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To Paris and Back: Violeta Parra’s Transnational Performance of Authenticity

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 2, October 2013
pp. 269-302 | 10.1353/tam.2013.0091

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In 1964, at what was surely the acme of her career, Violeta Parra became the first Latin American to have a solo show at the Louvre. During the five-odd weeks that her artwork was on display, Parra was at the museum every day. She chatted with visitors, put finishing touches on her tapestries, sang songs, played her guitar, served empanadas, and turned the exposition hall into a veritable Chilean ramada . The exhibit received favorable reviews in the press, and was visited by important dignitaries and a who’s who of the Parisian and expatriate Latin American artistic community. Parra sold several of her tapestries, including one to the Baroness Rothschild. By all accounts, the show was a great success.

How Parra reached this pinnacle is the subject of opposing narratives. One anecdote claims that Parra was given a business card with an address on it by someone she met, and when she got to that address, found herself in front of “an enormous building”—the Palais du Louvre. The Louvre archives, however, reveal a different version of events. Parra arrived at the museum by appointment, one obtained via a letter of introduction from the Chilean ambassador at the time, Carlos Morla Lynch, to Jean Cassou, director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne. In it, Ambassador Lynch identifies Madame Violeta Parra as “a Chilean artist who resides in Paris,” and requests that Cassou grant her a visit “in order for her to explain to you in person her desires … for the development and diffusion of her artistic activities in France.” The first story positions Parra as authentic—naïve, unworldly, standing outside of the modern, which is symbolized in this case by what is arguably the most prestigious cultural institution of the West. The official letter of introduction, in contrast, offers a cosmopolitan Parra with considerable savoir faire.

This article strives to uncover the common roots of these divergent accounts. It explores how Parra reinvented herself as non-cosmopolitan “other” and insisted that she be “discovered” by the cosmopolitan world. My contention that Parra “performed” her authenticity is not meant to imply that she was somehow a fake—my work is premised on the idea that authenticity (hence inauthenticity) “is not inherent in the object or event that is designated authentic but is a socially agreed-upon construct.” Neither object nor event, Parra embodied authenticity. It was her defining feature but itself had no fixed definition. It could thus take on different meanings depending on the time and place of her performance. Although multivalent, authenticity is always claimed in reference to and thus constitutive of modernity. It represents “a peculiar longing, at once modern and antimodern. It is oriented toward the recovery of an essence whose loss has been realized only through modernity, and whose recovery is feasible only through methods and sentiments created in modernity.”

Parra, in addition to visual artist, was a folklorist, composer, and musician. Her multimedia performance of authenticity spanned two decades and two continents. She was a leader of the 1950s folkloric “boom” in Chile, a pioneer and, upon her death, a source of inspiration for the genre of 1960s-1970s protest music that came to be known as nueva canción chilena . This study, through its investigation of Parra, thus sheds light on two key cultural movements of the second half of the twentieth century: folk music revivals of the 1950s, and protest music of the 1960s and beyond. Rapid modernization and urbanization in the post-World War II era provided the context for these sequential, if overlapping, cosmopolitan trends. The protest song movement was additionally contemporaneous with and expressive of the youth-driven revolutionary and counterculture movements of the 1960s. Both movements depended on technological advances as well as innovations in the increasingly global entertainment industry. Both played out against the backdrop of the Cold War.

Parra staged her performance primarily in Santiago and Paris, with brief stints in Buenos Aires, London, Geneva, and Concepción. In all of these settings, Parra appealed to her cosmopolitan public’s shared discomfort with modernity and nostalgia for an idealized past and place. On both sides of the Atlantic, the value of her performance...

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