The arts, at their best, challenge us to open our minds, inspire our own creative expression and motivate us to action. Chilean and Argentine artists know this. If politics have influenced the collective character of the Chilean and Argentine people, that character is expressed through the arts. Artists have legendary status, they are folk heroes known and beloved by all.
In Chile, Nobel prize-winning Pablo Neruda was poet, diplomat and politician. He wrote surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos, and passionate love poems such as the ones in his collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924). He narrowly escaped arrest in 1948, lived many years in exile and returned to Chile in 1973 around the time of the Pinochet coup. He died in hospital shortly after his return, and it is widely believed he was poisened by the Pinochet regime.
Roberto Matta, a surrealist painter influenced by Picasso, Dali and others, explored the interior of the human mind.
Matta combined the political and the semi-abstract in epic surreal canvases. Matta believed that art and poetry can change lives, and was very involved in the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He was a strong supporter of the government of president Salvador Allende in Chile. His mural entitled The First Goal of the Chilean People was painted over with 16 coats of paint by the military regime of Augusto Pinochet following their violent overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973. In 2005 the mural was discovered by local officials and in 2008, the mural was completely restored and is displayed today in La Granja city hall.
Violeta Parra and Victor Jara were folk singer activists whose music is still on the lips of Chileans today. Called the Mother of Latin America Folk, Parra travelled Chile recording and reviving Chilean folk songs. Her fine art was also displayed at the Louvre. Her song, Thanks to Life, now almost a national folk anthem, was tragically written one year before her suicide in 1967. Jara was a Chilean teacher, theater director, poet, singer-songwriter and political activist tortured and killed during the dictatorship of Pinochet. The contrast between the themes of his songs—love, peace, and social justice—and the brutal way he was murdered transformed Jara into a “potent symbol of struggle for human rights and justice” for those killed during the Pinochet’s regime. His killer was convicted in 2016.
In Argentina, Benito Quinquela Martin was born in 1890 in La Boca, the port area of Buenos Aires and home to many immigrants and sailors. His vibrant paintings depict the industrial, hard-working ship labourers. This was the same impoverished neighbourhood from which the tango emerged and Carlos Gardel was the early voice of the tango. He expressed through his singing what Quinquela conveyed on the canvas.
Argentine painter Antonio Berni was initially influenced by surrealism and travelled between Paris and Argentina in the 1930’s. In 1931, Berni returned to Rosario where he witnessed labor demonstrations and the miserable effects of unemployment and was shocked by the news of a military coup d’état in Buenos Aires. For Berni, surrealism didn’t convey the frustration or hopelessness of the Argentine people. He organized Mutualidad de Estudiantes y Artistas and became a member of the local Communist party. He visited the miserable city of Juanito and made a series paintings there. He said that the decline of art was indicative of the division between the artist and the public and that social realism stimulated a mirror of the surrounding spiritual, social, political, and economic realities.
Mercedes Sosa was Argentina’s most important folk singer. She introduced Violeta Parra’s song, “Thanks to Life” to a new generation of Latin Americans. After the 1976 military junta, the atmosphere in Argentina grew increasingly oppressive. Sosa faced death threats against both her and her family, but refused for many years to leave the country. At a concert in La Plata in 1979, she was searched and arrested on stage, along with all those attending the concert. Their release came about through international intervention. Banned in her own country, she moved to Paris and then to Madrid. A supporter of Perón, she favored leftist causes throughout her life and was A UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Latin America and the Caribbean. More on her music, later.
Carmen Aguirre and Isabel Allende are just two of the wonderful writers publishing today on the turbulent 60’s and 70’s in Latin America and what it means to be a refugee. Both left Chile and now live in Vancouver and California, respectively. The latter is one of the most-read novelists in the world today.
There, some background on politics and the arts. Live impressions to follow!