Home Arts New book details how Alfredo Boulton’s photography helped define an artistic history of Venezuela

New book details how Alfredo Boulton’s photography helped define an artistic history of Venezuela

by godlove4241
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Alfredo Boulton (1908-1995) was a dapper and sophisticated Venezuelan born in Caracas, from a wealthy family of merchants who, like many Latin American intellectuals of the time, devoted himself to many activities: photography, history of art, politics, cultural diplomacy and collecting, as well as several commercial enterprises. The range of these interests makes it difficult to pin down, but they also allow us to detect a broader sense of cultural purpose that runs through all these disciplines.

As Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute, states in her introduction to this remarkable book, Alfredo Boulton: A Look at Venezuela 1929-1978: “In large part, Alfredo Boulton is the very essence of 20th century Venezuela, a mantle I suspect he would gladly accept.” Boulton has become such a paradigm of a certain vision of modern Venezuela that it is almost impossible to separate him from a national identity that he both reflected and, in many ways, constructed. Boulton’s Venezuela was a rapidly expanding country due to the discovery of huge oil deposits and a democratic and developmental national government. Perhaps more than any other Latin American country, Venezuela embodied the values ​​of the American dream, but its cultural identity, thanks in part to Boulton and his cohort of intellectuals, including the critic Mariano Picón Salas and the political theorist Arturo Uslar Pietri, did everything explicitly to forge a national identity rooted in its specific history.

Miscegenation Essence

For Boulton, the essence of Venezuela was in its miscegenation, a mixture of white, indigenous and black cultures. He was the first person to document art and artifacts from Venezuela’s pre-Hispanic, colonial, 19th century, and modern periods, publishing scholarly accounts such as his three volumes History of painting in Venezuela (1964-1972) which emphasized continuity rather than rupture, as if all these artistic forms were roots nourishing the trunk of Venezuelan identity. In Boulton’s historical model of art, all traditions converge in Modernism, where they merge into a harmonious whole.

His exotic and sexualized depiction of mixed-race men represents his intellectual construction of a successfully fused multi-ethnic culture

Although Idurre Alonso, the book’s editor and curator of Latin American collections at the Getty Research Institute, says that “there has never been a project that looks at Boulton from a multi-dimensional perspective and highlights his influence in the formation of art”, this is not strictly true. In 2008, the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) published a volume of almost 400 pages, Alfredo Boulton and his contemporaries: critical dialogues in Venezuelan art 1912-1974, which was later published in Spanish by Fundación Cisneros in collaboration with MoMA. The MoMA volume contains several of Boulton’s own writings, which are absent from the Getty book, but cover many of the same issues.

This new volume is published on the occasion of the Getty’s acquisition of Boulton’s archives, including his photographs and papers, and accompanies an exhibition at the Getty Center (August 29-January 7, 2024). The Getty brought together an international group of scholars to analyze the material and publish their findings. While the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted the whole process, the result is nevertheless very impressive, with particularly insightful essays by Alonso, Natalia Majluf, Jorge Francisco Rivas Pérez, Mónica Dominguez Torres and Alessandra Caputo Jaffe, which focus each on a different facet of The Life and Work of Boulton. The book is structured in three sections, each addressing a specific aspect of his career: his photography, his relationship to modern art and Boulton the art historian.

Flora; the beautiful roman (c. 1940) – Boulton was influenced by both Surrealism and Constructivism
© J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

As a photographer – he was given his first camera in 1920 by his uncle, Henry Lord Boulton, and studied in Europe, influenced by contemporary surrealism and constructivism – Boulton was not quite in the league of others. artists of the time, such as Alfred Stieglitz or August Sander, and his attempts to have an international career were mostly unsuccessful. But, as this book argues, his images nonetheless provide a fascinating window into contemporary Venezuela – and, in particular, its relationship to it. His exotic and sexualized depiction of metis the men represent both his intellectual construct of a successfully fused multi-ethnic culture and his own thinly veiled attraction to those same bodies. Alonso rightly points to the problematic nature of this projection of a member of a predominantly white elite, while providing an interesting conceptual framework for understanding the images and their context of “belleza criolla(Creole beauty).

Tireless Promoter

In his relationship with modern art, we see Boulton as a tireless promoter of Venezuelan art, using and building networks with institutions like MoMA (of which he was the president of the International Council) and the Organization of American States. in Washington, DC, to promote Venezuelan art. artists. Unfortunately, the period in which he was most active, the 1960s and 1970s, was barren in terms of international interest in Latin American art. Beyond the scope of this book, it could have been interesting to see how some of these seeds bore fruit after 2000, with exhibitions like Armando Reverón at MoMA in 2007 or the current Gego exhibition (Gego: measuring infinity until September 10) at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Venezuelan modernism became an integral part of the canon of art history, a process that Boulton did not experience directly, but which can be attributed, in part, to his efforts to make the country’s art readable. abroad.

Boulton’s art history section is illuminating, as it focuses on his extraordinary archival efforts to trace the output of colonial Venezuelan artists when few considered them of interest. In the dominant narrative of the time, Peru and Mexico were the centers of colonial production, and Boulton argued convincingly for the inclusion of the Caribbean as an important center of production and exchange of artistic languages ​​between Catholics and natives. Equally remarkable is his obsession with the figure of Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), the liberator of Venezuela from the Spanish Empire. Boulton curated an exhibition in which he traced the face of Bolívar through his portrayal in art, seeing how his features wavered between European white, black and metisaccording to the political winds of the time.

In 2010, Hugo Chávez, then president of Venezuela, ordered the exhumation of Bolívar’s remains, which will be broadcast live on national television in one of the most extravagant and disturbing spectacles of modern politics this century. His aim was to prove that Bolívar had been poisoned by the Spaniards, and he described looking into Bolívar’s skull and communicating with him from beyond the grave. Therein lies one of the tragedies of contemporary Venezuela: how the refined scholarship of someone like Boulton has inadvertently created an image of the country embodied in its historic liberator, an image ready to be literally manipulated into the pursuit of a populist and catastrophic political program.

Alfredo Boulton: A Look at Venezuela 1929-1978 paints a compelling portrait of a time when art, art history, and politics were part of a project of modernization, a project that then collapsed in myriad ways. This publication has the merit of resisting the temptation to tell this tragic story of subsequent national collapse, focusing instead on trying to understand Boulton in his original context.

• Idurre Alonso (dir.), Alfredo Boulton: A Look at Venezuela 1929-1978. Getty Publications, 288 pages, 164 color and 19 b/w ​​illustrations, $60/£50 (hb), published July 18

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