Constructing modernity

Radical Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia (1874–1949) epitomised individuality in the arts. A key figure in Latin American modernism, his influence nonetheless extended much further than the continent of his birth. A number of North American artists, including Louise Bourgeois and Barnett Newman, felt his idiosyncratic influence.

The artist was born in Montevideo. He left for Barcelona aged 17, where he trained as an artist. In the Catalan capital, he became active in the local artistic movement known as Noucentisme, or “Nineteen-hundreds Style.” The artists and intellectuals that worked within this movement were reacting against what they considered the aesthetic excesses of Modernisme.

Noucentista art was characterized by a return to order. Its artists set out to embody the timeless values of the Mediterranean through their art, as well as revive the classical past. In the decorative arts, the values of Noucentisme were seen in an emphasis on traditional hand-craftsmanship.

As one of the leading members of Noucentisme, Torres-Garcia became a well-known painter during his years in Barcelona. His first major commission was for a series of monumental frescoes for a room in Barcelona’s historic Palau de la Generalitat, in the Ciutat Vella, or Old City. In the frescoes, Garcia featured industrial scenes alongside pastoral, Arcadian scenes of Mediterranean life. They are considered one of the most important manifestations of Catalan Noucentisme.

In one of the last frescoes of the set, Torres-Garcia incited some controversy. In Lo Temporal no es mes que simbol (The temporal is no more than symbol), a faun plays music to a crowd. This seemingly inoffensive scene was harshly criticised at the time by conservative artists and intellectuals for its depiction of a classical figure in a modern style. A scandal ensued, and the political leader of Catalonia, Enric Prat de la Riba, died. In the aftermath of the scandal, Torres-Garcia was dismissed from the commission.

To continue reading this article, please subscribe to the November/December issue of The Kurios. 

Photo: Joaquín Torres García. (Uruguayan, 1874? 1949). Construcción con formas curvas (Construction with curved forms). 1931. Oil and nails on wood. 191/2×161/8×1/2?(49.5x41x1.3cm).The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously, 2012. © Sucesión Joaquín Torres-García, Montevideo 2015. Photo credit: Thomas Griesel.