Fernándo de Szyszlo – Elógio de la Sombra

February 20

Hours: 7-10

 

A LOOK AT SZYSZLO’S PAINTING

JUAN GUSTAVO COBO BORDA

 

This art—what primordial night does it sprout from? What obscure energy does it nourish on, to extend that somber background where piercing, sharp forms seem to insinuate themselves, to cut an outline, subtle and delicate at times, full of underwater phosphorescence or transparencies at others, like a mirage in the desert or perhaps an Andean landscape? But there is more: the coastline, sierras or the Peru jungle, two thousand years before they were ever called as such, come together in a pilgrimage to Chavin de Huantar to worship thestone idol where felines, serpents and birds, hallucinogens and blood converged in thosecold eyes and four crossed canine teeth—as Mario Vargas Llosa reminds us—to beg for protection against death, against natural disasters, against tribal wars. Once there, steps, terraces, chapels, chambers, tunnels, fog and color combine in the ceremony, in propitiatory rites, in the sacrifice that now, undoubtedly, Fernando de Szyszlo’s painting evokes, beckons and invokes with the magic of just his brushes, in those astronomical charts or underground sensors that are his oils.

Centuries-old stones, Andean mountain ranges, temples to the Sun, sanctuaries to the virgins, impregnable fortresses assembled by hand. The Inca Empire, with Cuzco at its center,only lasted a century and a half, but pre-Incan cultures also nourish the painter’s imagery, be they called Nazca or Paracas, with their mantle of feathers, of orchestrated colors, of those fabrics with disturbing patterns and cruel mythology that startle us still. No wonder the poet Emilio Adolfo Westphalen, in his brilliant interpretation of the painter’s exhibition in 1963—based on the Quechua poem about the death of Atahualpa, translated by J. M. Arguedas, among others—shows how Szyszlo immersed himself, with his style already shaped by a fully contemporary lyrical abstraction, in that past—his legacy—in the betrayal and death of that son of the Sun god, a god himself, where painting turned elegiac and lamented an already center-less world and an unhinged Nature where rainbows are black, blood flows and eyes resemble lead. “Earth refuses/To bury its master/As if ashamed of the cadaver of he who worshipped her.”

What has nourished Szyszlo? A history of more than ten thousand years, where the Tahuantinsuyo occupies barely one hundred years. Pre-Hispanic cultures and civilizations that attract us with their designations and achievements. From the mythical Machu-Pichu through the desolate Cajamarca.

Mochicas, Chimús, Aymaras, Nazcas, Chancas, Puquinas and many other peoples. It makes sense that Szyszlo has devoted intelligent pages both to the Chancay culture and to the art of Paracas, as shown in his book Miradas furtivas. Paracas, which means “sand that falls as rain” in Quechua, the same as Camino a Mendieta, a beach on the Pacific, or Mar de Lurín, to anchor the painter’s work to concrete locations and specific circumstances. There, he will install his starry nights, his black suns, his rooms in shadows—as Dami.n Bay.n says in Pensar con los ojos, “dark, dense, intricate in their composition” bathed by a “violet, black, phosphorescent light whose matter is arranged with broad brush strokes as pasture swept by an abstract wind.” Later, the paintings will turn vertical, “an upright, totemic form that rises aggressive and slow.”

But each of his works, like those now being exhibited at Miami’s Galer.a Durban, preserves its expressive force and mythical charge and reinstalls in a demystified world an ancestral fear of the incomprehensible—death itself, the end of civilization—opening up in those underground ceremonies an implacable grid of bolts of light and blood. Mario Vargas Llosa describes it as “a ceremony that at times resembles immolation or sacrifice, celebrated over a primitive altar. A barbaric and violent rite with someone bleeding to death, disintegrating, surrendering and also, perhaps, enjoying it. In any case, something that is not intelligible, that must be apprehended through the tortuous road of obsession, of nightmares, of visions”: A dreamlike clairvoyance that peeks into the depths explored by their proximate poets, Vallejo’s black thread, the incandescence of C.sar Moro’s desire, the traveler from room 23 who Enrique Molina exalted—beckoning to us and intriguing us—attempting to overtake us with their recognizable but encoded enigma in the secret language of the highest manifestation of painting. Speaking and silent all at once. The one Octavio Paz pointed out in 1959 when he spoke of a Szyszlo “more in control of himself, freer and more daring but still the same: difficult and austere, violence and lyricism all at once.”

Thus, we are in possession of a past that incites with its millenary weight and a contemporary action that revives it and exposes it to view. That also admonishes the spectator to participate in that feast which is also a duel. The thickness of oleaginous substances, transparencies and glazings, circles or signs that ensnare us in the grid, in a slow journey through the mind or the retina. Immersed in the raw material. In a primordial volcanic fire and its sudden ignition. Wonder, perplexity, stealth, a silencing enunciation and masked clarity in the days of ashes prior to the carnival, to the festivities and pilgrimage, those dazzling and multi-colored garments, their gold and silver necklaces, the sumptuous lace, the deliberate seriousness of a journey that returns each year to obliterate time and maintain tradition alive. From common clay to Titian’s abundant palette and chiaroscuro.

A painting unfolding with joy, agonizing in its final moments—Szyszlo holds his place, now conquered. He resists and endures and struggles anew in front of each new canvas so the colors—reds, violets, blues, greens, browns, yellows—may sing and glow before the sun sets again or the moon vanishes with the limpid dawn. Because, in reality, black reigns.  

His forms are bodies free to intertwine or to blend or to arm—teeth, wedges, thorns—in epic battles against one another. But behind, space widens and the horizon delineates itself neatly with stripes that evolve and undergo a densely pictorial metamorphosis, or abyssal levitation. But there is something higher and more transcendent than we. The numinous and terrible of which Rilke spoke, or the golden cave Rembrandt engraved as if a temple in the shadows to venerate the inaccessible. But this space is in the Americas, in the vastness of nature—oceans, mountain ranges—or in those cloistral cells, the cold stones that lock us up with ourselves and our long-ago ghosts.

 This all from a country devoted to the sun—in C.sar Moro’s words, “on the fertile coast of magic cultures, under the majestic flight of the divine guardian pelican.” Of that Peru, the brightness that has become a tangible shadow, where Fernando de Szyszlo has made stronger the light of mystery. That space— illusory, incidentally—which we may at last inhabit.

Bogotá, November 2014.