The history of modern art in Europe and North America has been written and rewritten in detail, while that of the twentieth-century art of other parts of the world, like Latin America and the Caribbean, has barely been put into words. For Latin America there are significant exhibition catalogues and monographs of particular twentieth-century art movements and artists, but few books on the subject as a whole. In this context, these two books are highly welcome. That they are in English has the added advantage of making this art known to a large audience in the United States and England that has recently shown a strong interest in the subject.
Latin American Art of the Twentieth Century is a long-overdue volume in Thames and Hudson’s World of Art series, known for its didactic text, fine-quality plates, and useful selected bibliography. Part of the reason for not publishing such a text in this series before, and for the general absence of books of the subject, is suggested by Edward Lucie-Smith in the introduction: “Until recently, the art of twentieth-century Latin America was undervalued by European and North American critics. It was denigrated as derivative, imitative of the mainstream Modernism of Western Europe and the United States” (p. 7). As the author notes, however, that view lately has been put to rest as Latin American art has been increasingly seen in its own cultural, social, and political context.
Lucie-Smith combines a chronological and a thematic approach for his narration, which is perhaps the best way to organize the diverse directions and the leap-and-bound development of this art. As in most accounts of the subject, Mexican art is best represented, followed by the art of Argentina and Brazil and then that of the rest of Latin America. The art of the Caribbean is mostly ignored, with the exception of Cuba, which in itself is not well covered. In all, Lucie-Smith’s book offers an accessible and informative introduction to twentieth-century painting in most of Latin America.
Marta Traba’s posthumous Art of Latin America, 1900-1980 presents a more critical and socioculturally grounded study of the subject. Whereas Lucie-Smith in his career as a critic has concentrated on European art, Traba was one of the leading critics of contemporary Latin American art. In general, Traba’s text is engaging and the color plates are excellent. Regrettably, however, the plates do not relate directly to the text. The book also has no bibliography; only scant notes.
Traba also made use of a chronological-thematic approach to her material, beginning with a solid introduction to the complexities of modern art in Latin America. It is the diversity of the material that accounts for the lack of texts on the region’s art as a whole, Traba believes. In chapters 2 and 3 she covers the period from around 1920 to 1950. Chapter 2 is dedicated to Mexican muralism and its followers throughout Latin America, chapter 3 to the first vanguards in Latin American art.
Traba divides the artistic production of this period into realistic and abstract tendencies, the former associated with socially oriented art and the latter with art for art’s sake. The problem with this method is that in Latin America the line between figurative and abstract, socially and artistically conscious art is often blurry. Some of the artists in the second chapter, such as Emiliano di Cavalcanti and Victor Manuel, could just as easily be included in the third. The strongest section in her book is the fourth chapter, dedicated to the various forms of abstraction and figuration in the 1950s and 1960s. The final chapter concentrates on the pluralistic 1970s, including an extended section on graphic art and brief segments on the diverse art scene of that decade. Traba’s text offers a solid presentation of twentieth-century art in most of Latin America and its inextricable connections to the sociohistorical context out of which it arose.
In spite of their weakness in one or another content area, these texts are welcome additions to the scant art historical literature in English on the twentieth-century art of Latin America.