Spectacular Modernity: Dictatorship, Space, and Visuality in Venezuela, 1948–1958 by Lisa Blackmore (review)
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Spectacular Modernity: Dictatorship, Space, and Visuality in Venezuela, 1948–1958. Lisa Blackmore. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017. Pp. 280. $28.95 (paper).

This book explores the relationships between modernism, modernization, and dictatorship, and in the process repoliticizes the discussion of a crucial period in Venezuelan modernity. Blackmore approaches these relationships through Raymond Williams’s notion of a dominant cultural formation, that “sense of reality shaped by the complex interlocking of political, social, and cultural forces that permeates a whole body of practices, expectations, and aspects of life” (19). Relying on detailed historical research and archival work, Blackmore conducts a complex and nuanced examination that does not avoid the subject’s many sensitive nerves.

From 1948 to 1958, the relationships between modernism, modernization, and dictatorship were too close. It is rather unpleasant to admit, for example, that the design and construction of Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas, home to the Universidad Central de Venezuela, was an important component of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s massive propaganda campaign. The dictatorship sought to demonstrate that such progress could only be achieved under a military government. As such, and especially between 1952 and 1957, “Pérez Jiménez implemented a developmentalist doctrine of modernization through public works” (36). The dictatorship elaborated its propaganda atop these numerous and enormous public works. This propaganda [End Page 884] was designed and produced by the Hamilton Wright Organization, the agency that managed the dictatorship’s public relations from 1952 to 1958. The agency made 165 documentaries and newsreels, many of them coproduced by companies like Warner Brothers and Universal International and supported by local companies like Tiuna Films and Bolívar Films. Blackmore analyzes a number of these documentaries, especially those directed by Manuel Vicente Tinoco.

In one small imprecision, Blackmore states that Mario Briceño Iragorry would have become president in the 1952 election to choose a constituent assembly (but did not when Marcos Pérez Jiménez disavowed the results) (126). In reality, the thwarted candidate was Jóvito Villalba. This single error, however, does not diminish the overall quality of a book that makes an enormous contribution to Venezuelan, Latin American, and modernity studies.

Returning to those uncomfortable relationships, it is also awkward to recall that in 1954, during the Cold War, the dictatorship hosted the Tenth Inter-American Conference at University City in Caracas. The dictatorship made the conference delegates its audience for the unveiling of University City’s impressive Grand Hall, with a ceiling that featured Alexander Calder’s Clouds or Flying Saucers, the American artist’s largest and arguably his most endearing work. Another example is the fanciful five-star Hotel Humboldt, a pet project of Pérez Jiménez that was constructed on top of Ávila Mountain. A sort of lighthouse of Venezuelan modernity, the hotel has views of the Caribbean to the north and Caracas to the south. These structures, like many others that the dictatorship constructed in its state-led modernization campaign, transformed space in an attempt to show that Venezuela had achieved modernity. At first view, and as Time and Life magazines reported, “Venezuela looked like a success story of capitalist development” (8). To the dictatorship, “modernist architecture was undeniable proof of progress that justified the rupture from democratic rule” (14). Under the influence of transnational and US-based oil companies, the country was converted into an impressive laboratory of modernism, its monumental buildings serving as “harbingers of progress” (9). Meanwhile, the dictatorship was destroying the fabric of local democracy.

The most important twentieth-century architects in Venezuela were Carlos Raúl Villanueva and Tomás José Sanabria. Villanueva mapped out Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas, an impressive tropical Ville radieuse, and Sanabria came up with the Hotel Humboldt, a transparent lighthouse-overlook onto Venezuelan modernity. These structures are an essential part of the canon of local modernism. But how can we reconcile these accomplishments with the fact that the architects worked for Pérez Jiménez in full knowledge that their work, and even these particular works, would be used as propaganda for the dictatorship’s “nation branding campaign” (75)?

This question is uncomfortable, but that, of course, does not excuse us...


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