The idea of the primitive is another key element when discussing the art of Joaquín Torres García. It is frequently brought up in order to rehash the notions of place and identity that are tied up to writings on Torres´ Montevideo period and the foundation of Universalismo Constructivo as a regionalist enterprise that not many people, at least not in Uruguay, cared about. In “Montevideo: Constructive Universalism”, Cecilia de Torres states that “Tal vez fue algo insólita la idea de escoger a la capital uruguaya como punto de lanzamiento de un proyecto cuyo fin fuera la unificación cultural de América. A diferencia de las grandes ciudades del Perú o de México, Montevideo- la capital más austral del continente- no fue construida sobre las ruinas de civilizaciones anteriores. Para principios del siglo XIX la colonización europea ya había disuelto y casi exterminado las tribus nómadas indígenas de la region, en particular los Charrúa y los Chaná” (223), later on she states that “(Torres) no logró interesar a los artistas uruguayos en este proyecto: el arte amerindio les resultaba extranjero y ajeno a su campo de interés” (226).
This interest in Torres having chosen an awkward place to establish a movement that theoretically depended on pre-Columbian art, (even though Montevideo was his native city and he had already travelled to many other places), was already present in the 1930s and 40s; over the years, the use of the pre-Columbian as well as the fact that it came from Montevideo have been discussed and regarded as positive attributes that speaks to the hype, relevance and legitimacy of Universalismo Constructivo. The Uruguayan author Juan Carlos Onetti, who befriended Torres as a young man, helped to establish this trend when he talked about all of this in one of his journalistic pieces: “Váyase a Perú, a México, a Guatemala” places where there is an interest in the pre-Columbian, he would say to Torres, but the older and wiser artist would reply “que justamente le interesaba el Uruguay, Montevideo, porque no teníamos un pasado de civilización india…. Buscaba hacer surgir de la nada un arte nuevo que tal vez tuviera siglos de edad”. Onetti suggests that in Torres something modern could pass as an antiquity, and that it would be possible to invent, as in alternate history (or as in fiction like the one Onetti wrote around the made-up city of Santa María), a narrative of the Charrúas as an important pre-Columbian Civilization.
I have already discussed the thought that Torres was able to steer away from narrative but it comes back here in terms of his use of primitivism: “al liberar el arte de su papel mimetico, (Torres) permitió que los artistas evadieran la trampa narrativa o descriptiva indigenista” (132) says Mari Carmen Ramírez in one of her essays on La Escuela del Sur.
Overall, there is a notion that the relationship between Universalismo Constructivo and pre-Columbian art is fruitful, balanced, with no annoying side effects of what Torres called “pastiche sudamericano”, and Cecilia de Torres sums up as “los peligros del criollismo y el folclorismo folclórico” (226).
Juan Fló is less optimistic about this relationship. He sees a blatant contradiction, not within the work, but between Torres the painter and Torres the promoter of his own art. On the last footnote of his “Torres-García in (and from) Montevideo”, Fló states that “The influence of pre-Columbian art on Torres-García is irrelevant. Indo-American art, like all primitive arts and the art of great ancient cultures, interested him inasmuch as it formed part of the paradigm of an art with an extra-aesthetic meaning not bound to imitative representation” (43). Fló goes on to say that there are few actual examples, and dubious ones, in Torres´ artwork that can be unequivocally related to Indo-America; while his writings are full of the desire to claim the Indo-American influence. Even though other writers mention that Uruguayans cared little about the pre-Columbian, Fló believes that Torres used the idea in order to persuade them, in order to attract attention.
Luis Camnitzer, another important Uruguayan artist and writer, also sees the contradiction but takes the other side. In one of his essays he suggests that in the case of Torres the act of painting interfered with his ideological project.
I feel the painter and the promoter should be reunited, not divided. Meshed up until you can’t tell whether Torres was a writer or a painter, whether Universalismo Constructivo was of Latin American or European origin, produced by a skilful arts and crafts movement or sold as mass-produced “artesanías”, primitive in naïve, folkloric terms or profound ones.
Camnitzer, Luis, edited by Rachel Weiss. (2009). On art, artists, Latin America, and other utopias. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Onetti, Juan Carlos. (1975). “Infidencias sobre Torres García”. Taken from the Museo Torres García webpage http://www.torresgarcia.org.uy
Ramírez, Mari Carmen. (2000). “Inversiones: la Escuela del Sur” in Ramírez, Mari Carmen and Héctor Oleas, editors Heterotopías Medio Siglo Sin-Lugar: 1918-1968. Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.