Art

The Geometric Origins of Modern Painting in Peru

LIMA, Peru — Geometric abstraction is one of those art movements that, depending on the viewer, either resonates deeply or bores one to tears.

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Benjamín Moncloa, “Los Reyes Magos” (1956) (All images by the author for Hyperallergic)

LIMA, Peru — Geometric abstraction is one of those art movements that, depending on the viewer, either resonates deeply or bores one to tears. I have always found it moving, so I was pleasantly surprised, while visiting Peru, to stumble on an exhibition at the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI) called The Other Edge: Geometric Painting in Peru (1947–1958).

The entrance to the exhibit, within MALI's inner courtyard.
The entrance to the exhibit within MALI’s inner courtyard (click to enlarge)

The show hangs inside the old Exhibition Palace, an eclectic, Neo-Renaissance building that served as the country’s first major gallery when it opened in 1872. Curated by Augusto del Valle, it spans 35 works created in 11 short but productive years. During that time, Peruvian artists denounced figurative and landscape painting and embraced the modern aesthetic that first began in the 1910s and ’20s with Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, evolved in Paris during the 1930s, and then continued in New York.

Installation view
Installation view

It all started on May 15, 1947, when several artists and architects seeking to modernize the nation’s aesthetic culture published the “Manifesto of the Agrupación Espacio” (“The Manifesto of the Space Group”) in the Lima newspaper El Comercio, questioning traditionalism and arguing that art should respond to its unique time. The members of Agrupación Espacio — including Jorge Piqueras Sánchez Concha, Emilio Rodrïguez Larraïn, and Benjamïn Moncloa — began creating paintings inspired by factories and industry that also drew on the geometry of pre-Columbian art.

The environment was ripe for change. Around the same time, professors and students at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (ENBA) eschewed figurative and landscape painting in favor of a geometric universalism that responded to cubism. Institutions like the since-shuttered Gallery Lima and the Institute of Contemporary Art started supporting the new artists, and journals like Espacio and Plástica also promoted discourse. El Comercio even began publishing weekly articles about their work and concerns.

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Jorge Piqueras, “Untitled” (1958)

Throughout the decade that followed, these artists worked feverishly putting their ideas to canvas, and more than 60 years later, their paintings still emanate the excitement of that decade. The playful triangular shapes of “Los Reyes Magos” (1956), painted with colorful enamels by Moncloa, vibrate with an almost explosive energy that belies their steel-cut precision; the painting was first exhibited in Paris while the artist attended an abstract art workshop run by French artists Jean Dewasne and Edgard Pillet. Similarly, the swishy, ebullient forms of Jorge Piqueras’ “Untitled” (1958) recalls the large gestures of Italian Futurism, though it’d be impossible to mistake it as having been made by any hand but the artist’s own (Piqueras later went on to have a successful career in sculpture).

These works were first shown to the Peruvian public at the First Abstract Art Salon in 1958, which offered the South American nation its first homegrown glimpse of the new international abstract style. Following the show, many older professors at the university who had previously stuck to traditional methods slowly began introducing abstraction into their work, and the school’s formal painting exercises changed as well.

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Benjamín Moncloa, “Egipto” (1956)

Though they had successfully changed the landscape of painting in Peru, the public was slow to accept the work. Many artists saw no other choice but to leave for Europe or pursue other careers. The painter Louis López Paulet, for instance, went to work at the McCann-Erickson agency in New York, where he applied his abstract aesthetic toward commercial ends, while José Bracamonte opened up his own graphic design firm. By the end of the 1950s, Agrupación Espacio was no more.

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Installation view

Though geometric abstraction in Peru emerged long after its creative blossoming in the US and Europe, it was still extremely important not only to the development of Peruvian culture, but also to the artistic conversation on the international stage; during those same years, the Mádi movement — also concerned with geometry — had broken out in Argentina.

Today, despite our penchant for the cutting edge, the concern with color and form continues to be explored in the works of artists like Sarah Morris and Mai Braun. MALI’s show highlights the lesser-known contributions of Latin American artists to the movement; they are undoubtedly deserving of greater study and inclusion in its dominant canon.

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Installation view
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Installation view
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Installation view

The Other Edge: Geometric Painting in Peru (1947–1958) continues at thMuseo de Arte de Lima (Paseo Colón 125, Parque de la Exposición, Lima, Peru) until May 31.

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