As modernism evolved, the Venezuelan artist Oswaldo Vigas was its messenger and champion in Latin America.
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When examining the ideas, creations and trends of a particular period in a particular culture, country or region, often it appears that the movers and shakers of a certain era can be divided between those who were path-clearing, visionary innovators and those who, in a more responsive manner, reacted to the new thinking of their time and helped move it forward in effective ways. This phenomenon was evident time and time again during the long, complex evolution of modernism’s styles, techniques and outlooks. There was only one Picasso who contributed, as he did, to Cubism’s development, or Andy Warhol, who definitively helped shape Pop Art, or Yoko Ono, who indelibly influenced Conceptual Art’s tone, themes and varieties of formless form. Such artistic pioneers inspired many followers.
Looking back to a pre-Internet age, in which news about art’s latest developments often traveled by way of the artists themselves, it seems that almost as soon as Cubism’s revolutionary ideas had emerged from the Paris studios of Picasso and Georges Braque roughly a century ago, they were seized upon by art-makers in many other places who were intrigued by its new approach to depicting space and form.
Fast-forward through subsequent modern-art developments and trends and place numerous dots on the maps of Mexico and South America, where modernism’s radical new languages captured the attention of countless painters, sculptors, designers, and architects. Among them was Oswaldo Vigas (1923–2014), a Venezuelan who, growing up in the early decades of the 20th century, demonstrated an impressive aptitude for art. In time he became a major purveyor of the lessons of modernism he assimilated at home and abroad, as well as one of his homeland’s modern-art icons. (A traveling retrospective exhibition of Vigas’ work, “Antológica: 1943–2013,” will be on view in Sao Paulo in 2016.)
Vigas, whose father was a doctor, was born in Valencia, the capital of the state of Carabobo, which lies to the west of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. An old black-and-white photo shows a 19-year-old Oswaldo sitting in front of an easel with one hand holding a paint-covered palette and the other a brush; part of what appears to be a complex composition-in-progress awaits his attention. A few years earlier, having designed sets for school plays and created illustrations for poems, the youth already had won the first of a long career’s worth of prizes for his artistic prowess.
Even though Vigas earned a degree in medicine in Caracas, he never went on to practice as a doctor. Instead, throughout his university years in the late 1940s, he continued learning about and making art. Deeply interested in modernist abstraction, he fell in with a group of artists and thinkers who were associated with the Taller Libre de Arte de Caracas, a cultural center that had emerged as an alternative-ideas forum and exhibition space for those who had broken away from the mainstream represented by the capital’s central fine arts school.
By this time, Vigas had created such signature early pictures as Composición IV (Composition IV, oil on cardboard, 1944), with its melding of abstract forms, layered Cubist pictorial space and a palette recalling that of Old Master canvases. Soon to come were the images in his oil-on-canvas Brujas (Witches) series of the early 1950s, whose semi-abstracted bodies he defined with Picassoesque lines, and whose surfaces he scraped or incised.
In 1950, Vigas met the French art history professor and critic Gaston Diehl, who had been trained at the Institute of Art and Archeology and at the École du Louvre in Paris and was teaching at the main university and at the main art academy in Caracas. That same year, also in the Venezuelan capital, Diehl curated a large exhibition, “De Manet à nos jours” (“From Manet to Our Time”). Vigas and Diehl got to know each other and became lifelong friends, and over the years the well-connected French critic became one of Vigas’ steadfast champions. (He would also aid the Venezuelans Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jesús Rafael Soto in gaining recognition in Europe for their kinetic-art creations.)
Two years later, Vigas’ work was showcased in a solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Caracas, and the artist harvested a bumper crop of honors, including Venezuela’s top national art prize. He then headed to Paris, where he studied at the legendary École des Beaux-Arts and at the artist Marcel Jaudon’s lithography workshop and took art-history classes at the Sorbonne. Vigas spent 12 years in Paris, during which time he met or became friendly with many artists from Europe and other parts of the world—the Cuban Wifredo Lam; the Chilean Roberto Matta; the Argentine Emilio Pettoruti; and many others—who had gravitated to the French capital in the period following the end of World War II (a time when, in fact, modern art’s most vibrant center had shifted to New York, where a market for inventive new art forms was also developing).
Throughout these early decades of his career, Vigas regularly exhibited his work. In 1954, he represented Venezuela at the 27th Venice Biennale. Sometimes he organized group exhibitions, too, like a large survey of work by European modernists, including such artists as Picasso, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, René Magritte, Hans Hartung, Bram van Welde, and many others, which was presented in Caracas in 1955. That year, in conjunction with his planning of that big show, Vigas visited Picasso at the Spanish-born maestro’s home in the south of France. A photo of their encounter shows a beaming, youthful Vigas wrapping his arm around the bare shoulders of modern art’s living legend.
With such curatorial activities in mind, along with the sophisticated manner in which Vigas appreciated the forms modern art could take, the themes it could address, and the ideals it could reflect, an assessment of his accomplishments points to someone who served as a vital bridge between Europe’s active center of pioneering art developments and the distant outpost of his homeland and Latin America in general. Surely his role as a messenger on behalf of new art ideas was acknowledged when, also in the 1950s, Carlos Raúl Villanueva, Venezuela’s most renowned 20th-century architect, who had been charged with developing the main campus of the Central University of Venezuela, invited Vigas to create mosaic murals for some of its buildings. The boldly colored geometric-abstract designs he produced still look fresh today.
Vigas made geometric abstract paintings throughout the 1950s. In them, he employed narrower or thicker black outlines to lay out sections of complex compositions, many of which he filled in with colors in more or less elaborate palettes. Some of these images feel fussy; a viewer can almost feel the artist’s brush searching to find and make visible a grouping of well-balanced forms. By contrast, some of his most successful works of this kind and of this period, like a knotty, monochromatic oil-on-canvas effort of 1956 from his Objeto Negro (Black Object) series, feel more confident, cohesive, and organically whole.
In 1964, eager to participate actively in his homeland’s social, cultural, and political development, Vigas left Paris and moved back to Venezuela, where he became involved, in various roles, in a wide range of arts-development and arts-administration projects. Exhibitions, his own and those of other artists; documentary film and music festivals; the founding of a new artists’ association; visits to museums and historic sites in the United States, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and other countries; the organizing of an art critics’ conference—there was almost no kind of culture-related initiative in which Vigas did not have a responsible, influential hand.
In either hard-edged or looser, brushier, oil-on-canvas abstractions of the 1960s and 1970s, which became known as his “neo-figurative” works, Vigas used patches or broad strokes of black along with limited combinations of colors or more explosive gatherings of bright hues to create a diverse range of compositions. Sometimes, as in Lúdicas (Playful Women), from 1966, or Señora de la Aguas Marinas (Lady of the Sea Waters), from 1967, their central motifs were highly abstracted human figures. In other instances, these works appear to be explorations of the expressive power of color, textures, and abstract shapes. That spirit of form-seeking adventure pulses through the work of the last phases of his career, including, characteristically, such oil paintings as Paraíso Inconcluso (Unfinished Paradise), from 1990, and Y Echaron a Andar (And They Started Walking), from 1995. (Vigas made tapestries and cast-bronze sculptures during this period, too, in which he interpreted similar abstract or semi-abstract shapes in other materials.)
In 1957, on the occasion of a Vigas solo exhibition at the Galería de Arte Contemporáneo in Caracas, Diehl wrote in the accompanying brochure-catalogue that he could tell that the Venezuelan artist was someone who would “reject easy effects, abandon too-descriptive figuration [and] subject himself to the strict discipline of a rigorous simplification of forms.” In fact, such working methods did become enduring, recognizable aspects of Vigas’ approach to making art. In retrospect, it seems, such a sense of focus and dedication to his craft, which could very well have been regarded as a sign of artistic integrity, may help explain why Vigas was held in such high esteem by his peers— in addition to their respect for the many leadership roles he had assumed and promotional efforts he had pursued for the benefit of their collective community.
In a text Vigas himself wrote, which was published in Venezuela in 1975, he observed that “artistic expression is not a ‘crazy cog’ within the philosophic and political gears of a country.” In this pamphlet, he argued forcefully that only if his fellow Venezuelan artists together were to choose their “own destiny” would the “values and forms of expression” they had to offer their country, their region, and the world be “recognized and incorporated” into the wider panorama— and, implicitly, the canonical history—of modern art’s development on the world stage.
As much a booster for his country’s artistic offerings and legacy as he was a bridge-builder across continents and cultures, Vigas is remembered today for the broad scope of his accomplishments, the adventurous spirit of his art-making, and the vigor with which he pursued a richly creative life.
By Edward Gomez