Cecilia Vicuña’s Calcomanías

It was by chance that I discovered Cecilia Vicuña was not only a poet and an artist who made objects and installations but was also a painter. I knew that in her performances she wove together song and thread, drew on the long Andean tradition of the quipu and created the precarios, but it was during a visit to the New York studio she then shared with César Paternosto, at the time of their collaboration at the Drawing Centre, Dis solving, threads of water and light, in 2002, that one of her early paintings came to light. I can’t now remember how this happened, only that I was completely bowled over by the painting, which was like nothing else I knew, but somehow recognised immediately. It was an extraordinarily satisfying picture that created its own world, very clearly and simply. 

From that moment it has been our dream to organise an exhibition of these paintings from the early 1970s which, as she told me in a letter of March 11, 2003, she had kept “hidden," or “forgotten," for so long. The first painting I saw was Angel de la menstruación, and the first attempts I made to write about it, from memory, responded to its very direct physical impact, the way that the figure fills and even exceeds the canvas. In memory I recalled this and the few other paintings I subsequently saw as much larger than they actually are. This was probably because there was a boldness to the image, a way in which it was, if not exactly poster-like, at least in some way public, a proclamation of being female. It seemed to be marking out new ground in a visual and poetic expression of the personal, the political and their interconnections, with a great deal of humour. The original title was Manraja or the Angel of Menstruation and it was painted in April 1973, in London. “Manraja: a word derived from cunt and huge." The painting celebrates the return of menstruation, a taboo subject, “a portrait of the blood coming out of the vagina as beautiful clots." She had painted clots of blood before but no-one realised what they were. The clots, she said, reminded her of de Kooning’s shapes and colours, “although here they don’t look like this." She (it is a self-portrait) is floating or flying “on the air above the olive green killed by the titanium white," “with a snake of sand” that stretches like an extra limb across the canvas. She plays with a string that circles her body: “I am part of a cosmic weaving, nothing is separate from everything else.” Springing up at either edge of the canvas are spiky branches, like an unwoven crown of thorns. Two tightly woven blood-red plaits frame her face and her eyes are red “because I use my blood for looking.”  

The delicate metaphorical repetitions of blood in an image freed of naturalistic representation recalls surrealist poetry, and although I was unaware of this when I first saw the paintings, Cecilia had been familiar with surrealism since she was very young. She told me “My aunt, the sculptor Rosa Vicuña Lagarrigue, had a wonderful library, and I still remember the day I discovered la Antología de la Poesía Surrealista by Aldo Pellegrini at her home. It was in 1964. I believe my poetry grew out of that encounter, of the doors it opened for me” (Letter, 15 May 2013). It was a relief to find that I was not imposing surrealism on Cecilia’s paintings and poetry, but that she had very early found surrealist writings and poetry a source of inspiration, reading, for example, Andre Breton’s poems and his book L’amour fou, and Georges Bataille’s Les larmes d’Eros, without ever being crudely influenced by surrealist painting. 

But it was a surrealist painter, if one who had long pursued her own independent route, whom Cecilia credits with teaching her a method that enabled her to “transfer” the images she saw in her mind onto canvas. While on a visit to New York in about 1969, walking down the street, she suddenly saw, “like in a vision, the painting that I needed to do. And I call it Calcomanías, which means ‘transfer’.” On her way back to Chile she stayed a few days with Leonora Carrington in México City, together with her friend Coca Roccatagliata. Coca stayed longer and back in Santiago conveyed to Cecilia the method she had learned from Leonora Carrington, which Cecilia described to me as follows:

“I first create a plain, flat background, with a single, very diluted oil color that creates that liquid feeling. (I usually use burnt sienna, but have used other colors too), I let it dry somewhat, and then I draw with a very fine brush ("pincel de un pelo" said Nemesio Antúnez observing my technique), the outline of the work, with a clear oil color, with plenty of white, so that it will stand out against the background.  I then "fill" the outline with color, transferring the image from my mind to the canvas. It is like drawing with oil on a receptive field. There is no room for mistake, b/c everything shows, and mistakes become part of the piece.” (Letter, 14 May 2013). 

The term “Calcomanía” acknowledges one of the surrealists’ favourite techniques, decalcomania, a kind of marbling where the automatic configurations of the wet ink or gouache are lightly interpreted. But the Calcomanías are not “automatic” in the sense that decalcomanias were, that is, producing a wholly unguided visual field. Cecilia was painting an image that had sprung in her mind, unbidden, and that she then transferred in paint. But they belong within the same spectrum in its broadest sense, which was always surrealism’s terrain. As she wrote in Sabor a mí in 1973, “Paintings coming out of darkness go back to darkness, automatic images issue from 'regiones esquivas,' elusive regions, and right after exposure, like dreams, they return to their burrows in inaccessible places" (Sabor a mí 75).

Her adoption of an apparently naïve manner is entirely distinctive; it was not a question of following any sets of rules or mimicking other surrealist painters, certainly not of proclaiming herself surrealist. Well versed in the history of European art, her paintings, which clearly rejected this, at first bewildered her cultivated family, her father lamenting “What was the point of all your education? All the Renaissance books I gave you if you are going to paint like this?” In common with many Latin Americans, Cecilia’s family did not value indigenous or popular art, dismissing it as “folkloric” and the Western taste for it as romantic. Like the surrealists, Cecilia makes no distinction between high, or elite, and popular art. Although she also scavenged images from further afield, the manner in which she “transfers” those she “saw” is rooted in the strange hybrid art of Latin America, the ways indigenous Indian painters translate into their own idioms European iconography, and whose flatness and surface details were often misunderstood by the Europeans as purely “decorative”, although the art was invested with meanings within the indigenous cultures. Cecilia described the Calcomanías as continuations “of how the Europeans had forced the Indians to paint these colonial flat images in a flat background, but the Indians subverted them to create their own Pachamamas, their own, you know, angels with guns, and things like that, so I would paint my own Chilean goddesses, that way, and again you see it’s a meeting point, a meeting point of the natives and civility, with the European imposition transformed" (Interview with Valerie Fraser, Santiago, January 2011, unpublished).  So the complex to-and-fro between European and native traditions, iconographies, and practices contributed to her wholly original paintings. 

In the catalogue of her exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago in 1971 – which included paintings and poems by Cecilia and poems by Claudio Bertoni, the title of one of the paintings is a quotation from Breton’s celebration of “convulsive beauty” in L’amour fou: “I regret that I was unable to produce, to complement the illustrations to this text, the photograph of a powerful locomotive which had been abandoned for years to the delirium of the virgin forest.” 

This passage finds an echo in her “Text of the Brown Book”, of June 1973, which she published in Sabor a mí, in which she explores her ambiguous relationship with her country, with the sense of an anciently inhabited wilderness, the violent conjunction between this and the modern world, a disrupted and irrational crossing of time periods and histories that do not follow prescribed patterns, and also the deep-seated injustice against the indigenous peoples. “The names of chile: in old times when I was colonised my mind was plagued with mysterious names coming from africa, asia, europe, none of the chilean names were in my head until I discovered chile on this trip. Who could talk to me about puchuncavi? A virgin land in thought, film and poetry because nobody ever documented or touched it, except for the silent inhabitants… La población araucana está calculada, no, no está calculada. Los gérmenes indios van a brotar, los araucanos se van a levantar. Están esperando para empezar a conquistar su propia manera de existir…” (In the translation the generic term “Indian” is substituted for“Araucanian”: “the araucanian population has been calculated, no, it hasn’t been calculated. The Indians are only waiting to germinate, to conquer their own way of life, the Indian people will rise…”)

One of her earliest paintings, Dream (the Pope) 1971, imagines such a scenario. She dreamt she was in New York with a woman friend when her uncle, the poet Miguel Vicuna, came into her room shouting ““Cecilia! The Revolution has started! All the Indians in the Americas are rising in arms and have killed the Pope!” I had expected this day for a long time. The Indians will organise themselves to defend their lands and recover their dignity and world idea and in the dream it was happening. I jumped and danced for joy.” When she woke up she searched for portraits of indians, and after two days found enough pictures: “a Tarahumara couple from Mexico, a Yagan couple from Tierra del Fuego, 2 Mayas Lacandones from Guatemala, an Aymara couple from the Altiplano (Peru, Bolivia), 2 Bororos from Brazil and an Apache family…

The indians pretend they are using their traditional weapons but this is only a guerrilla strategy. In fact, men and women are carrying guns. This time they’ll win!” But the painting is far from being a straightforward representation of the dream of the triumph of the Indians. What she found, in the tell-tale list of her picture research, were safely picturesque figures with their bows and arrows, categorised by anthropologists, surrounding a visibly invincible white clad Pope. The dream is the wish, the image is a façade, neither is the reality. There is a tension between the painting, quiet except for its vivid red ground, and the revolutionary violence of the dream-explanation. The relationship between the painting and its text is complex, and Cecilia’s subversive use of given images, existing photographs or paintings that have formed a conventional visual identity, depends paradoxically on the apparent naïvete of her style.

The explanatory sentences quoted above concerning Angel de la menstruación and Dream come from the texts she wrote to accompany these and other paintings; they and the quotations that follow were either published in Sabor a mí or appeared in an otherwise unpublished typescript for her 1973 exhibition at the ICA, “Pain Things and Explanations." She began displaying her “explanations” beside the paintings in the 1971 exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago. The texts were a great deal more than accompanying labels. They originated in mildly impatient responses to visitors’ questions: ‘Mi hijita y esto ¿que es? ¿Y esto que significa? ¿Y esto, y esto porqué hizo esto?...’  (Darling, what on earth is this, what does this mean, and that, why did you do that?). The texts, which, she said, “stay in the pure ground of the obvious," are in some respects deliberately naïve, and, like the apparent naïveté of the paintings themselves, conceal considerable complexity. In the exhibitions they were displayed as large as the pictures themselves, and their significance was underlined by the title of the exhibition: Pinturas, Poemas, Explicaciones [Paintings, Poems, Explanations]. The explanations become an integral part of the work, the two forming a dialogue, rather than the text being a simple commentary on the image, or vice versa. “As the paintings are only a part of my expression and words another part the texts interweave and each extends the other."

There are many very interesting precedents to this kind of active relationship between text and image, but with characteristically intelligent economy Cecilia makes a connection with an indigenous American example: Guaman Poma’s Nueva Coronica, dating from the early colonial period. A long illustrated letter to the Spanish Emperor, complaining of the terrible treatment of the native population, including a full history of the Inca, it combines text and image in unusual ways. The narrative is mostly in Quechua, with some Spanish, but the “illustrations” are much more than that. Rather than being subsidiary to the written argument they convey information independently. Both are indispensable. “I was following the same instinct he [Guaman Poma] was when doing a letter to the King, I was doing a sort of letter to Chile with that Exhibition called Pinturas, Poemas, Explicaciones – I would put the painting and next to it a text as large as the painting.” It became a “dialogic exhibition” – and a hit: “people would walk in my exhibition, and I saw them, I still have that memory, and they would read the first one and they would not leave after they had – read everything! Laughing and laughing and laughing” (Interview 2011).

The combination of feminism and humour found one of its most unlikely outlets in the portraits of “Heroes of the Revolution.” It was hard, she said, to choose because “I don’t like the idea of hero. I paint them to laugh. Neither the paintings or heroes are “objects” of laughter, but rather we laugh together.” Laughter," she went on, “is the best contribution I can make to the revolution.” She chose Marx, Salvador Allende and Fidel Castro as her first group of heroes, adding Lenin a little later.

The figure of Marx is placed in front of a colourful paradise, forming a pyramid with his head at the apex – an image of benevolent patriarchal power. The flower garland and scroll typical of popular images of saints and heroes in Latin America naturalise him in an iconic tradition far removed from that of the USSR, but the transfer is actually more complicated. The face is not only painted with a careful realism quite unlike the relatively simple, rather schematic way she normally renders faces, but is distinctly Chinese in appearance. I thought at first she had fused Mao and Marx, but in fact she derived the head from a Chinese magazine, which reproduced paintings of Marx by Chinese artists. The roses in the arch above his head, though characteristic of the Cuzco painters of the 17th and 18th centuries, are in fact taken from an Indian (of India) advertisement. The gorgeous turquoise landscape is an underwater scene, with pink and purple coral trees and plants, in which two naked women embrace – a rather personal interpretation of a Marxist utopia. It could be that Cecilia blithely and deliberately conflates the huge doctrinal battle between feminism and Marxism, concerning the means by which women achieve equality, or side-steps both to dream of a world of peaceful and erotic harmony. Either way the juxtaposition of Marx, dignified in a formal blue-black suit, and a Garden of Eden scene painted with delicious freedom, is humanely comic.

Lenin’s face is based on well-known, much disseminated photographs, but there the resemblance with Soviet revolutionary iconography, in for instance the photomontages of Gustav Klutsis, ends. In the portraits of both Marx and Lenin the heads are disproportionately large for the bodies. She paints Lenin as “a fierce individual, beautiful but small, in a violet velvet suit, standing somewhere in Siberia.” The velvet suit is curious, and dandy-like, in startling contrast to the conventional image of Lenin as agitator and revolutionary leader. The scarlet banner issuing from his mouth comes from an age-old tradition, dating back thousands of years to, for example, the mural paintings of Teotihuacan in Mexico, representing speech or song. He stands more like a poet than a fighter, dressed for the study rather than Siberia. Cecilia’s take again reveals her personal feminism. “I liked Lenin when I read a paragraph of his quoted in a feminist book of a lady poet. He finally charmed me when I saw a photograph of a haystack in which he hid himself for writing in secret.”

The double portrait of Fidel Castro and the Chilean President Allende, the first socialist leader freely elected in Latin America, was painted the day of Fidel’s arrival in Chile. There was a carnival spirit in Santiago, as people took to the streets to celebrate what looked like the happiest augury of the triumph of socialism. The inverted triangle formed by Fidel, Allende and the plane was a “magical figure to help them keep power.” Below are the typical garland of flowers and inscribed scrolls of popular and religious imagery in Latin America. She originally painted Fidel with one naked leg, to suggest that “his beauty is in being an entirely new type, a complete way of being”.  It is an undeniably female limb, and she was forced later to add trousers, having been accused of dis-respect. The naked leg balanced Allende’s naked arm; he was not fully clothed because he did not have the full support of the people, and the veil wrapped round him all too prophetically looks like a shroud. There is a sense of vulnerability in the portraits of the two heroes, enhanced by the butterfly on Allende’s hand, which she both expresses and seeks to counter. 

The portrait of Violeta Parra was added to the series of Heroes of the Revolution, because not all heroes are male, leaders or fighters. Violeta Parra was a Chilean composer, songwriter, ethnomusicologist and artist, who committed suicide in 1967. She was an activist and member of the Communist Party, symbolised by the tiny hammer and sickle, and Cecilia painted her as if she was on a trades union banner. Parra’s most famous song is “Gracias a la vida," Thank you life, which she composed shortly before she died. Cecilia depicts her as the “World Weaver," because this is her “magic activity; she weaves on the banner scenes and symbols representing her life and lines from her song. 

“Thank you life you have given me so much
You gave me two eyes and when I open them
I can distinguish perfectly between black and white
And the starry depths of the sky above
And amongst the masses the man that I love.”

She was a hero because she was a creator and dared to stand alone and forge her own path; she is depicted cut in three “because the world was a butcher’s shop that cut her up and put her on display like a beefsteak.”  It was only later she discovered Parra had tried to commit suicide three times. 

Cecilia’s paintings in the early 1970s respond to the hopes and then the tragic end of the socialist revolution in Chile. She had come to London on September 1972 on a British Council scholarship. She was thus out of the country during the military Coup that killed Allende on 11 September 1973, and was to remain away for many years. The Death of Salvador Allende was painted immediately, but her description of its genesis shows how close she remained to the underground powers of the imagination through the unconscious. “The death of Salvador did not move me, didn’t enter my field of consciousness, it began to work slowly and mysteriously, cultivating in me something like a seed, a microbe or a sickness. I began to grieve some hours later, when something horrible took shape, like phlegm, a heavy cry…then I began to paint.” The red stain above the abyss over a black gulf is the blood and wounds of Allende, and the smoke is the Coup, “killing all forms of life, transforming gardens into deserts. From the marvellous Chile of socialism, from the paradise of invention it was, there is nothing left but bones, stones, skeletons.” 

The last time Cecilia showed her paintings in London was at the Artists for Democracy exhibition at the Royal College of Art in 1974. “In that show my art was called "rubbish" by an important English art critic. As you know, I was also attacked and discredited as a person by my fellow artists, friends and colleagues. The sorrow of having lost Chile, and my friends was a little too much for me. It was as if something had died in me, and I ceased to paint in the manner I had done before.” Happily, she did paint again, as the works in this exhibition reveal.  

Dawn Adès, London, May 2013

Note. The extracts from Cecilia Vicuña’s explanations of her paintings are either from Sabor a mi (Beau Geste Press 1973) or from an unpublished typescript, “Pain Things and Explanations," produced for her exhibition at the ICA in 1973. Other quotations unless otherwise indicated are from conversations or correspondence between Cecilia and myself or from her (unpublished) interview with Valerie Fraser, Santiago 2011. I am grateful for permission to quote from these sources.


Essay originally published in the book catalog of “Cecilia Vicuña” exhibition at England & Co Gallery, London, May-June 2013. Reprinted by courtesy of the author & England & Co.