Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Paris between the Wars
Dr. Michele Greet, Associate Professor of Art History, George Mason University
In the years between World War I and World War II Paris was at the center of the art world. Indeed, the very essence of twentieth-century art history stems from the movements and avant-garde experiments that emerged in Paris in the early years of the century. Modernism, no matter how it was rearticulated in distant locations, almost always had roots in Paris. While numerous scholars have written about the arts in Paris during this period, none examine the participation of Latin American artists in the Parisian art scene even though these artists both contributed to and re-interpreted nearly every major modernist trend between the wars, including cubism (Pablo Curatella Manes, Emilio Pettoruti, Diego Rivera, Angel Zárraga), surrealism (Antonio Berni, Wifredo Lam, Francisco Lazo, Roberto Matta, César Moro), constructivism (Jaime Colson, Germán Cueto, Amelia Peláez, Juan del Prete, Joaquín Torres-García), and the more figural modes associated with the School of Paris.
Latin American artists had been traveling to Paris to study and exhibit since the nineteenth century. The sheer numbers of artists who arrived after World War I, coupled with the increased allocation of government grants (from Latin American nations), distinguish the influx of artists between the wars from previous migrations, however. This website chronicles the residency, training, exhibition history, and Parisian contacts of more than three hundred Latin American artists living and working in Paris between 1918 and 1939. These numbers demonstrate a critical mass that rivaled or even surpassed other groups of foreigners such as Russian Jewish artists in the School of Paris. Nevertheless, the presence of Latin American artists has been overlooked in art historical literature on the period.
Since it took several years for art markets to recover after World War I, artists began traveling to Paris in significant numbers around 1923, with more arriving every year until around 1930. This great influx of Latin American artists was curtailed by the Great Depression and the accompanying xenophobia of the period; most returned to their home countries by 1933. By 1938, however, Latin American artists once again began arriving in Paris in droves, only to be compelled to leave with the onset of World War II.
Understandably, the highest concentration of Latin American artists came from the largest counties in Latin America such as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. (Mexico is a different case because of the intensified artistic activity there after the Revolution). Once in Paris, these artists initially socialized, exhibited, and sometimes shared a studio with their compatriots. Indeed, national governments often sponsored artists’ studies abroad since a European education was still envisioned as a sign of cultural status. Ironically, it was during their time abroad that these art students came into contact with artists from other Latin American countries and began to form alliances that would complicate a purely national construction of identity. In the open academies of Montparnasse such as the Académie Colarossi, the Académie Julien, the Académie de la Grand Chaumière, and later the Académie André Lhote and Fernand Léger’s Académie Moderne—where art students could pay a daily or monthly registration fee and draw from a live model—those who shared a common language, ex-patriot status, and cultural heritage as citizens of former Spanish or Portuguese colonies began to band together to increase the possibility of recognition in a highly competitive art market that was already inundated with foreigners.
A Defining Moment
As a result of this emerging sense of Latin American artistic identity, the first ever survey of Latin American art, organized by newly formed Maison de l’Amérique Latin (Latin American House) and L’Académie Internationale des Beaux-Arts (International Academy of Fine Arts), was held in Paris at the Musée Galliéra in 1924. The exhibition included over 260 works of contemporary art by forty-two Latin American artists residing in Paris, whole art collections owned by important Parisian and Latin American collectors, as well as a retrospective section of pre-Columbian and folk art. Rather than showcasing a particular stylistic tendency, for the first time organizers conceived of Latin American heritage as the unifying factor behind the show, giving rise to an exhibition format that would persist for the rest of the twentieth century: the survey of Latin American art. Prior to 1924 exhibitions of Latin American art had focused on individual artists or national trends. It was only after this exhibition in Paris that the survey show, with representative examples of artwork from each country, became an accepted format for the display of Latin American art. No such exhibition had ever been held in Latin America or the United States prior to this date1. This major show served as a catalyst for other exhibitions of Latin American art in Paris over the next decade and marked a turning point in Latin American art history.
After the show at the Musée Galliéra, Parisian galleries took a significantly greater interest in exhibiting and selling Latin American art; at the same time many artists who had arrived as students began to develop a unique artistic identity. I have identified forty-seven galleries that held at least one exhibition that included Latin American art, counting prominent galleries such as the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, the Galerie Pierre, the Galerie Percier, and the Galerie Zak. Additionally, more than thirty artists held individual exhibitions during this period, many of whom held more than one. The Galerie Zak, in particular, took a special interest in Latin American art, hosting individual exhibitions by Eduardo Abela, José Cuneo, Ricardo Grau, Barnabé Michelena, Amelia Peláez, Rómulo Rozo, and Joaquin Torres-García. Many of these artists went on to have distinguished careers in their home countries, but their presence in Europe has been essentially forgotten in the scholarship on the period.
By 1930, Latin American artists began to conceive of themselves as a cohesive group, not to the exclusion of their national identity or European collaborations, but as an additional alliance within the international artistic community in Paris. That year the Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García organized the “Première Exposition du Groupe Latino-Américain” (First Exhibition of the Latin American Group) at the Galerie Zak, which showcased the work of twenty-one artists who were experimenting with vanguard tendencies. It was the experience of living and working in Paris that facilitated this self-identification as a group, which in turn allowed for an expanded sense of kinship among Latin American artists once they returned home. Contact with and participation in an international avant-garde community in Paris fundamentally shaped future direction of Modern Latin American art, whether it provoked a rejection or embrace or selective reinterpretation of European tendencies. I also believe, however, that the critical mass of Latin American artists working in Paris expanded the worldview of European artists and intellectuals in more subtle ways. Without contact with these artists, for example, it seems unlikely that the surrealist poet André Breton would have organized an exhibition of surrealist art in Mexico in 1940. Hence, without the intense transnational dialogues that occurred in Paris between the wars, neither Latin American nor European modernism would have taken the forms it did.
For a discussion of methods used in this project see: Mapping Cultural Exchange Latin American Artists in Paris between the Wars
1The first survey exhibition of Latin American art in the United States was held in 1939 at the Riverside Museum in conjunction with the New York World’s Fair.
The data collected here was compiled from a wide variety of primary and secondary sources over a period of several years. Inevitably there will be inaccuracies and omissions. If you find any errors or have more information on any included or omitted artists, please contact Dr. Michele Greet at email@example.com and I will be happy to update the site. My hope it that this database will continue to evolve and become an important resource for historians of early twentieth-century Latin American art.
We have made every effort to contact and obtain copyright permission to display the reproductions of artworks on this site. In many cases, however, we were unable to locate the rights holder. If there is an image displayed on this site in error, please let us know and the image will be removed immediately. This site is intended as an educational resource only and no profit or monetary gain will be generated from it. Our hope is, rather, to disseminate more information and spark new scholarly investigation of the artists included.