“Art of the Fantastic: Latin America, 1920–1987”

The fantasia/phantasm that for North Americans connotes whimsy, extravagance, or illusion retains, in Latin America, its meaning of “image-making” and describes a way of scrutiny, a habit of mind. In that part of the world, whose past and present history has been marked by the multiple collision of cultures brought about by colonization and revolution (and their attendant dislocations), everyday reality is necessarily fantastic, just as the glance that records such a reality must be masked. In the wake of 16th-century European explorers and conquerors, Anglo-Americans tend to read Latin American masks through the screen of their own projected phantoms, as the spectacle of Ollie North makes clear.

“Art of the Fantastic: Latin America, 1920–1987,” a traveling exhibition curated by Holliday T. Day and Hollister Sturges, provides North Americans with the first opportunity in more than 20 years to see such a vast range of Latin American art: 123 works (almost exclusively easel paintings) from 12 countries by 29 artists representing three generations. From the first generation, splendid pictures by Rufino Tamayo, Wifredo Lam, Roberto Matta, and Alejandro Xul Solar attest to the fluent transformation of European Modernist models when fused with Pre-Columbian motifs. More often, however, the relationship between the developed and developing nations is problematic. Antonio Henrique Amaral’s paintings of bananas—blackened, entangled in ropes, and, in the “Campo de batalha” (Battlefield) series, 1973–74, impaled by the tines/teeth of forks—allude to a painting by an earlier Amaral: Tarsila do Amaral’s Abaporu (Man who eats, 1928), which inspired the Cannibalist Manifesto, a program that urged Brazilian artists to achieve independence by ingesting European culture in order to transmute it. By exposing the symbol of “the tropics” as the export most readily consumed by North Americans, Antonio Henrique Amaral’s pictures implicate the viewer in the act of eating and thus imply that the Cannibalist movement had backfired. That ingestion can be a metaphor for invasion is evident, too, in Francisco Toledo’s El Dueño del caballo (The horse’s master, 1974) and Siron Franco’s O Apicultor (The beekeeper, 1983). Sometimes two figures face one another, as if about to talk, but dialogue is aborted—for instance, by the absence of mouths and the amputation of arms in both Tamayo’s Diálog, 1974, and Armando Morales’ Two Figures, 1970. In José Gamarra’s Cinq siècles après (Five centuries later, 1986), the meeting of the conquistador and the Indian is replayed in a forest where time, like the arrested waterfall, has stopped flowing. That the possibility of dialogue is an illusion at once comic and pathetic is the point of Fernando Botero’s wonderful Our Lady of New York, 1966. Here, Botero portrays himself as a pint-size artist, holding his palette and brush with the innocence of faith, at the feet of an enormous Queen Mother (with child); this imperious figure guards the entry—a blue sky visible through uterine folds—to the heavenly center of the North American art world.

An individual’s “identity,” which the dominant culture takes for granted, is always at stake in such a context and thus constantly in question. Accordingly, the simple assertion of the self often becomes an act of political defiance, as in Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits from the ’40s. In these works, Kahlo identifies her face with Mexico’s landscape, and the accident that mutilated her body with her country’s past. More recently, the Puerto Rican artist Arnaldo Roche Rabell painted a series of four works in which he depicts himself with different colors and varieties of skin. In Hay que soñar azul (You have to dream in blue, 1986), his blue eyes stare through a dark, masklike face matted with straw. The black face that not only has to see but also dream (and thus create) the world through blue eyes is an indictment of the white face that fails to see the world through the eyes of any but its own kind.

The question of identity is complicated for the majority of contemporary artists whose works are on display here by the fact that they now live and work abroad. “Art of the Fantastic” illuminates not just another way of seeing but a way of being—one that is contingent on the realization of home as a condition of exile and of identity as a quest.

Reviewed by Maureen Bloomfield.