Fernando Montes

Painter of the Bolivian High Andes


Fernando Montes, painter and film-maker: born La Paz, Bolivia 14 August 1930; married 1960 Marcela Villegas Sanchez-Bustamante (one son, one daughter); died London 17 January 2007.

Fernando Montes was a painter whose work, based on extensive travels in South America, interpreted its terrain and people for an international audience. His retrospective exhibition "Spirit of the Andes" at the Mall Galleries in London last year included powerful, stark images which drew on Bolivia's strong indigenous intellectual traditions.

First, there were the featureless women of the Bolivian High Plateau, or Altiplano, rooted in its distinctive sweeping landscape, haunted by the Andean earth-mother goddess Pachamama - the distinctive dress of the women and their accompanying children in silhouette in some pictures giving them the appearance of mountains and foothills. Secondly, Montes depicted ancient Andean architecture, unpeopled and with a timeless, eerie quality.

Fernando Montes was born in La Paz, Bolivia, in 1930, third child of Hugo Montes, a lawyer and later leader of the Bolivian liberal party, and his wife Eloisa. His father was killed in a motoring accident when Fernando was seven, and he went to live with his maternal grandmother, Sara Minchin, in Argentina. He recalled the train journey when he "saw from the carriage window the strange and fantastic landscapes of the Altiplano, and also the Salar de Uyuni, a vast salt lake which stretches to the horizon, like a sea of white".

In the important cultural centre of Buenos Aires, Fernando began to study painting. At 15 he tried to enter the studio of the Catalan painter Vicente Puig, an exile from the Spanish Civil War. Fernando was told to return at 18, as the studio used a nude model. However, his liberal-minded grandmother persuaded Puig to take the boy, and he proved a brilliant but demanding teacher. "All his comments, although sometimes cruel, were of great depth, simple and intensely expressive, often with a metaphysical meaning," Montes recalled:

He revealed to me the importance and excellence of drawing and an understanding of the human figure. He said: "Art is an adventure. If you stab, stab to kill", by which he meant that one had to be deliberate in the way one made marks on the paper.

Montes returned to La Paz to study philosophy at the University of San Andrés, then I joined a group of film-makers, Jorge Ruiz, a childhood friend, and Augusto Roca, who were pioneers of the film industry in Bolivia. We journeyed to remote parts of the Altiplano and descended to the rain forest, where the Moseten tribe of Indians lives. From the drawings I made, I made a series of paintings about these people.

He began to paint professionally: portraits, nudes and landscapes around La Paz. His first exhibition was one of portraits at La Paz's Galería Municipal in 1956. He represented Bolivia at the 5th São Paulo Biennial in Brazil in 1959, the year the Spanish government granted him a scholarship to the San Fernando School of Fine Arts, in Madrid.

In 1960 he moved to London, continuing his studies at St Martin's School of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts. He had his first exhibition outside his native country in 1965 at the St Martin's Gallery. There were more portraits, but also London cityscapes and paintings of people in London pubs. "These were a chance to use the human figure, which has always fascinated me."

In 1965 Fernando, his wife Marcela and their small son, Juan Enrique, visited Bolivia and again encountered the magnificent landscape of my childhood. On seeing the High Andes with the eyes of a mature person I found myself as an artist. I started to work on paintings of the Altiplano. Previously, my landscapes had depicted specific locations, but now it focused on the essence of the relationship between the human being and the land.

Eight years later, Montes was asked to participate in the exhibition "Bolivian Contemporary Painters" at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris. He was particularly moved to see his painting Women and Land reproduced as a poster around the city. Montes's work was now being exhibited widely internationally. An invitation in 1982 to show in Japan proved important in his development. And in 1987, on an overland journey from Peru to Bolivia, he saw the famous Inca citadel of Machu Picchu for the first time. His Machu Picchu-inspired paintings, along with figures and landscapes, were exhibited extensively in Italy, in Venice, Florence, Rapallo and Rome.

Montes continued to work and exhibit regularly, even after cancer was diagnosed early in 2003. He painted in the exacting medium of egg tempera, using tiny brushes, making his own colours, carefully preparing each canvas and often making his own frames.

In 1999, he represented Bolivia at the 48th Venice Biennial. As well as the Mall Galleries retrospective last year, he latterly had two others, in 1999 at the Museo Nacional de Arte in La Paz and at the Endoh Gohki Museum in Kyoto, Japan, in 2004.

David Buckman

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