- Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Paris Between the Wars by Michele Greet
Two arresting color images bookend Michele Greet's Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Paris Between the Wars. The second, from the tail end of her sweeping survey, is by the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam (1902-82), who despite arriving late to the Paris feast (in 1938, after fifteen years spent in Spain), plunged straight to its core. The core's name was Pablo Picasso, and at the urging of the man himself, Lam produced a striking Self-Portrait whose forms reactivated the cubist play with African masks that had begun three decades earlier. The difference here, as Picasso himself intimated, was that Lam's ancestry—part Chinese, part Congolese—made this play with masks an entitlement, even a necessity (255). The eyes in Lam's self-portrait are, significantly, blacked out: downcast or turned inward, as though the artist were reflecting on what it meant to don the mask of ancestral obligations, especially at someone else's invitation. It is startling to compare this melancholy self-portrait with its effective pair, the full-page color plate that opens Greet's first chapter, by the Chilean artist Manuel Ortiz de Zárate (1887-1946): an earlier portrait by another friend of Picasso, also molded conceptually around an African mask, but this time a Portrait of Picasso himself—eyes blazing and mouth agape, a portrait of the artist bedazzled by his encounter with the other (12). Greet reads this as a "humorous" homage to the established master, but there is an interesting dose of aggression in this slapping of an African mask on the master's face, and it gives an edge to the ways in which Latin American artists sidestepped, embraced, or subverted the primitivism demanded of them during their Parisian sojourns in the years between the two world wars.
This negotiation is at the heart of Greet's argument in a richly researched, lavishly illustrated survey that gathers together a motley assortment of Latin American artists and their artworks over the course of a quarter century.1 Tracing the affiliations and productions of a range of Latin American artists in Paris between the wars, Greet catalogs the places they studied and exhibited and associated with other artists, their shifting relationships with dealers and institutions and market demands, [End Page 435] and the ways in which they were read by French critics during their time in the modernist metropolis. For the most part her subjects are artists for whom Paris was a place of passage: the scions of wealthy families who could afford to send their children abroad on a cultural apprenticeship, or the recipients of grants from governments or national academies eager to have emerging artists study in Europe while representing their country abroad. This notion of the sojourn is critical, not simply because it implies a before and after for their artistic production in Europe, but because it meant they were perceived as harmless temporary residents. As then-Paris-based Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier pointedly noted in 1929, "everyone knows that contrary to what befalls students from the poor countries of central Europe, [Latin American students] constitute neither a threat nor competition for French natives. The Latin American is supported by his country, and almost always ends up returning there. He is, of all the métèques, the only one who is cordially accepted in the face of French xenophobia" (40). This is far from an idle point, hinting at the rising concern with immigration in the 1920s, which underwrote, for instance, the controversial decision to hang the 1924 Salon d'Automne by nationality rather than name. This xenophobia is generally recognized by historians to have had anti-Semitic connotations; Greet contends that Latin American artists were caught up in the segregation, swept together and apart from native French artists and then dismissed as derivative by French critics.
Concurrently, and somewhat ironically (at least in Greet's reading), these artists also suffered at the hands of...