Obituaries: Oswaldo Guayasamn

Colin Harding
Monday 12 April 1999 23:02

OSWALDO GUAYASAMIN was Ecuador's most celebrated and prolific artist, acclaimed by many critics as among the greatest painters and sculptors to have come out of Latin America this century. A close and admiring friend of President Fidel Castro of Cuba, he held robust left-wing views, and had no time for what he regarded as the Western notion that artistic creation is a personal thing. But even Ecuadoreans who found his political beliefs abhorrent had come by the end of his life to regard Guayasamn as a national treasure.

He saw himself as a witness to and interpeter of the centuries-old anguish of the native peoples of the Americas, and of the "cruel, violent and dehumanised reality" that he saw all around him. The aim of his work, he said, was "to wound, to bite deep, to strike at the heart, to show what man is capable of doing to man".

To that end, he pioneered a style known as "indigenist expressionism", which depicted oppression and suffering in searingly uncompromising terms. "I paint the times that it has been my lot to live through: the wars, privations and suffering of the unjustly forgotten," he said just before his death.

Guayasamn had a vast output, completing about 7,000 works. But he left unfinished what he regarded as his masterpiece: La Capilla del Hombre ("The Chapel of Man"), a large, square brick building with a copper dome, which he began to construct next to his house in Quito, the mountain capital of Ecuador, in the late 1970s. He was still working on this project until just before his death, and had hoped to complete it in time for the new millennium.

The chapel is dedicated to "man in the Americas", whose story is told in a series of murals inside the building. The story is not a happy one: the agonised expressions and contorted limbs of his subjects reflect the dispossession and destruction of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, first by the Spanish conquerors and later by "American imperialism". Guayasamn regarded the United States as the main enemy of Latin America - though, ironically, Nelson Rockefeller was one of his earliest admirers and patrons, inviting him to visit the US in 1943, when he was 24.

Guayasamn also painted hundreds of portraits, including Fidel Castro (three times), King Juan Carlos of Spain and Princess Caroline of Monaco. But his vast, panoramic murals will probably be his best-remembered works. One of the most striking is in the debating chamber of the Ecuadorean congress building in Quito. It caused a diplomatic incident when it was unveiled in 1988: the US representative took exception to a grinning skull wearing a Nazi helmet emblazoned with the letters "CIA" and walked out.

He divided up his output into three sequences or periods. The first, which he entitled Huacaynan (the Way of Sorrows in Quechua, the language of Ecuador's highland Indians), was begun in 1948, after Guayasamn had spent more than a year travelling all over Latin America. His style was heavily influenced by the Mexican muralists, particularly Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whom he had met in Mexico a few years earlier.

The second sequence, the Age of Wrath, which began in 1963, consists of 250 pictures dealing with the universal themes of war and inhumanity. The last, the Age of Tenderness, is more hopeful, depicting co-operation between peoples to build a better world.

Guayasamn was born in the poor La Tola district of Quito, the oldest of 10 children of an Indian father and mestiza mother who died young. His father, a carpenter who had to take up driving taxis and trucks to make ends meet, always opposed his son's determination to become a painter. With help from his mother, Oswaldo was able to get into the School of Fine Arts in Quito in 1932, finally graduating in painting and sculpture in 1941, and held his first individual exhibition in Quito the following year.

He first achieved international recognition in 1956 when he won the first prize in a competition for more than 30,000 artists from all over Latin America, Spain and Portugal. He used the prize money to travel to France, in the hope of seeing Picasso in Cannes. But Picasso refused to see him. Guayasamn told an interviewer shortly before his death that he bore Picasso a grudge for years after that, but had come to see that he was right not to allow importunate visitors to disturb his work.

In 1976 he set up the Guayasamn Foundation in Quito and donated to it his valuable collection of pre-Columbian and colonial art, as well as more than 250 of his own works. In 1994 Oswaldo Guayasamn was awarded a prize by Unesco in recognition of his work in defence of peace and human rights.

His eyesight began to fail in recent years, and he was in Baltimore for treatment when he suffered a heart attack and died.

Oswaldo Aparicio Guayasamn Calero, artist: born Quito 6 July 1919; married 1939 Maruja Monteverdi (two sons, two daughters), 1957 Luce Deperon (three daughters), third Helene Faure; died Baltimore, Maryland 10 March 1999.

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