During the first half of the twentieth century, representing the body was a pivotal means to reimagine national and regional identities at a moment when the legacies of colonial power structures were coming under increasing scrutiny. The body became a vehicle through which artists could envision new, expanded, and intersecting notions of race, gender, class, nation, and region. Through close readings of single images created in eight different countries—Guatemala, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Cuba—this Dialogues contains essays by scholars from South America, Europe, and the United States that reveal the capaciousness for the body to encapsulate local racial, class, and gender dynamics, to illuminate regional and national politics, and to embody divides between socially progressive politics and entrenched conservative social systems and hierarchies. The authors pay careful attention to form, subject, and style to demonstrate the potency of modernist figuration, an international and vibrant visual language, to interrogate issues of race, ethnicity, indigeneity, and gender. Together, the essays point to the critical particularities of iconography, context, and style. In so doing, they reinforce the ability of representation to resonate in multivalent ways and assert the power of the image to stir debate, fix (or challenge) convictions, and raise questions about histories. The authors harness the power and visual variety of realisms and representation in Latin America, revealing the malleability of the modernist body and its efficacy as a carrier of meaning and locus for debates about power, progress, and identity.
Durante la primera mitad del siglo XX, la representación del cuerpo fue clave para reimaginar identidades nacionales y regionales en un momento en el cual los legados de las estructuras de poder coloniales eran objeto de un escrutinio cada vez mayor. El cuerpo se volvió un vehículo a través del cual los artistas podían concebir nociones nuevas, ampliadas y entrecruzadas de raza, género, clase, nación y región. Este Dialogues examina imágenes individuales de ocho países –Guatemala, Bolivia, Brasil, Uruguay, México, Venezuela, Colombia y Cuba. En estos ensayos, académicos de América del Sur, Europa y los Estados Unidos revelan la capacidad del cuerpo para encapsular dinámicas locales de raza, clase y género, iluminar políticas regionales y encarnar divisiones entre progresismo social y sistemas y jerarquías conservadores arraigados. Prestan atención a forma, tema y estilo, demostrando la potencia de la figuración modernista para interrogar cuestiones de raza, etnia, indigenismo y género. En conjunto, los ensayos señalan particularidades críticas de la iconografía, contexto y estilo, reforzando la capacidad de la representación para resonar de forma multivalente y afirmar el poder de la imagen para suscitar debates, fijar (o desafiar) convicciones y plantear preguntas sobre las historias. Los autores exploran el poder visual de los realismos y la representación en América Latina, revelando la maleabilidad del cuerpo modernista y su eficacia como portador de significado y locus de debates sobre el poder, el progreso y la identidad.
Durante a primeira metade do século XX, representar o corpo foi um meio fundamental para reimaginar identidades nacionais e regionais num momento em que os legados das estruturas de poder coloniais estavam sob crescente escrutínio. O corpo se tornou veículo através do qual artistas podiam vislumbrar noções intersectadas de raça, classe, nação e região novas e expandidas. Através de leituras atentas de imagens únicas criadas em oito países diferentes – Guatemala, Bolívia, Brasil, Uruguai, México, Venezuela, Colômbia e Cuba – este Diálogos contêm ensaios de estudiosos da América do Sul, Europa e Estados Unidos que revelam a capacidade para o corpo para encapsular as dinâmicas raciais, de classe e de gênero locais, para iluminar políticas regionais e nacionais, e para corporificar divisões entre políticas socialmente progressistas e arraigados sistemas e hierarquias sociais conservadores. Os autores prestam atenção à forma, ao sujeito e ao estilo para demonstrar a potência da figuração modernista, uma linguagem visual internacional e vibrante, para interrogar questões de raça, etnicidade, indigeneidade e gênero. Juntos, os ensaios apontam para as particularidades críticas da iconografia, do contexto e do estilo. Ao fazê-lo, reforçam a capacidade da representação de ressoar de forma multivalente e de afirmar o poder da imagem de suscitar debate, fixar (ou desafiar) convicções e de levantar perguntas sobre histórias. Os autores aproveitam o poder e variedade visual dos realismos e representações na América Latina, revelando a maleabilidade do corpo modernista e a sua eficácia como portador de significado e locus para debates sobre poder, progresso e identidade.
For Latin American artists working in the first half of the twentieth century, representing the body was a pivotal means to reimagine national and regional identities at a moment when the legacies of colonial power structures were coming under increasing scrutiny. The body became a vehicle through which artists could envision new, expanded, and intersecting notions of race, gender, class, nation, and region. Like the racialized bodies of colonial-era casta paintings and the classically proportionate renderings of Indigenous national heroes in national art academies, the modernist body became a contested site. Distorted, altered, embellished, and imbued with social, cultural, and aesthetic meaning, the human body also served as a crucial subject of modernist formal experimentation. Modernist visual languages, when employed to render the racialized or gendered body, at once engaged local artistic traditions, ideologies, and debates and infused them with new meaning and currency, thus integrating depictions of the body into an international circulation of ideas and formal innovation.
This Dialogues brings together eight essays that each choose one modernist image by a Latin American artist that takes as its subject the human body to examine in depth. Covering different countries—Guatemala, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Cuba—essays by scholars from South America, Europe, and the United States reveal the capaciousness for the body to encapsulate local racial, class, and gender dynamics; to illuminate regional and national politics; and to embody divides between socially progressive politics and entrenched conservative social systems and hierarchies. The essays bring to the fore the modernist problematics of primitivism in specific and profound ways, as well as the gap between utopian beliefs and the cultural appropriation of marginalized populaces by the intellectual elite. The authors explore how, against backdrops of increasing nationalist consciousness, leftist reforms, or conservative regimes, early twentieth-century artists participated in social debates, co-opting marginalized bodies symbolically as the consummate motif through which to assert new agendas and push formal and stylistic boundaries. The artists discussed here, largely members of the lettered class, claim the authority to render and interpret the ethnic body, the female body, the modern body, thereby speaking for and appropriating the visual languages and cultural symbols of underrepresented groups in at times problematic ways that invite polemics. By juxtaposing close readings of single images produced in distinct national contexts, this forum acknowledges the contested nature of body politics in Latin American modern art, the ways in which modernist renditions of the body contributed to shifting histories of canon formation, and the relation of the region’s modern corporeal aesthetics to broader histories and concepts within global histories of modernism.
In addition, these contributions reveal the potency and currency of innovative, international figurative visual languages. Figuration and variations on realist styles emerged as vibrant visual tools for probing and expanding representations that complicate the idea of nation. The body especially proved a malleable tool for attaching and carrying meaning. In the hands of artists seeking to innovate and participate in the transnational exchanges around modernist form, the body emerges not as traditional or retrograde but rather as a vital tool for probing questions of modern identity, history, and nationhood. The works discussed here contributed to varied discourses about not only the creation of national myths but also who had the authority to mold these stories or the temerity to challenge them. However varied and contested these corporeal constructions were, they sought to define, negotiate, and differentiate Latin American national bodies from those of other regions, notably Anglo-America and Europe.
Circulating in a broad and dynamic field of debate on figuration, and in some cases pushing on the increasing tensions between figuration and abstraction, modernist depictions of the body in Latin America confirm figuration as a visual language equally as international, modern, and intellectually engaged as post-1940s geometric abstraction, gestural abstraction, and kineticism (long upheld as the foundation of internationalism in Latin American modernism), even as such styles elided continually percolating problems of social inequality, structural and social racism, and uneven modernization. As these Dialogues demonstrate, the politicized and fraught project to center the body politic embarked on by the generation of the twenties to forties deployed the body—whether expressive, realist, abstracted—precisely to foreground these issues, to debate them, to propose solutions, or to protect the status quo. As the Argentine artist Antonio Berni wrote in defending nuevo realismo, his particular mode of figuration, realism is an art of “dramatic content and reality” working against the “avoidance of the objective world and lived reality.…It is the mirror revealing the great spiritual, social, political, and economic reality of our century.”1
Race, ethnicity, and indigeneity were topics of considerable aesthetic and literary interrogation across Latin America. Artists and intellectuals who aimed to challenge the primacy of white and mestizo bodies in the national imaginary insisted on the importance of depicting underrepresented groups not only to visualize these peoples as part of the nation but also to position them as fundamental to the nation’s distinctive character. They did not necessarily envision the nation as a circumscribed unit, however: hemispheric Americanism often superseded nationalism as a unifying factor in constructs of the modernist body. Through the inclusion of iconographic or contextual signifiers, artists often associated Indigenous bodies with the originary cultures of the region, proposing uninterrupted narratives that extended from past to present. They also connected Afro-descended bodies with local traditions and nature. These iconographies defied the histories of colonialism and enslavement. While the means of foregrounding the racialized body took on distinct forms in different regions, across Latin America artists manipulated the presentation of nonwhite bodies to construct cultural ideologies and respond to specific historical contexts. Beyond simply centering the racialized body, artists used modernist techniques such as figural and spatial distortion, flatness, abstraction, and gestural brushwork to emphasize the modernity of their challenges to traditional cultural categories. The contributions gathered here investigate iconic modernist paintings in which the artist emphasized the representation of the body in relation to place as a means to disrupt expectations and propose new conceptions of the cultural identity.
Lynda Klich’s and Valeria Paz’s essays both examine works that interrogate notions of indigeneity. In her analysis of Carlos Mérida’s painting El alcalde de Almolonga (The Mayor of Almolonga, 1919), Klich highlights Mérida’s reliance on Indigenous material culture as both thematic and formal inspiration. The artist drew on his Maya-K’iche heritage, specifically the Indigenous textile tradition, as a visual source for the decorative colors, forms, and patterns he employed in his work, thereby foregrounding the Indigenous roots of abstraction. As Klich argues, the radical simplification of form and surface flatness in Mérida’s painting link modernity and indigeneity. Weaving textiles was a vital contemporary Indigenous practice in Guatemala, but also a tradition linked to the ancient Mayan past. Mérida’s painting therefore affirms that indigeneity was not unchanging, but rather a living and evolving identity. While the regional specificity of his Maya K’iche sources ties his work to place, his proposal was rooted in a broader hemispheric consciousness—from Mexico to Argentina—that envisioned ancient American civilizations as rivals to the Greco-Roman tradition, thereby differentiating Latin America’s cultural trajectory from that of Europe and Anglo-America. While a new obsession with realist and politically oriented figuration soon displaced Mérida’s abstracted compositions, his was an early effort on the part of the lettered class to manipulate the Indigenous body to promote a modernist hemispheric identity.
Similar themes appear in Paz’s essay on Bolivian artist Ceclio Guzmán de Rojas’s painting El triunfo de la naturaleza (The Triumph of Nature, 1928). Paz argues that the artist’s depiction of two strong, virtuous Indigenous bodies represents a sort of native Adam and Eve who provided a new origin story for the majority-Indigenous nation that had continually denied and denigrated its native heritage. By including an ancient stone monolith in the scene, Guzmán de Rojas links the Indigenous body to the foundational culture of Tiwanaku, proposing a non-European cultural trajectory for Bolivia. This new image of the nation founded on Indigenous identity aimed to replace the prevailing narrative centered on the heroes of independence. Examining the fraught reception of the work, Paz argues that the artist deliberately challenged his literate white and mestizo audience in order to transform the social consciousness of his own class, a stance that aligned with the writings of Bolivian intellectual Franz Tamayo. Guzmán de Rojas’s painting presents an idealized scene that does not acknowledge the impoverished state of the Indigenous population but rather projects a utopian construct of the nation on the Indigenous body, creating an analogy between the state, the body, and the natural landscape.
Rafael Cardoso’s and Michele Greet’s essays both focus on artistic renditions of Black bodies in Brazil and Uruguay. According to Cardoso, Brazilian artist Emiliano Di Cavalcanti painted Samba (1927) at a moment when brasilidade was just beginning to emerge as an archetype of Brazilian national identity, and thus he contributed to the formation of an iconography of Brazilian life. Di Cavalcanti’s images of Black and brown-skinned, working class, urban subjects were a novel challenge to the entrenched construct of Brazil as a conservative Catholic society that mythologized its colonial past as the epitome of national culture. Di Cavalcanti has been criticized for his hypersexualized renderings of Afro-Brazilian women. Cardoso argues that while valid, these critiques should not preclude recognition of the subversive nature of the artist’s presentation of race and class in an environment where this segment of the population went unacknowledged. The artist’s rhythmic patterns and contrasting planes of color activate a modernist visual vocabulary to capture the vibrant rhythms of the samba, a decidedly working-class practice, that became a modernist political allegory and archetype of Brazilian identity.
Michele Greet’s essay focuses on one example of Uruguayan artist Pedro Figari’s many renditions of the Afro-Uruguayan dance known as candombe. By looking closely at a particular painting, Greet elucidates the singularity of this image as well as the thematic coherence Figari establishes across his numerous depictions of the subject to develop an iconography of the dance. Like Di Cavalcanti, Figari portrays Afro-Uruguayan bodies engaged in popular dance forms to highlight these practices as part of a larger Uruguayan and Latin American identity, while simultaneously depicting this culture as distinct from other groups, including gauchos or upper-class whites, whom he rendered in other paintings. Figari also creates decorative surface patterns to convey musical rhythm in visual form, emulating the pulsing drum cadence of candombe. And like Mérida, he references Afro-Uruguayan material culture as both a design element in his compositions and an attribute of the cultural group portrayed. His works form part of a trend across the Americas of nativism or indigenism, which positioned local cultural expressions as a distinguishing characteristic of postcolonial nations on the world stage. Yet by presenting a collective Afro-Uruguayan identity, Figari disavows personal distinctions, instead employing problematic stereotypical codes to refer to the racial identity of the figures and defy their integration into society.
Assessing the gendered body, in turn, productively reveals the tensions, anxieties, and elisions that emerged within both these racialized constructions of the national body and the creation of national histories and myths. Inseparable, of course, from local discourses of race, presumptions of national characteristics, and fictions of unifying historical narratives, gendered bodies make apparent continued patriarchal hegemonic structures and protections of social privileges among the male, European-descended, lettered, and political elite. Despite often being wrapped in progressive discourses, bodies gendered as female make apparent—perhaps paradoxically given the insistence of formal innovation in their visual formulation—the concomitant resistances to modernization, social changes, and political reform that arose among those in power positions facing a changing world. The female, androgynous, or queered body, in particular, speaks volumes about its foils (whether seen or unseen)—the heroic and virile males given privileged roles as the symbols or constructors of new modern Latin American nations, whether as soldiers and laborers or intellectual leaders and thinkers. Moreover, while the traditional linking of the gendered or sexualized body with nature and thus national abundance proved prevalent, as sites of desire, gendered bodies at the same time resisted heroic constructions of national histories. Desired and sexualized, the gendered body could also be powerfully disruptive, as some of these Dialogues demonstrate.
Contributions by Megan Flattley and Michel Otayek point to the prominent, problematic, and revelatory rendering of the body-as-land. In her analysis of La tierra fecunda (The Fertile Land, 1925), the central panel from Diego Rivera’s mural cycle at the Escuela Nacional de Agricultura in Chapingo, Flattley posits the large female nude as embodiment of successful penetration and reproduction necessary for the future industrialized socialist nation. In so doing, and recalling the poet Octavio Paz’s work on La Malinche, Flattley positions this body within a long history of the Mexican land as la chingada, highlighting the nude figure’s capacity for signifying ideology within Rivera’s gendered and socialist nationalism. Flattley nuances La tierra fecunda, and Rivera’s utopian vision, with assessments of other nudes in the Chapingo cycle, especially La tierra oprimida (The Land Oppressed), which represents the land as androgynous and therefore un(re)productive and oppressed by capitalist forces. Flattley also illuminates these nudes in relation to traditional constructions of femininity (then threatened by the pelona, an androgynous flapper-type viewed with suspicion as a foreign afront to traditional Mexican femininity). Following the mural’s two-part construction (a narrative of social development and an allegory of nature), Flattley illuminates the gendered binaries of Rivera’s nationalism, in which the passive and feminized land/nation can only be fully realized by heroic masculine agency, manifested through socialist action and technological development.
Michel Otayek’s examination of Alfredo Boulton’s mid-forties’ photographic portrait of a fisherman from Pampatar, Venezuela, argues that the healthy, male body powerfully contains the sustained and painful history of an extractive colonial economy. Otayek’s close visual analysis highlights Boulton’s mastery of the photography medium, in which setting, light and shadow, and sharp detail make the vigorous male body available and desirable to the viewer. Central to this dynamic is the tropical Caribbean setting, an archipelago off the Venezuelan mainland. Otayek troubles the body-as-land trope through an immersive history of the location that details the exploitation of the islands’ oyster beds by a pearl-hunting industry that began soon after Columbus’s 1498 voyage there. Fueling elite wealth though the brutal enslavement of Indigenous and later Afro-descended peoples, pearl-hunting and the concomitant settlements on these islands introduced a long practice of extractive and exploitative industries, such as fishing and tourism. Published in Boulton’s 1952 book, La Margarita, in which he posits the Caribbean archipelago as the birthplace of modern Venezuela, the photograph of the fisherman emerges, in Otayek’s analysis, as powerful colonial critique, the scratched torso and the pulsing eroticism laying bare the uneasy coupling of violence and desire long played out on the colonized territories of the Western hemisphere.
Nancy Deffebach and Samantha Noël point to the body’s efficacy for revealing how religion complicated constructions of modern national identities. Deffebach interrogates a large watercolor from 1940 by Débora Arango, known by various titles, that depicts a woman kissing the ring of an archbishop during a street procession. Carefully dissecting the iconographical elements, glances, and gestures in this compressed, tight composition, Deffebach positions this work as a tense embodiment of the pressures put on traditional Catholicism and social conservatism as Colombia sought to modernize and secularize its political and social structure. As Deffebach argues, Arango’s sly depiction put feminine sexuality, in the body of a white, female fruit vendor and presumed prostitute, in direct confrontation with religious authority. The bold gesture of the woman, who disrupts a holy procession to kiss the ring of the archbishop as a sign of repentance, Deffebach shows, encapsulates a break of decorum and disruption of Church authority. Moreover, signifiers of the woman’s race and urbanness countered traditional representations that linked fruit vendors with rural and folkloric Indigenous or Afro-Colombian culture as gendered representations of nation. Instead, the vendor’s immodest made-up face, painted nails, and bare arms gave the painting a sexual charge that made it a bold and disruptive act in its own right, despite Arango’s coy denial of such intentions in the press.
Issues of religion and the transgressive female body also emerge in Samantha Noël’s discussion of Wifredo Lam’s Je Suis (1949). Noël situates the work amid social discrimination and structural racism that compounded the lived economic hardship of Afro-Cubans, even with the intellectual promotion of Blackness as constituent to national identity. Centering on the iconography of the femme cheval, Noël parses Lam’s deliberate transformation of the favored Surrealist motif of the minotaur into a Black, female-horse hybrid body. Locating this figure within Afro-Cuban religious practice, Noël not only identifies syncretic religious symbolism, such as the horned god Elegguá, but also links the femme cheval with the Santería concept of “riding,” in which a deity merges with the body of a human devotee during ritual practices. Given that the female body in particular offered the ideal intermediary between the human and the divine, Noël argues that Lam’s paintings on this theme therefore elevate the Black female body as vital to Afro-Cuban spirituality. Moreover, Lam’s suggestions of bestiality, sharp representations, and occasional outright inclusion of weapons make the femme cheval allegorically confrontational, even dangerous, to Western traditions and constructs, both aesthetic and social. Lam’s Black female body, Noël concludes, thus acts as a powerful tool of visual decolonization.
Our hope is that this edition of the Dialogues proves useful for teaching Latin American modernism and spurs new scholarship, especially by the younger generation in our field, that expands on the vitality, relevance, and currency of the visual language of figuration. Through close readings of single images, the authors in dialogue here point to the critical particularities of iconography, context, and style. In so doing, they insist on in-depth readings that both reinforce the ability of representation to resonate in multivalent ways and assert the power of the image to stir debate, fix (or challenge) convictions, and raise questions about histories. In her defense of realisms, both old and new, uppercase and lowercase, Linda Nochlin points out that realism is consistently reinvented, because it “is a mode of artistic discourse, a style in the largest sense, not, as its enemies would have it, a ‘discovery’ of preexisting objects out there or a simple ‘translation’ of ready-made reality into art. Like other artists, realists must create a language of style appropriate to their enterprise.”2 The contributions here harness the power, capaciousness, and visual variety of realisms and representation in Latin America, revealing the malleability of the modernist body and its efficacy as a carrier of meaning and locus for debates about power, progress, and identity.
Original: “contenido dramático y la realidad”.…“La evasión de nuestro mundo objetivo y de la realidad viviente …el espejo sujestivo [sic] de la gran realidad espiritual, social, política y económica de nuestro siglo.” Antonio Berni, “El nuevo realismo,” Forma (Buenos Aires), no. 1 (August 1936): 14, accessible from El nuevo realismo – ICAA Documents Project, http://icaadocs.mfah.org/s/en/item/767930#?c=&m=&s=&cv=&xywh=-1673%2C0%2C5895%2C3299.
Linda Nochlin, “The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law,” Art in America 61 (September-October 1973): 54.