Diego Bivera of Mexico, Joaquín Torres-García of Uruguay, Wifredo Lam of Cuba, and Matta (Roberto Matta Echaurren) of Chile make up the quartet of Latin American artists who represent the spirit of international modernism that transcended cultural boundaries during the first half of the twentieth century. Their works, long recognized and appreciated in the art world, were given welcome new attention in an exhibition organized by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Quincentenary celebrations. Comprising nearly one hundred paintings, the exhibition presents four artists pursuing their own definition of modernism in a wide range of styles, a range that for the first time brings attention to Latin America’s influence on European art, rather than the reverse.

This catalogue of the exhibition is as valuable for understanding the phenomenon of cross-cultural artistic influences as for its selection of paintings. The editor, Valerie Fletcher, curator of sculpture at the Hirshhorn Museum, pays tribute to each artist with two provocative essays that accompany the color illustrations of their work. The first essay is a biographical sketch, focusing on the cultural environments and experiences that contributed to each artist’s development at home and abroad. The second set of essays, contributed by commentators Oliver Debroise, James T. Demetrion, Adolfo Maslach, Lowery S. Sims, and Octavio Paz, features salient aspects of each artist’s accomplishments as they relate to the cross-cultural experience. Not limited to stylistic appraisals, the essays include valuable information about the artists’ motivations during an extraordinary period of artistic productivity and explain some of the more complex techniques they used, such as the syncretic syntax of Wifredo Lam and the esoteric symbolism of Torres-García.

Working in Europe (a common path among Latin American art students), each of these four masters experienced an awakening regarding his own artistic heritage. As the European artists sought inspiration in the exotic and primitive art forms of the non-Western world, these artists from the New World realized that they had an infinite source of inspiration at home. The result was paintings that combined the advanced stylistic ideas of the modern Parisian art scene with a personal vocabulary culled from the artists’ own experiences and native environments. These styles were sometimes quite personal—as in the case of Wifredo Lam, who looked to his African heritage—or rather universal in their symbolism, as was Torres-García. On the other hand, Diego Rivera used the lessons of Cubism to affect composition, while Matta became a member of the Surrealist Group and had a tremendous impact on an entire generation of New York artists. Each of the four artists reinterpreted European styles to arrive at unique means of representation, with international implications.