Hitting Inside the Heart

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

Over his father's objections but with the support of his mother, he studied art at Quito's Escuela de Bellas Artes, where he eventually graduated at the top of his class. (He also briefly studied architecture.) By the time he was 23, he already had three exhibitions under his belt, including one at Guayaquil's Cámara de Comercio that brought him to the attention of Nelson Rockefeller, who was visiting Ecuador as head of the U.S. State Department's Office of Inter-American Affairs. Rockefeller later bought five Guayasamín paintings and helped arrange an American tour for the artist, whose work was included in an exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art alongside that of Mexicans Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. A year later, he met and became friends with Orozco during a trip to Mexico. He also became a lifelong friend of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

These and other biographical details come into play in the show. Guayasamín's close bond with and affection for his mother are alluded to in the early painting La Madre y el Niño (Mother and Child #1) as well as in the more technically accomplished, Cubist-inflected Origen (Origin) of 1951. And at a young age, the artist had the gift of empathy, as evident in his poignant 1941 La Cantera (The Accident), in which two muscular miners remove the body of a fallen fellow worker while a cloaked woman looks on, and in the grim tableau of Los Niños Muertos #11 (Dead Children #11) (1942), influenced by the death of his childhood friend.

If any segment of the artist's career is given short shrift, it would have to be his work as a portraitist. According to the introduction, Guayasamín painted more than 800 portraits over the course of his lifetime, including interpretations of Castro, Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Gabriel García Márquez, French President François Mitterand, and King Juan Carlos of Spain. The show includes only his angular 1994 portrait of musician Paco de Lucia and a more rounded one from 1996 of Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú.

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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But all these works, however well executed, pale in comparison to the more explicitly sociopolitical work, as the artist himself seemed to have recognized when he said, "I have painted as if I were screaming in desperation, and my screams have joined the screams that express the humiliation of so many and the deep anguish for the times we have had to live in." Guayasamín's best work is not mere political art but art that ranks with that of Goya and Picasso's Guernica, art that wounds and illuminates with its intensity.

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