Modernism: Latin America

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Modernism: Latin America

Modernism (sometimes referred to as modern art or, even less precisely, as modernity in the arts) is a term for various experimental languages in the arts with multiple meanings and conflicting aims, and was ascendant from the 1880s to the 1960s (although certain artistic techniques and tactics of early modernist art, such as collage and photomontage, have enjoyed a potent afterlife since the 1960s, especially in Latin America at moments of social insurgency).

According to one of the most famous versions of the history of modernism, associated especially with the writings of critic Clement Greenberg from the 1930s through the 1980s, modernism is an essentially Euro-American phenomenon; but this was never an accurate story about modernism and has been decisively overturned by the debate around postmodernism since the late 1980s. Greenberg has been a very prominent voice about modernism in the United States, with a certain following among Latin American critics like Marta Traba. In perhaps his most well-known definition, "Modernist Painting" (1965), he tried to limit modernism to little more than an engagement with the "essential" material properties of the medium by linking it to Western positivism. (Revealingly, positivism was the prerevolutionary ideology of the dictatorship of Portfirio Díaz in Mexico, even as this school of thought enjoyed considerable hegemony in the West long after the "postcolonial" Revolution of 1910.)

The unduly reductionist view of modernist painting championed by Greenberg was then qualified by a whole series of noteworthy scholars, including Dore Ashton, Thomas Crow, Rosalind Krauss, and Charles Harrison in the West. They respectively demonstrated how modernism from the beginning had carried on a dialogue at once both positive and negative with mass culture as well as popular culture, how modernism was less about a literal focus on the brute materials of a given medium and more about a self-critical look at the inherited languages with which modernist artists had to work, and, finally, that modernist art's activation of the spectator's faculties is meant "to confront the occasions of fantasy and distraction with the requirements of imagination and critical self-awareness" (Harrison, p. 154).

The historical coordinates for the advent of international modernism between 1880 and 1940 have been incisively plotted in a paper by Perry Anderson entitled "Modernity and Revolution." In it he noted that "modernism flowered in the space between a still usable classical past [of official academicism], a still indeterminate technical present [when the 'machine age' was still replete with radical possibilities], and a still unpredictable political future [when the prospect of revolution was more proximate than it had ever been]" (p. 105). Indeed, this triangulated field of forcesa contested academic art representing the old regime; the possibility of technological innovation, not necessarily along capitalist lines; and an insurgent political movement that called for revolutionary changeis precisely what spawned the "epic modernism" of the Mexican Mural Movement from 1922 to 1940 and thus inaugurated modernism as a potent force in the visual arts throughout the Americas.

In contrast to Greenberg's assertion, modernism does not emerge in a linear artistic progression along national lines; instead there are several different multinational conceptions of modernism (and with them, divergent views of its relation to postmodernism) that have arisen within several geographic regions (including not only Latin America, but also Asia and Africa). Modernism's trajectory is more accurately described as a delta with numerous destinations around the globe, rather than as a one-lane highway with only one stop terminating in the West.

At once international in character and yet also unavoidably regional by nature, metropolitan modernism has been paradoxically linked through the arts either to cultural forms of marginalized groups in the West (such as those of Eastern European émigrés, Latinos, African-Americans, and Native Americans) or to so-called peripheral nations in the Third World, as in Latin America. For Raymond Williams in The Politics of Modernism (1989), it was in "a generation of 'provincial' immigrants to the great imperial capitals that avant-garde formations and their distanced, 'estranged' forms have their matrix" (p. 14).

An adequate description of Latin American modernism, then, must begin by considering the various definitions of modernism that have arisen within specific contexts, as well as by distinguishing modernism as a cluster of renovative and self-reflexive languages in the arts from modernity. The latter is instead a social experience that has been generated by modernization, which is a globalizing economic program centered in the West. All three of these historic phenomena have existed in complicated, asymmetrical relation to each other.

The Origin of "Modernism" in Latin America

Far from originating solely with intellectuals from metropolitan Western Europe, the term "modernism" first surfaced in print in the writings of a major author from a small "underdeveloped" country in Central America. It was in the late 1880s that the celebrated Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío (18671916) first published the term modernism (or modernismo in Spanish). The earliest known appearance in print worldwide of this term was in 1888 in Darío's essay "La literatura en Centroámerica" (Revista de arte y cultural, Santiago, Chile), when he discussed how author Ricardo Contreas was then using "el absoluto modernismo en la expressión [de] su estilo compuesto " ("absolute modernism in expression through his synthetic style"). Subsequently, Darío published the word modernismo a second time in an article entitled "Ricardo Palma (Perú, 18331919)," which appeared twice in 1890: first, in the Peruvian journal El Perú Ilustrado (Lima), on 8 November 1890, and second, in the Guatemalan publication Diario de Centro-Ámerica (Guatemala City). Thus, by 1899, the Real Academia Española had incorporated the word modernismo into the latest edition of the Diccionario de la Lengua (Madrid, 1899)although the proliferation of meanings triggered by Darío's usage of the term defied any lexicographical effort at a fixed definition.

This beginning was a prophetic one, for modernism in the arts, both here and elsewhere, has generally occurred at the historic intersection between competing cultures uneasily linked by colonial lineaments, yet starkly divided by the uneven nature of capitalist modernization. Often modernism has thus responded "nationally" to a set of unsettled transnational relationships, but it has generally done so in a cosmopolitan spirit of internationalism that moves beyond national boundaries. Such was the case not only in Nicaragua during the time of Rubén Darío, but also in India during "the age" of Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi or Nigeria in the period of painter Aina Onabolu (18821962). It was also true in turn-of-the century Paris, during la belle époque, that obviously existed in tense relation to France's contemporary colonial empire in Central Africa.

Although it hardly enjoyed common usage in either the English-or French-or German-speaking artworlds before the mid-1950s (when a group of critics, including Clement Greenberg, began defining it in English), the term modernism was invoked, defined, and debated in the Spanish-speaking world beginning in the 1890s on both sides of the Atlantic. In many countries, though, whether in the Americas or in Europe, the most common term for modernism in the teens or twenties was simply the new art (el arte nuevo, or die neue Kunst ), while in the 1930s and 1940s, the most common designation of modernist art was "modern art" (arte moderno, l'art moderne, and moderne Kunst ). In Spanish discourses, the term modernismo was, quite confusingly, used both to refer the Modernist movement and as the generic name for various modernist movements. This explains the recourse to modernidad which in English would literally be translated as "modernity," although in fact modernidad would be better translated more broadly in English as "modernism." An early example of the latter usage would be in a well-known 1926 essay by muralist Diego Rivera about the photographs of Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, which artistically demonstrated the "modernidad extrema de la plástica [ del arte ]," that is, an "extreme modernism"not "extreme modernity" in the artsin English.

A similar imprecision in terminology occurred in routine usage from the late nineteenth century until the 1960s, both in the Americas and in Europe, of the term avant-garde or arte de la vanguardia which was then assumed to be a mere synonym for those attributes of painting and the other visual arts articulating modernism (or modernidad ). This was clearly the case in the very first modernist manifesto by the Mexican muralists, when David Alfaro Siqueiros in May 1921 made "3 llamamientos de orientación actual a los pintores y escultores de la nueva generación americana " ("Three appeals for orientation right now among the painters and sculptors of the new American generation") in the journal Vida-Americana: Revista Norte, Centro y Sud-Americana de Vanguardia. In the public appeal, Siqueiros wrote of how: "VIVAMOS NUESTRA MARAVILLOSA EPOCA DINAMICA! amemos la mecanica moderna que nos pone en contacto de emociones plasticas inesperadas Abandondemos los motives literarios. HAGAMOS PLASTICA PURA " ("We are living in our marvelously dynamic epoch! We love the modern technology that we are placing in contact with unexpected artistic emotions. We are abandoning literary motives. Let us make pure visual art"). Revealingly, this two-page manifesto that equated "pure painting"that is, painting freed of literary references and based on an evocation of "la vie moderne " in the machine agewith the "arte del futuro " of "la vanguardia " was accompanied by a frontispiece that featured a cubist painting from 1914 by Diego Rivera, the first major, internationally recognized modernist painter produced by Latin America.

Thus Siquieros clearly assumes that these formalist concerns of the modernist movements featuring post-literary painting are entirely synonymous with avant-garde art. In three much later essays by the art critic Clement Greenberg, comparable assumptions prevail, yet to more conservative political ends, and far more restrictive aesthetic aims: "Avant-garde and Kitsch" (1939), "Towards a Newer Laocoon" (1940), and the aforementioned "Modernist Painting" (1965).

As Latin America's earliest avant-garde movement, modernismo was first limited largely to literature: essays, poetry, and short stories. Such was the case with Rubén Darío's now legendary Azul (1888; Azure ), which conjoined the innovative self-critical splintering of poetic language (based on enjambment and mid-line caesura) with broader critical reflections on the process of modernization. At issue was a heterogeneous new cultural force that linked self-consciously French-influenced vanguard language with period tropes from an agrarian-based Central America and unlikely recollections of little-known pre-Columbian cultural traditions. This tightly intertwined dynamic of formal disjunction and thematic displacement was summed up by Darío in Prosas Profanas (1896; Lay hymns). In this controversial text, he both called for an inward-looking revivification of poetic language in the most modern terms and insisted on an outward-looking reengagement with the precolonial past, since "If there is a [new] poetry in nuestra America, it is to be found in the old things."

Following the lead of Cuban author José Martí (18521895), another modernist poet (who also led the movement for national liberation in Cuba against Western colonialism), Darío interwove modernist texts with thematic references to anti-imperialism and to a racial harmony only possible in a postcolonial future. An exemplary and still well-known poem in that vein is found in Darío's Cantos de vida y esperanza (1905), in a piece entitled "To Roosevelt." In it, he challenged the United States, as "el futuro invasor de la América ingénua que tiene sangre indígena " ("the future invader of the ingenuous America that has indigenous blood"). As such, the colossus of the North, with its cynical fusion of the cult of Hercules and the worship of money, was critically contrasted with the other Americas, "la América nuestra, que teniá poetas / desde l os viejos tiempos de Netzahualcoyotol. " In this text, the modernism of Darío, and others, responded to the critique of Euro-American-centrism first voiced in the celebrated anti-positivist Kulturkritik by Uruguayan author José Enrique Rodó (18721917), namely, Ariel (1900).

Only after the word modernism crossed the Atlantic from Latin America to discover Europe, first Barcelona, then Paris, did it start designating certain formal strategies and thematic concerns in the visual arts that were linked to the literary project of Rubén Darío. The term modernismo (modernisme in French) or arte modernista (l'art moderniste ) was used in the beginning to refer to such famous architectural projects by Antoni Gaudí as Parque Guell (19001914) and Sagrada Familia (18831926), in the fin-de-siècle city where both Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera would work in the early twentieth century. It was this cosmopolitan city in Spain, as much as Paris proper, that would help to spawn such early modernist masterworks as Picasso's 1907 Demoiselles d'Avignon (named for a street in Barcelona) and Rivera's distinctive corpus from 1913 to 1917 of "Anáhuac Cubism," as Justino Fernández would so aptly call it in reference to the indigenous Mexican content of Rivera's work. In the case of Gaudí, for example, the term modernismo constituted both a distinct tendency within modernism proper and a point of departure for advancing other types of modernism as well, such as cubism. Indeed, almost all of the key formal tactics for every other variety of modernism were deployed in Gaudí's singular modernist artworks, like Parque Guell and Sagrada Familia: (1) a collage aesthetic featuring a mosaic of ruins or shards; (2) a multilateral sense of history based upon uneven development; (3) a multicultural mestizaje (hybridity) ranging from African components to pan-European elements; (4) a critique of capitalist modernization; and (5) an anti-imperialist aspiration (in this instance, one interlinked with the Catalan autonomy movement).

As for the ideologically charged use of the fragment to explain the historical import of modernism in the visual arts, we need only recall how Mexican painter Diego Rivera defined the unsettling language of cubism as "a revolutionary movement [that] broke down forms as they had been seen for centuries, and was creating out of the fragments new forms, new objects, new patterns, andultimatelynew worlds" (trans. by March). Later, art critics would illuminate how arte modernista, like that of the cubist "collages" by Rivera, with their distinctive uses of modernist space, constituted a critique of the actual mechanics for pictorial logic in Western art. As Rosalind Krauss would point out in the 1980s, two of the key artistic strategies to develop out of collage space were figure/ground reversals and the restless transposition of negative space into positive form, so that no visual sign would exist without the attendant eclipse or negation of its natural referent. In this manner modernism, particularly as manifested in cubism, ended up critically exploring through a critique of artistic languages the preconditions of mainstream Westernthat is, colonialmodes of representation.

As such, the modernist contestation by Latin American artists of Euro-American cultural hegemony is what permitted Diego Rivera to recruit cubism and several other artistic traditions, both modern and premodern, on behalf of the Mexican Revolution, when he (along with José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Fernando Leal, and others) created an "epic modernism" during the Mexican mural renaissance from 1922 to 1940. Signs of this emergent "revolutionary modernism" (Rivera called it "la revolución de arte moderno ") already surfaced in such cubist period paintings in 1915 as Paisaje Zapatista: El Guerrillero and Retrato de Martín Luis Guzmán (a Mexican novelist who served with Pancho Villa). In that sense, one could justifiably recall the observation of Mexican writer Antonio Caso that Diego Rivera was to the modernist visual art of Latin America what Rubén Darío had been to modernist poetry from Latin America.

Modernism and Postmodernism

It is worth noting that, as was true of the term modernism, there was a south-to-north movement for circulating the word postmodernism (or postmodernismo ). The latter first emerged in the Hispanophone literary world, in 1934, when it was coined by author Federico de Onis. He did so in Antología de la Poesía Española e Hispanoamericana (18821933), where he identified modernism as a worldwide movement in response to the "crisis of Western Civilization." De Onis contrasted a conservative artistic tendency within modernism, which he christened "postmodernism," in contradistinction to an "ultra-modernismo." The latter, linked to writers like Jorge Luis Borges from Argentina, was then reintensifying the most radical features of modernism, in a second wave of the original movement. Revealingly, it was only in the 1950s that the centrist Spanish term postmodernism would resurface in the English-speaking worldafter which it then was redefined as a "radical development" and became a generalized cultural phenomenon in the arts "around the world" over the next three decades.

The art critic Hal Foster pointed out in a now-famous anthology entitled The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983) that postmodernism emerged not just as a "new set of styles" that chronologically superceded those of modernism. Rather, some tendencies of postmodernism have often been another way of reengaging critically with the competing legacies of international modernism, thus being yet another subaltern or dissenting phase of modernism proper in the form of "resistant post-modernism." Hence, in the period since 1900, there has been a concerted move by advanced critical theorists both to redefine modernism along postcolonial lines and to resituate the historical trajectory of modernism worldwide in response to the "new world order" (without, in either case, denying the ongoing neocolonization now being sanctioned by Western imperialism). Two noteworthy reconsiderations of modernism from "outside the West" encapsulate this hotly contested historiography of modernism and postmodernism: La Modernidad después de la postmodernidad (1990; Modernity after postmodernity) by the Argentine author Nestor García Canclini and "Postmodernity as Modernity's Myth" (2001) by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek.


In Latin America and elsewhere in the "postcolonial world," the confining, Eurocentric position of Greenberg was then more broadly reworked through critiques by such notable thinkers as Juan Acha of Peru, Gerardo Mosquera of Cuba, Partha Mitter of India, Rasheed Araen of Pakistan, Olu Oguibe of Nigeria, and Kobena Mercer of the United Kingdom. In all of these cases, and others, they reminded us that a "postcolonial" redefinition of modernism (along with modernity and modernization), one that is adequate to the demands of the historical present, has only now begun to be written.

See also Aesthetics: Europe and the Americas ; Arts: Overview ; Modernity: Overview ; Postmodernism .


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David Craven