Hitting Inside the Heart

Ecuador's Oswaldo Guayasamín painted to expose what man does against man

If you're unfamiliar with Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, there's a good reason: His work has not been extensively shown in the United States for more than half a century. "Of Rage and Redemption: The Art of Oswaldo Guayasamín," now at Florida Atlantic University's Schmidt Center Gallery in Boca Raton, goes a long way toward remedying the situation as well as underlining how lamentable that oversight has been.

It's a relatively small but extremely powerful exhibition of not quite 50 paintings and prints and more than two dozen drawings, assembled by the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery in Nashville, where it debuted earlier this year. The FAU stop is the fourth out of six, before the show's no-doubt-triumphant run ends at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California.

Scene from the Schmidt. Guayasamín's work is political — but timeless.
Courtesy of the Schmidt Center Gallery
Scene from the Schmidt. Guayasamín's work is political — but timeless.

Details

"Of Rage and Redemption: The Art of Oswaldo Guayasamín." On display through December 6 at the Schmidt Center Gallery, University Galleries, Florida Atlantic University, 777 Glades Rd., Boca Raton. Call 561-297-2661.

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Guayasamín is by no means an easy artist, which perhaps accounts for his lack of exposure in this country. It probably doesn't help that he was not only left of center but far to the left — he was a longtime enthusiastic supporter of Fidel Castro's Cuban version of communism, for instance, and embraced such causes as peace and the poor and disenfranchised. In terms of our ongoing adventures in Iraq, it's a safe bet that if he were around today, Guayasamín would sympathize more with the traumatized Iraqi people than with their liberators. The artist died in 1999 at age 79.

Regardless of your political leanings, however, what is beyond question is Guayasamín's extraordinary talent. We are confronted with it head-on in Los Torturados I-III (The Tortured I-III), the large, breathtaking triptych from 1976-'77 that hangs on a freestanding wall directly opposite the entrance to the gallery. At first glance, it appears to be a crucifixion, rendered with the sort of immediacy and raw urgency that no modern artist, except maybe Francis Bacon, has been able to summon for such a subject.

The central panel, which is slightly larger than the two flanking it, features a figure who might seem majestic were he not in such obvious, tremendous pain. Arms outstretched, halfway between standing and kneeling, he feels crammed into the panel, and his limbs are truncated, with the disembodied hands floating in the secondary panels. His bowed, skull-like head, mouth open in a scream of agony, is shown in profile, the better to emphasize its gauntness and the gaping jaws. His body, like those of the two equally tormented figures to his sides, looks emaciated to the point of skeletal, in contrast to the fleshy, exposed genitalia.

The narrative of this amazing painting, it turns out, is both particular and universal. It was inspired by the wrenching story of Victor Jara, a beloved Chilean musician who was tortured — he had the bones in his hands broken — and machine-gunned to death shortly after the U.S.-backed military coup that overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973. But while the content of the painting may be specific, its impact goes far beyond, as is made clear by Guayasamín's own words, quoted in the introduction to the exhibition: "My painting is to hurt, to scratch and hit inside people's hearts. To show what Man does against Man."

There is a similar terrible beauty at work in other pieces in the show. Napalm, painted around the same time as Los Torturados, is a large closeup of a human face in pain and despair, rendered in blood reds and grays and sickly whites. La Espera III, VII, VIII (Waiting III, VII, VIII), from 1968-'69, also features two oversized faces, elongated masks of weariness, along with another gaunt figure, this one slumped in resignation. All three are rendered in ghostly monochrome as if to suggest that they have been drained of all vitality.

Guayasamín takes another tack for a 1970 suite of five large, nearly square oils called Reunión en el Pentágono I, II, III, IV, V (Meeting at the Pentagon I, II, III, IV, V), which registers as powerfully as if the paintings were created last year. In contrast to the wasted figures of some of the other works, most of the figures in these images, all men, have an almost alarming fleshiness. And while their facial expressions run an emotional gamut that includes indifference, lassitude, and outright malice, they have in common an air of unmistakable evil.

This, Guayasamín's coolly clinical approach suggests, is the face of a bureaucracy capable of perpetrating unspeakable crimes against humanity. Taken on its own, any one of this series would chill your blood; taken together, the five are all but overwhelming. They and Napalm, displayed together on one of the gallery's largest expanses of wall, constitute quite a statement.

Not that we should necessarily look to an artist's life to explain his work, but in Guaya­samín's case, it clearly establishes some context. He was the eldest of ten children born to a poor family in Quito. His father, who abused him, was a carpenter and later a taxi driver and auto mechanic; his loving mother worked in a small grocery store. In 1932, the adolescent Guayasamín was emotionally brutalized when he lost one of his closest friends during his country's bloody four-day civil war.

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