Torres Garcia museum in Montevideo

Portrait of the artist

Joaquín Torres García changed Uruguayan art forever

Upside-down maps, strange symbols in primary colours, fish out of water? If you have seen paintings containing any of the above recently, chances are that you have been in Montevideo.

The man responsible was Joaquín Torres García, and he set in motion an artistic revolution. Torres García was born in the Uruguayan capital in 1874 and – still in his teens – emigrated to Barcelona with his family with the plan to learn to paint. His trademark style came to be constructivism, founded in part on the inclusion of indigenous elements in artworks. Despite the profusion of his work on posters, in coffee table books and even on mugs (if not on canvas: many of his paintings were destroyed in a fire in a Brazilian museum in 1979) it's a difficult style to pin down.

According to Alejandro Díaz, director of Montevideo's Torres García Museum, it's easier to give examples of what it is – and isn't:

"First of all, it is the opposite of the kind of art that aims to reproduce a given reality in a painting. What constructivism does is create its own truth, which only exists in that particular work of art. References to the world as we know and see it appear as signs and symbols, which don't intend to imitate anything at all. Add to this the intensity of the colours the artist uses and you get a harmony which is rather like that you experience when you hear a good piece of music."

Although he mixed with such artists as Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, Torres García knew spells of hardship in Europe. He took on teaching jobs and for a while, and quite successfully, made toys. From Spain he moved to New York and later Paris. Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee were key influences. The Uruguayan art world was fundamentally unprepared for what was coming.

Torres García returned to his homeland in 1934 to find artists mired in excessively conservative habits: much painting tended to ape traditional European styles; the stapes were portraits and pastoral scenes. His outlook was bound to be controversial, and constructivism did not take root in the country until the 1940s when encouraged a diverse group of young artists (including José Gurvich, Manuel Pailós and Julio Alpuy) by holding classes at his studio, later dubbed the Southern School.

Constructivist works by Pailós in particular are a mainstay of the auctions of Southern School artists that are now a regular feature of the Montevideo art scene, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. A medium-sized canvas by Pailós currently fetches around US$1500. Minor works and sketches by other School members can go for as little as a couple of hundred dollars.

Auction rooms are invariably crowded: it's not about a cosmopolitan few fighting over works worth millions, but rather about how a coherent national style is collected en masse by ordinary people who – if they didn't live in Uruguay – might not collect anything at all. In this country, constructivist works don't just hang in the plus lobbies of city centre banks, they brighten up the offices of suburban estate agents and even the walls of at least one beauty salon.

Mr Díaz takes the view that it was Torres García who essentially introduced modern art to Uruguay. But there are questions left unanswered.

"There's no way of knowing if it was Torres García's intention, but his use of primary colours and repeated symbols – fish, anchors, the sun and so on – have become a key part of Uruguay's visual identity," says Mr Díaz.

What we do know is what Torres García himself said and wrote. Famously, in his pamphlet on Constructive Universalism, Torres García explained that "I have said School of the South, because in reality our North is the South. Therefore we now turn the map upside down, and then we have a true idea of our position…" Would he have been pleased that populists like Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez latch on to his upside-down map to push an argument about the rich north oppressing a poor south? We cannot know.

But Torres García certainly believed that there was something special about his home town. Soon after returning to Montevideo after his years of self-imposed exile he wrote: "We are here, buffeted by winds that shake up minds and bodies in this special place on the River Plate shore, almost a peninsula, as if it wanted to lead a march into the continent. It is our geographical position that gives us our destiny."

Factfile:

The Torres García Museum is on pedestrianised calle Sarandí between Plaza Independencia and the Plaza Matriz. Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 9.30 am to 7.30 pm; Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm; closed on Sundays. Consult the museum's website for details of guided tours and temporary exhibitions: www.torresgarcia.org.uy. Art auctions: The friendly and knowledgeable father and son team at A & A Subastas in Pocitos (www.subastasarteya.com) hold regular auctions of Southern School works, as does Castells (www.castells.com.uy) at its atmospheric auction room in the Centre.

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