Hitting Inside the Heart

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.

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.

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.

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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Michael Mills