In the 1920s, a modern movement arose to reclaim Pre-Columbian aesthetics; it paralleled the rise of archeological exploration in Peru and the search for sources of national identity advocated, at that time, by Indigenism. Artists, researchers, and intellectuals became interested in Pre-Columbian motifs, seeking to adapt them (in the decorative and functional arts) to contemporary life. The artist Elena Izcue played a decisive role in this movement. Never part of the indigenist group led by José Sabogal (1888–1956), Izcue’s textile designs and applied arts led her to the fashion industry in Paris and New York. In 1927, a two-year grant from the Peruvian government allowed Elena and her sister Victoria to live in Paris and pursue their art studies. Working and training at different factories and workshops, they built solid careers in the field of decorative arts, producing printed fabrics inspired by pre-Hispanic art. Their works were bought by the famous Würth House of Threads, various fashion houses, and private clients. In 1935, they went to New York and owing the philanthropist Anne Morgan (1873–1952) organized an exhibition of modern art by Elena and Victoria Izcue—featuring pre-Incan textiles and ceramics—at the galleries in the Fuller Building. After the exhibition, the sisters remained in New York to fill orders placed by several firms. In mid-1936, they returned to Paris and once again began designing fabrics. They were commissioned to decorate the Peruvian Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life (1937) with models, photographs, and industrial samples chosen to give Peru a modern image. The pavilion also showed work by contemporary artists and devoted the hall of honor to an exhibition of work by the Izcue sisters along with pre-Hispanic works.
In 1938, prompted by the looming threat of the Second World War, the Izcue sisters decided to return to Peru, stopping off in New York on the way. There they were commissioned to consult on the decoration of the Peruvian Pavilion for the World Fair, which was devoted to showcasing the social and public works accomplished by the government of President Benavides (1933–39); their involvement was thus limited to the arrangement of the rooms and the objects to be shown in the pavilion. They arrived in Lima in 1939, and in 1940, the Taller Nacional de Artes Gráficas Aplicadas was created, directed by Elena and administered by Victoria. In 1941, they launched a handcraft stimulus project in northern Peru that concentrated on traditional straw fabrics. School-workshops were set up in different cities, overseen by the Izcue sisters, who sought to raise the artistic standard of original works, improving the finish and suggesting new designs. Motifs drawn from Pre-Columbian art were barely used at that time; the sisters’ goal was to rediscover and perfect traditional production methods and apply them to contemporary design. The sisters retired from public life in the early 1950s. Elena spent the last twenty years of her life producing textile designs, as well as drawings and paintings of a more personal, private nature.
Natalia Majluf and Luis Eduardo Wuffarden published Elena Izcue: El arte precolombino en la vida moderna (Lima: MALI, 1999), the most complete study to date of the artist’s life and work.