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.

Valerie Fraser

This essay first appeared in Spanish in Fernando Montes: Obra 1957-1999 (La Paz: Aguilar, 1999)

Fernando Montes' more recent work is instantly recognisable: stark landscapes with silent, immobile figures or fragments of ancient architecture, painted in muted greys tinged with blue or brown, and always against a sky of the purest white. At first glance these paintings appear to belong to the well-established Latin American indigenist tradition that had its roots in the nineteenth century, and flowered, for political as well as artistic reasons, in the early decades of the twentieth. Throughout Latin America the rural peasantry is still predominantly Indian, and in the 1920s artists identified in it a theme which suited their countries' burgeoning nationalism, a theme which was their own and which demonstrated that Latin America has a culture quite separate from that of Europe, a culture with ancient roots, and with an affinity with the earth. Within this artistic tradition the image of the woman is especially pervasive: with long black plaits and motherly proportions, and often seated on the ground, in touch with the land and the landscape. Diego Rivera's Mexican women wear sarapes or rebozos; in Peru José Sabogal's wear llicllas or mantas, and colourful polleras, but they all belong to the same broad family as Montes's monumental figures of the altiplano.

But although Montes's work may be descended from this tradition there are other strands woven into it, some, I should like to suggest, much more ancient, some entirely contemporary. Most strikingly, to my mind, is the way in which his work over the past twenty or so years is so evocative of stone, in colour, texture and form. In all his more recent work figures, architecture and landscape are all painted in soft grey tones. These range from blue-grey to brown-grey, the colours of stone, and while it is not surprisingly that the architecture is unmistakably stony, the mountains and even the rounded figures have similar lithic qualities, like weathered pebbles. This is surely no accident. In the Andes stone has always been valued as the essential element of the earth, of what is termed in quechua ‘kay pacha’ and in Ayamara ‘aka pacha.’ It also links the different levels of the world: stone crags and mountain tops give access to the upper world of the air and the sun (hanan pacha, alax pacha), while caves, crevices and cracks - the gaps between the stone of the earth's surface - lead down into the earth's womb (ukhu pacha, manqha pacha), the source of water and so, in conjunction with the sun above, of life.

In the years following the Spanish conquest the chroniclers and missionaries recorded innumerable accounts of sacred stones and rocks to which they often give the name huaca. The Jesuit Pablo José de Arriaga, investigating the persistence of idolatry in Peru in the early seventeenth century, gives a detailed account of the various beliefs associated with stone: 'A cerros altos y montes y algunos piedras muy grandes también adoran y mochan, y les llaman con nombres particulares y tienen sobre ellos mil fábulas de conversiones y metamorphosis y fueron antes hombres que se convirtieron en aquellas piedras.' (Pablo José de Arriaga: 1968, 201) As stones may conserve life in an altered state, so they can have feelings: they can become tired or distressed, they may speak, or weep blood or tears. Guaman Poma mentions a stone that was being transported from Cusco to Huanuco: 'dicen que la piedra se le cansó y no quiso menear y lloró sangre la dicha piedra, y así quedó hasta hoy,' (Guaman Poma de Ayala: 1936, 160) and several early chroniclers recount stories of another tired stone at Sacsahuaman. Arriaga also identifies a category of much smaller objects of worship for which he uses the term conopa. These he understands to be small, movable idols, generally of stone, without faces, and often adorned with shawls and jewels. (Arriaga, 1968: 202) He also suggests that there is a relationship between the small conopas and larger landscape features and objects of veneration: 'Porque es cosa cierta y averiguada que estas figuras y piedras son imágenes y representación de algunos cerros, de montes y arroyos o de sus progenitores y antepasados y que los invocan y adoran como a sus hacederos y de quien esperan todo su bien y felicidad.' ((Arriaga, 1968: 196) Arriaga goes on to list many different categories of sacred stones, each of which has its own name and specific function. A huanca, for example, is placed in the fields to encourage fertility, a larca villana is placed in an irrigation ditch and worshipped during the growing season (Arriaga, 1968: 204) When women want to have children they pick up small stones, 'y las envuelven y fajan con hilos de lana' and then leave these huasas beside a large sacred rock as offerings. (Arriaga, 1968: 217) Arriaga's problem is that only relatively few of the stones he identified as 'idols' were actually carved into any recognisable form, so that every stony element in the entire landscape is potentially sacred, from mountains to pebbles.

Ideas concerning the magical properties of stone are ubiquitous in pre-hispanic Andean culture. Legends tell of how the great monoliths of Tiahauanaco represent a race of giants who were turned to stone. The most common version of the Inca origin myth holds that Manco Capac, his three brothers and their wives emerged from a cave at Pacariqtambo, the tambo of the dawn. One brother was sent back and walled up inside as in a stone tomb. Another brother was turned to stone on the top of Huanacauri hill, the third went on ahead and was turned to stone in the centre of what was to be the Inca capital of Cusco, and on his death Manco Capac himself was also turned to stone. In other words the ancestral Incas were all transformed into stone monuments. In other accounts the process is reversed: the chronicler Betanzos relates how after the god Viracocha emerged from Lake Titicaca he used stone as the raw material with which to create the human race (Juan de Betanzos, 1968: 9) Fernando Montes' work evokes this tradition of stony metamorphosis. It is not hard to imagine his figures of women and children as in some stage of transition from flesh and blood into permanent stone monuments, even mountain ranges. Or perhaps it is the other way around: perhaps the mountain peaks and rocky outcrops are being reincarnated into human life. This is a tradition which has also been explored by other Bolivian artists: Marina Núñez del Prado's sculptures for example are unmistakably, simultaneously, both stone and woman.

This close relationship between the human and the natural world is also an essential characteristic of ancient Andean architecture. At Tiahuanaco the artificial Akapana pyramid echoes the great peaks of the Andes round about, and in the enclosing walls of the Kalasasaya, sections of precisely-cut regular blocks alternate with irregular megaliths suggesting again a dialogue between nature and artifice. With Inca architecture it is often hard to tell where a natural rocky outcrop ends and the human interventions and additions begin. The architecture often seems to grow out of the surface of the hillside, the two are deliberately blended together: the worlds of the natural and the artificial interlink and overlap. Fernando Montes goes further, stripping his landscape of vegetation to emphasise the affinity between the rocky mountains (the bones of the earth), and the stone architecture. In his Inca walls the joints between the stone blocks, such a famous and distinctive feature of Inca architecture, are often understated in a way that again makes the visual link between the landscape and the architecture more explicit. His figures are similarly generalised. Like Arriaga's description of the little stone conopas, Montes' women are lovingly enveloped in cloth, but are without faces and other incidental detail. In his paintings mountains, architecture and figures all share the same stony essence.

But the visitor does not experience the Andean region in the way Fernando Montes paints it. It is true that women may sit motionless for hours by a roadside waiting for a bus, or in a town square waiting for someone to buy an orange from a carefully arranged pile. But my more enduring memories are of bustle and activity. From a distance the altiplano around Lake Titicaca may appear bleak and inhospitable, but it is, and always has been, densely populated. The flatter land is a dense tapestry of fields and farmsteads. There are people everywhere, herding flocks, tilling the soil, always on the move, and not moving at the leisurely pace popularly associated with the peasantry in Europe, but with a sense of urgency and purpose, usually at a speed somewhere between a walk and a run. Neither are my memories of the altiplano of a world dominated by grey and white: wherever there are people there will be splashes of pink, red, yellow or blue. The mantas and polleras may now be factory-made using imported dyes, but brightly-coloured fabrics are part of a deep-rooted cultural tradition that can be traced back thousands of years to the Paracas culture of the Peruvian coast and beyond. The landscape, too, is far from monochrome: the intense blue of Lake Titicaca, the many and varied greens of the vegetation, the rocks that glow a fiery red in the setting sun. So why, at least in his more recent work, has Montes chosen to ignore all this colour and life and activity?

In this respect César Paternosto's recent study of Inca aesthetics is very interesting (César Paternosto, 1989). Paternosto argues that the pre-hispanic art styles of the Andean region, and especially that of Inca architecture, are unique in their profound preoccupation with the essentially abstract qualities of form, volume, mass and geometry. This he sees as prefiguring, or rather pre-empting developments in Western art, and goes on to suggest that Andean lithic art has had a profound and largely unacknowledged impact on the development of Abstraction as a self-conscious artistic movement in the twentieth century. It is illuminating to consider Fernando Montes' paintings in the context of this ancient and fundamentally Andean tradition of abstraction. His work is representational, yes, but it represents an almost platonic idea, an abstracted reality where the underlying qualities of permanence, silence and simplicity are made manifest. The people, the landscape and the architecture have had all that is miscellaneous, particular, transient, or merely decorative distilled out of them and what is left are the solid foundations, the stone at the core of the Andean world. Montes' working method is a metaphor for this process. Surprisingly, the gentle greys of his stony objects are achieved using subtle combinations of ultramarine, raw umber and titanium white: a bright blue, a rich brown and pure white are distilled down to suggest something infinitely old and permanent. This in turn is a nice metaphor for the traditional Andean view of stone as a living sentient element that also encodes the past as a living power in the present.

While Montes reduces his subjects to stone, to the fundamental earthly element, the other essential elements - light and water - are also abstractions. His water is not water with ripples, fish and algae but an unalloyed chemical element, represented as shining silver or white. The skies in Montes' paintings are not air and atmosphere but the purest white light. It is the extraordinary clear, luminous light of the altiplano that renders the colours of the quotidian world so bright, but over the years Montes has moved away from colour to pursue the concept of light itself. The profiles of the figures and the mountains are etched against backgrounds so white that they take on a force of their own. At one level these can be seen as a thoroughly twentieth-century preoccupations: the figure/ ground dialogue has of course been a recurrent feature of representational art, and from Kazimir Malevich's White on White of 1918, to Ben Nicholson's white reliefs of the 1930s or the work of Lúcio Fontana from the 1950s onwards, artists have repeatedly returned to the theme of whiteness as a colour, as light, as pure nothingness. Again, however, Montes' work evokes an essentially Andean theme, exemplified perhaps in one of the most abstract of all his paintings, the stark Gateway of the Moon. The time when the sky most nearly approximates to white in the altiplano is at dawn. It is no accident, then, that the quechua word for white, yuraq, is a synonym for the dawn. (Diego González Holguín, 1989: p 372) Holguín's great quechua dictionary of 1608 includes the phrase 'yurakyan ñam pacha' which sounds as if it comes from some ancient hymn. Holguín translates it as ya amanece, but a more literal translation might be something like 'the world now becomes white'. As we have seen, dawn and stone are linked in the Inca origin myth: they emerge from the stony heart of the cave at a placed named Pacariqtambo, the tambo of the dawn. But a pacarina is also the place to which the soul seeks to return after death, back to the place from which it originated or, as the word implies, had its dawn. The dawn is therefore not just a vision of the future; it is also a vision of the past. Andean culture looks both ways, or rather, it looks forward to the past. The ancestors are enshrined in the stones of the landscape in order to show the road ahead. Fernando Montes' art is similarly of its time and of all time, past, present and future.

Pablo José de Arriaga, 'Extirpación de la idolatría del Perú' [1621] Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, t. 209, Madrid 1968
Guaman Poma de Ayala, 'Primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno' [c.1615] Paris 1936
Juan de Betanzos,'Suma y narración de los Incas' [1551] Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, t. 209, Madrid 1968
César Paternosto, 'The Stone and the Thread: Andean Roots of Abstract Art, Texas 1996. This is an expanded version of Piedra Abstracta: La Escultura Inca: Una visión contemporánea, Buenos Aires/ Mexico City 1989
Diego González Holguín, Vocabulario de la Lengua Qquichua o del Inca, [1608] Lima 1989

Valerie Fraser, 1999

browse the collection

artist a-z > work type > advanced search >