Radical Geometry at the Royal Academy

Filed in Reviews by on July 21, 2014

Radical Geometry

The Royal Academy

Until 28 September 2014

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The Royal Academy’s ‘Radical Geometry’ offers a rare look at South American art from an era which, until now, has largely been ignored. The exhibition’s curators have chosen to focus predominantly on art from the first half of the twentieth century when the major South American republics, after periods of relative prosperity and stability, were beginning to define themselves as modern, emergent nations. Usually, if a European institution is going to tackle South American art, it’s the latter half of the twentieth century that is dealt with and as such, themes of dictatorship, violence and revolution are never far away. It’s refreshing to see a different take on the region’s fraught and complex relationship to European modernism.

The exhibition is divided into studies of three main areas: art from the River Plate (the area around the Río de la Plata, encompassing Buenos Aires and Montevideo) spanning the 1940s; Brazilian movements from the 1950s and 60s dealing explicitly with the developing major cities; and a broad look at Venezuelan art that spans the 40s to the 70s. The most interesting aspect of this approach though is that it serves to articulate a trajectory, charting South American art’s direct relationship to industrial development. Ultimately, in a survey of work that could be termed broadly as geometric abstract art, what we have is a look at how South American artists of this era were striving to balance anxieties over national identity, European influence and the fraught politics of their time with an understanding of their countries’ emergence into modernity.

In studies of Latin American literature, the term modernismo encompasses an era at the fin de siècle where poets, fuelled by the European symbolist movement, sought to create an approach to national identity that was based on a romantic use of myth and radical imagery. Modernismo could be considered as a particularly creative reading of the early European avant-gardes within the context of republican struggle and an emergent sense of modernity. The RA starts its whirlwind tour of the region from this standpoint, using the work of Joaquín Torres García, a Uruguayan artist who often broke his paintings down into geometric units, occasionally filling them with simple figurative images of houses, Suns, fish, boats, clocks and guitars. In articulating the superficial elements of Latin American culture and history as though they are symbols, he creates paintings that are like aerial plans for cities, thereby merging his sense of cultural myth and history with a vision of modernity.

Essentially, what we have here is art as a function of a culture’s entelechy, where artists seek to grasp modernity as a form of identity. Themes of the urban environment and industry are central to the exhibit in a very visceral sense, and after Torres García we move away from figurative representations completely. The exhibit ends with the Venezuelan kinetic artist, Carlos Cruz-Diez’s ‘Physichromie No. 500’, which uses PVC and acrylics to create a shimmering, bristling effect that feels entirely congruent with a twenty-first century experience of modernity. It’s interesting too how each region seems to have reconfigured the raw textures and materials of urban life in particular styles. Tomás Maldonao’s ‘Development of 14 Themes’ is typical of the River Plate section, arranging clinically charted lines and dots on what could easily be the aerial image of a mountainous terrain. The piece might even be the prelude to some utopian city planning, perhaps articulating the steady transference of socialist idealism that the River Plate imported from Europe.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian work takes a much more dynamic approach to abstraction. The pieces in this segment of the exhibit have an iconic quality, as if they were reaching for some flag to herald a new industrial identity. Hélio Oiticica’s works, using gouache on cardboard, have a particularly iconic feel to them, creating stark black blocks in symmetrical forms that create a peculiar sense of vibrancy. Lygia Clarke’s sculptures are also a particular highlight in this section, as we see this broader approach to modernity become material, breaking from the canvas entirely and setting the tone for the Venezuelan part of the exhibit. Grego’s ‘Drawing Without Paper’ could easily serve as an endpoint in this respect as it presents us with a hanging piece of wire and paperclips as though it has been scavenged from some industrial hinterland.

Jesús Soto’s ‘Homage to Yves Klein’, also from the Venezuelan segment, highlights another of the exhibit’s major themes. Soto uses wire and sheet metal to create a three-dimensional riff on Klein’s play with textures, and it is the most explicit example of the anxiety over European influence that is at the heart of all the work on show here and which is so much a part of modernismo’s move towards modernism. Most of the artists featured in the exhibit will have either lived or at least studied in Europe and the need to root European practices within the particular contexts of Latin American culture is a constant feature of these artists’ struggles. In this sense, the RA’s real triumph here is in shining a new light on how South American art really presents a different way of viewing the lineage of the twentieth century avant-gardes, where modernism and its relationship to politics is at its most fraught with potential.

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Cioran McGrath

About the Author ()

Cioran once read a book by John Berger (inadvertently) and now believes this has given him the ability to write about art, although no one has really explained to him that it’s near impossible to make a living this way. It’s unclear whether he will lose interest in the misadventure any time soon. Many hope he will. Along with being a prodigious waster of time (his as well as others’), he also writes infrequently about other things, more of which can be found at www.callenine.com. You can follow him at @CalleNine, but we’re not sure why anyone would want to.

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