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Old styles in a new world

Standing in the IDB Cultural Center Art Gallery, in Washington, D.C., surrounded by paintings from 19th century Venezuela, one feels transported to, well, France.

With the exception of several charming primitives from early in the century, the exhibit “Leading Figures in Venezuelan Painting of the Nineteenth Century” stands as a testimony to the degree to which the mid-century Venezuelan elite regarded France as the model for material, intellectual and cultural attainment.

But this came later. In the early years of the century, the arts, including painting, were still being practiced at the handicraft level with little knowledge of perspective, proportion and shading. The reigning genre at that time was portraiture, along with the depiction of historical and mythological themes.

Venezuela’s artistic horizons broadened after the country achieved independence. Inspired in part by the reports of German scholar Alexander von Humboldt, many writers, scientists, explorers and artists from overseas visited Venezuela, introducing new ideas. Artists began to explore new themes, such as landscape and local scenes.

Foreign influences increased in the 1840s, as Venezuela entered a period of prosperity. Drama and photography made their appearances, and formal art instruc- tion became available at several institutions, including the Academy of Fine Arts in 1849. The arts made further advances after national leader Antonio Guzmán Blanco arrived on the political scene in the 1870s. Considered both a great autocrat and a civilizing force, his rule spelled the end of the influence of the local leaders. He remodeled Caracas to give it the appearance of Paris, and oversaw the creation of the National Institute of Fine Arts. Young artists received fellowships to study in Paris and Rome. In particular, study at the Paris Academy was considered all but obligatory.

Politics and portraiture. One of Venezuela’s most brilliant, versatile and prolific exponents of the French academic style, Arturo Michelena, was in constant demand to fill the broad, empty walls of public buildings with scenes from the nation’s history: heroes, battles, allegories. His talents were put to good use by the church as well, and his religious works included the “Last Supper” for the Cathedral of Caracas. More intimate works also demonstrated the talents of this master of the turn of the century, such as his Portrait of Emilia Alcalá.

During this period, a whole generation of artists received commissions from the government for the decoration of public buildings, and painters working in the academic style turned out numerous depictions of national heroes and other illustrious figures. Meanwhile, the church resumed its patronage of the arts and private commissions gave artists another source of support.

But while the arts flourished, the wholesale acceptance of a foreign model affected the interpretative vision of the artist and the subject matter chosen. The result, according to IDB Cultural Center Curator Félix Angel, was a disconnect between art and social reality, reflecting the substantial difference between the idealized country and Venezuela’s evolving cultural and political systems. In fact, it was only towards the end of the century that one artist, Emilio Boggio, took a fresh view of the function of art, thus spurring an artistic movement that more faithfully portrayed how Venezuelans actually lived at the time.

The French Academic style prevailed until 1909, when students of the Venezuelan Academy of Fine Arts went on strike against obsolete instructional methods. According to Marián Caballero, curator of nineteenth century art in Venezuela’s Gallery of National Art, writing in the catalogue that accompanied the IDB exhibit, the strike marked a turning point, opening the way for an exploration of landscape painting, changes in the palette of colors, and the use of natural light.

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