms of modernism. Although Latin American art is often presumed to be figurative and political, this exhibition makes clear that artists were engaged with a variety of subjects and themes, and that they conceived of the “figure” in radically different ways. Employing line, shape, form, color and texture, they undertook innovative approaches to figure–ground relations, using positive and negative space for various purposes. This intimate exhibition, which consists of selections from the Norton Simon Museum’s collection, features work by not only some of the most revered names in Latin American art but also artists who are less widely known. Included are the Mexican painters, lithographers and photographers Diego Rivera, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Rufino Tamayo, José Luis Cuevas and Ángel Bracho, as well as South Americans Roberto Matta (from Chile), Gego (also known as Gertrud Goldschmidt, from Venezuela) and Antonio Frasconi (from Uruguay).

In a collection that is known primarily for its holdings of European and South and Southeast Asian art, the provenance of works from Latin America merits attention. In 1953 German art dealer Galka Scheyer donated her collection to the Pasadena Art Museum, which later became the Norton Simon Museum. Scheyer had acquired works by Diego Rivera and Ángel Bracho after meeting Rivera in San Francisco in 1931. Scheyer, who acted as an agent for the Blue Four—a group formed in 1925 in Europe by Expressionist painters Vasily Kandinsky, Alexei Jawlensky, Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger—collaborated with Rivera in sponsoring an exhibition of the Blue Four at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Later that year, she traveled to Mexico City, the site of another co-sponsored Blue Four exhibit, where she purchased Rivera’s Blue Boy with the Banana, which he painted specifically for her, and two works by Bracho.

Since the beginning of the colonial era, prints and graphics have played an important role in transmitting cultural icons and values from Europe to the New World. In the 19th century, they were instrumental in promoting nationalist sentiment and commemorating the actions of heroes and martyrs who had helped to secure independence. At the turn of the 20th century, broadsheets illustrated by José Guadalupe Posada and other Mexican artists were a popular means of informing the masses, and after the Mexican Revolution, artists made use of Posada’s motifs in posters and other forms of print media in order to reach a larger audience than painted murals allowed. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, artists throughout Latin America produced prints and posters for political and other purposes. The Tamarind Lithography Workshop, founded in Los Angeles in 1960, helped to spark a renaissance in the graphic arts in the United States and Europe and attracted local and international artists, including Rufino Tamayo and José Luis Cuevas from Mexico and Gego from Venezuela. It is fitting, then, that the majority of works in the exhibit are works on paper.

In 1971, the Pasadena Art Museum organized the first major exhibition of Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s photographs in the United States. The 66 photographs in the Norton Simon Museum’s collection, which speak to the depth and breadth of work by this modern Mexican master of photography, came from this exhibition. The prestigious Weyhe Gallery of New York, which was instrumental in representing Latin American artists in the early 20th century, gifted the piece by Antonio Frasconi. The remaining work in the exhibition by Roberto Matta was the recent gift of Terry and Sharon Bridges.

The distinctive manipulation of figure–ground relationships—and, more generally, the style—serves a particular purpose. For example, whereas Rivera creates a symphony of blues that links foreground and background and echoes the somber mood of works by the Blue Four, he makes expressive use of line, light and shadow to highlight a young peasant boy and a starkly furnished interior. Bracho achieves a similar purpose by way of contrasts in color and pattern. In a black-and-white print, he negates recession in space, floating an unconventional mix of figures and objects in a dream-like surrealist space. Through both pattern and texture, Tamayo and Bravo render their figures almost indistinguishable from the background, thereby intimating the otherworldly nature of the subject. Similarly, through abstract shapes, Matta and Frasconi make clear reference to illusionistic space but at the same time place their subjects in uncertain territory. Cuevas challenges the detailed and staid vision of Jan van Eyck with an oddly expressive and existentialist interpretation that subverts the very essence of the original. Gego mimics conventional figure–ground relations by superimposing abstract shapes and linear patterns against a colorless background that suggests infinite space. Taken together, these varied compositions remind us that modernist tenets—whether elaborated in the United States, Europe or Latin America—represented communal ground, as artists exchanged and adapted stylistic innovations for seemingly endless purposes.