The Essex Collection of Art from Latin America is supported in its work by academic staff and students at the University of Essex, as well as external researchers. This community contributes texts and papers to our online catalogue and to other ESCALA publications.

Cuauhtémoc Medina

Szyszlo and the Gothic: Room 23

This essay was first published in Horizontes Cambiantes: cuerpos-redes-voces-tránsitos Casa de América, Madrid, 1999

A heavy armoured figure made of schematic blocks of oil, patched with accents of colour that recall the protuberances of reptile skin: the menacing character that occupies Room 23 (1994), keeps in its robotic appearance some traces of Szyszlo’s pre-Columbian sources and cultural climate. This apparition in an empty room, broken by a heavy beam of magenta light on the back, is Szyszlo’s homage to Argentinean writer Enrique Molina’s poem ‘El pasajero de la habitación número 23’ (The passenger of room number 23). Szyszlo has attempted to convey in painting some of the poem’s nihilist undertones. In his text Molina depicts the existential angst of a solitary man awakening in a hotel, where haunting images of vice, decadence and death assault his imagination:

I revere the prostitute’s glory and struggle with flies for the warmth of a bulb in September, and deny my origins and my name until I finally lie among the most beautiful celestial rubble where kisses sparkle amidst the smoke of uprooting.

Today it might be easier to perceive the haunting sense of trauma and melancholia in Fernando de Szyszlo’s painting than it was for his audience and critics in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Peruvian painter made his breakthrough as one of Latin America’s most important artists. At that time Szyszlo embodied the role of conciliator, to use critic Mirko Lauer’s words. Szyszlo bypassed the dichotomy of abstract vs. figurative and, as Rufino Tamayo had done for Mexican intellectuals, seemed to confirm that a cryptic pursuit of a cosmopolitan idiom was also the best way to achieve contact with the calling of the ancient cultures of the continent. Szyszlo seemed to fuse two of the most disparate sources: European tachism’s rigour and spiritual density as in the work of artists like Hans Hartung, with the authenticity and qualities of pre-Columbian ceramics and textiles from Chancay in central Peru, among many other Indian references. Such a refined mixture of European/Indian visual values became the foremost example of what the influential Argentinean critic Marta Traba construed as the Latin American artistic resistance against the pressures coming from the technolatric and volatile culture of the United States: sort of ‘painting-shields’ (Traba’s term) against the (North) Americanisation of the South.

However, it might well be that the gothic accents that Szyszlo underscores in this recent painting had been very much part of his spiritual world since the beginning. As with some of his contemporaries, like Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, the pre-Columbian appears in Szyszlo’s work as much as an object of desire as of fear: a phantasmagoric underworld ready to jump from a crack in the pavement into the vibrant new Latin American metropolis. After all, the ancient Peruvian objects that he has taken as models were of a funerary kind: artefacts from tombs. In a sense, for Latin American modern culture the Indian past has frequently adopted the shining majesty of a return of the repressed. The turbulent daybreak of Szyszlo’s scene might come under the guise of a purely personal questioning, but it still invokes the predicament of what being a Latin American meant for one of its most dynamic generations of intellectuals and artists.

Cuauhtémoc Medina, 1999

browse the collection

artist a-z > work type > advanced search >