Saturday, October 31, 2015

Lesson # 2 - Joaquín Torres-García: Uruguay's founder of Constructive Universalism

Joaquín Torres García (28 July 1874 – 8 August 1949) was an Uruguayan painter, sculptor, novelist, writer, teacher and theorist. He was one of the most notable personalities of artistic movement in the first half of the century. He is known for his collaboration with Gaudí in 1903 on the stained glass windows for the Palma Cathedral, and the Sagrada Familia, the frescoes painted in the Palau de la Generalitat of Barcelona, and for being the founder of the European art group Cercle et Carré in Paris in 1929.

In 1891, Torres-García's father returned to Mataró, Spain, with his wife and three children. The family settled in Barcelona. Torres-García enrolled in the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona (Escuela de Bellas Artes de Barcelona), the Baixas Academy (Academia Baixas) and the Saint Lluc Artists Circle. Torres-García and Picasso were contemporaries.

In 1910 Torres-García traveled to Brussels to paint a Pavilion in the Brussels International World Fair. During his prolonged stay in Paris, he  visited friends, museums and galleries. On his first trip to Italy and Switzerland, Torres-García observed the ancient and the modern: Futurism. In May 1913, he published his first book, "Notes sobre Art" (Notes on Art), and founded the Escuela de Decoración (School of Decoration/Decorative Arts) in Sarrià, Catalunya. He was commissioned in 1913 to create murals for the decoration of the monumental atrium of the Municipal Palace of Barcelona.

In 1934, at the age of 60, Torres-García returned for the first time since childhood to Montevideo. As he did in Barcelona he eventually shaped the artistic education of Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. He created the "Taller Torres-García", and published several books. In Montevideo he built the "Monumento Cosmico", painted mural frescoes at the Hospital Saint Bois, and a series of portraits under the name of "Men, heroes and monsters ". His workshop became the center of Uruguayan painting, recruiting disciples and admirers everywhere, and changed forever the art of painting in the River Plate area.

On August 8, 1949 Torres-García died while preparing two exhibitions one at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York and other at Pan American Union in Washington.

Joaquín Torres-García has long been recognized as a charismatic avant-garde painter, teacher, and theoretician who influenced the development of avant-garde abstract and constructive art movements in Barcelona, Paris, Madrid, and Montevideo, where he exhibited with Picasso and Mondrian, among many others. Since the 1980s, a series of exhibitions organized in Europe - specifically in Spain, France, and England - have explored the artist's extraordinary accomplishments. In the United States, however, the Uruguayan master remains an under-exposed and under-appreciated figure." 

Constructive Universalism

Constructive Universalism is a philosophy of art developed by Torres-García in the 1930s. Its goal is to combine the “reason” of geometry (Constructivism) with the spiritual “intuition” of Man and Nature (Universalism). The term “Constructivism” refers to a European tradition of abstract art based on geometric elements – lines, squares, planes – and characterized by simplicity and precision. Torres-García evoked the “universal” to describe organic sources of abstract art found in ancient (American) civilizations. In its integration of the constructivist grid and universal pictographs, Constructive Universalism aimed to restore balance and harmony to the (pictorial) world. 

Torres-García's paintings often balance Nature and Reason through a combination of Constructive elements and signs. To convey this balance he elaborated his own particular language based on the neo-Plasticist grid (Reason) and pictographic symbols (Nature). He called this language Constructive Universalism. Convinced that the impulse towards abstract modes of abstraction lie at the core of all civilizations, the system of Constructive Universalism incorporated symbols from ancient cultures such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and the ancient cultures of the Americas. 

One outstanding work on view is an untitled oil painting from 1932, depicting the outline of a fish. Inside of the fish are painted a number of other objects, which are all familiar symbols from Torres-García's Constructive Universal repertory: precise references to the Cosmos (the Sun), the ideal pentameter (the number five), human emotions (the heart and the anchor, representing hope), Nature (the fish), and references to North American Indian art (the teepee framed by a crescent moon and the sun, such as is found on painted hides). 

In 1928, during the full boom of abstract art and cubism, Torres-García experienced a decisive influence. While living in Paris, thanks to his friendship with Teo Van Doesburg, he met Piet Mondrian.  The following year, he founded, along with these and other artists, the "Cercle et Carré" (Circle and Square) movement, in contraposition to Impressionism. Torres-García adopted the grid in its most rigorous and geometric sense as a means to preserve the two-dimensionality of a picture. Here the artist created patterns by dividing the picture surface into horizontal and vertical formations, each painted with different primary colors. Although Neo-Plasticists believed in the pure qualities of the grid, Torres-García emphasized instead the raw aspect of the composition, highlighting the imperfections of the canvas, the impurity of the colors, the thickness of the paint, and the manual tracing of the brushstrokes. Both van Doesburg and Torres-García used the Golden ratio to structure their work from this period, which is a mathematical proportion known to have existed in the classical world. The Golden ratio postulates that the subdivision of space into certain ratios symbolizes structural parallels with the Universal Cosmos. Torres-García's affinity for this mathematical measure became prevalent for the rest of his career as an artist.

Torres-Garcia's inverted map of America

In 1934, after spending some time in Madrid, the Torres-García family moved to Montevideo, 43 years after the departure of young Joaquín. One of the reasons given by the artist for returning to Uruguay was the need to get exposure to the Pre-Columbian art: “The whole of America must stand up to create a powerful and virgin art.” However, Uruguay is far away from those civilizations where Pre-Columbian art flourished. The European crisis, the lack of understanding experienced by Torres-García, who by then was almost sixty years old, his incredible vitality and an incessant artistic search, all played a role in this return. In Uruguay, Torres was well received and embarked on a frenetic pace of activity. Without giving up painting, he founded the Constructive Art Association, edited the magazine "Círculo y Cuadrado" - continuing the tradition of Cercle et Carré, and gave hundreds of conferences.
In 1935, Torres García published “The School of the South”, which is considered his first Latin Americanist manifesto. In it, he formulated the premise that would make it possible to establish an autonomous art movement in Latin America. For many critics and scholars, this manifesto was the first systematic attempt to put together an autonomous artistic tradition for Latin America. Torres García was proposing that Native America was the point of origin for a new hemispheric visual-arts tradition founded on the recovery of the pre-Hispanic past and its reconciliation with Universalist art.

Even before drawing Inverted Map of America, Torres García had already stated in “The School of the South” manifesto that:

“I have called this “The School of the South” because in reality, our north is the south. There must not be north for us, except in opposition to our south. Therefore, we now turn the map upside down, and then we have a true idea of our position, and not as the rest of the world wishes. The point of America, from now on, forever, insistently points to the South, our north”.

So, what is such a map telling us? It is still possible to find a variety of interpretations and readings of this map, including the idea that the countries of Latin America feel slighted by the dominance of the developed north, and the conclusion drawn by some that Latin American art should go back to its pre-colonial origins. 


Recent exhibits

At Moma (Museum of Modern Art, New York - October 2015 through February, 2016).

Art intervention at "The Cosmic Wall", Museo Nacional de Artes audiovisuales, Montevideo.


Read the article above and answer these questions:

1) Besides being a notorious painter, what other artistic fields did Joaquín Torres-García explore?
2) How did Torres-García contribute to the art heritage of Catalunya and its capital city, Barcelona?
3) When did he first set foot in Paris?
4) Search online and find out what the "Monumento cósmico" ("The Cosmic Wall"), what it represents and where it is located.  
5) Which two art movements are associated with Torres-García and with which European artists did he associate with?  
6) What are the basic elements Constructive Universalism is made of? What do they represent?  
7) Why did Torres-García name it like that? (express this answer in your own words).
8) Does Constructive Universalism represent a single culture? Why / Why not?  
9) How is Torres-García's style similar to that of the Neo-Plasticist artists he collaborated with? In what way is it different?  
10) Interpret in your words the following manifesto by Torres-García when he created The School of the South: “I have called this The School of the South because in reality, our north is the south. There must not be north for us, except in opposition to our south ...".  
11) How is such manifesto connected with his artwork "The Inverted Map of America"?  
12) Which is the most current exhibition devoted to our national painter? Find information online and specify where it is taking place and which artworks of his creation are displayed.  
13) Watch and describe what the art intervention at "The Cosmic Wall" consists of.


Complete this criss-cross word puzzle by using some concepts from the article:


1. What do Torres-Garcia's pictorial symbols represent in general? 
4. What kind of painter is Torres-García regarded of internationally?
6. Which French artist did Torres-García meet in Paris and was deeply influenced by? 
7. Which symbol represents the Cosmos in Constructive Universalism? 
8. What animal symbolizes Nature in Constructive Universalism? 
9. Which artistic and social movement did Torres-García encounter in Italy? 
12. What school did Torres-Garcia found in Montevideo? 
13. How old was Torres García when he came back to Uruguay?
14. What mathematical concept do most of Torres-Garcia's artworks follow?


2. What do grids symbolize in Torres-Garcia's artworks?
3. What colors did Torres-García use in most of his paintings?
5. What was Torres-Garcías first book?
10. Where did Torres-García's parents settle down when they returned to their homeland?
11. Who did Torres-García work with in the construction of "La Sagrada Familia"?