In this text, archeologist and art critic Jorge C. Muelle reviews Mario Urteaga’s second exhibition in Lima, held at the Sociedad Filarmónica in 1937.
Pictorial Indianism, which peaked in Peru in the twenties, thirties, and forties, was part of a wider movement in Peruvian society that attempted to redefine national identity in terms of native elements. While, at a certain moment, Indianism’s chief concern was the revalorization of “the indigenous” and of an Inca past seen as glorious, the movement also defended a mestizo identity that brought together “the native” and “the Hispanic.” José Sabogal (1888–1956) was indisputably the leader and mind behind Indianism in the visual arts. His deep sense of “rootedness” was influenced by regionalist tendencies evident in art from Spain (the work of Ignacio Zuloaga [1870–1945], among others) and Argentina (Jorge Bermúdez [1883–1926], to name just one artist)—countries where Sabogal spent a number of years studying. When he returned to Peru in late 1918, he settled in Cuzco, where he produced almost forty oil paintings of local characters and views of the city that were exhibited in Lima in 1919. That exhibition is considered the formal beginning of pictorial Indianism in Peru. His second solo show in Lima—the one that enabled him to consolidate prestige—was held in the galleries of the Casino Español in 1921. In 1920, Sabogal joined the faculty of the newly founded Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, which he then directed from 1932 to 1943. The following painters, all of whom formed part of the Indianist movement, studied at that institution: Julia Codesido, Alicia Bustamante (1905–68), Teresa Carvallo (1895–1988), Enrique Camino Brent (1909–60), and Camilo Blas (1903–85).
While Mario Urteaga did not form part of the Indianist group led by José Sabogal, his work was, generally speaking, in keeping with that tendency. He began painting in Cajamarca, where he was born, before moving to Lima, where he lived from 1903 to 1911. When he returned to Cajamarca, he worked for the newspaper El Ferrocarril, writing about science, art, and politics. It was around 1920 that he started making paintings with indigenous themes and, in 1923—at the insistence of his nephew Camilo Blas (pseudonym of Alfonso Sánchez Urteaga)—his focus on vernacular themes intensified. While during the 1920s his costumbrist works featured characters from Cajamarca, the scenes he depicted in the thirties were without criollo elements; instead, indigenous themes figured centrally, with images of peasants in an idealized landscape. In 1934, Urteaga’s first exhibition in Lima was held in the galleries of the Academia Nacional de Música Alcedo. [See: G. Buntinx and L. E. Wuffarden. Mario Urteaga: nuevas miradas (Lima: Fundación Telefónica–MALI, 2003)]. A second show, held in 1937, consolidated his prestige. The scant attention given to his third exhibition (held in 1938) and the cancellation of another show he had been working on was undoubtedly due to increasing opposition of local artists to Indianism. Indeed, it was during the mid-thirties that a critical stance on Indianism—perceived as government-backed and exclusive—was articulated, which eventually (in 1943) led Sabogal to leave his post as director of the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (ENBA). It was in a context marked by innovation and controversy with the introduction of abstract art that, in 1955, the tribute to Urteaga at the Instituto de Arte Contemporáneo (IAC)—a newly founded institution dedicated to advocating modern art in Peru—took place. Partisans of abstraction and partisans of figuration reacted radically differently to the artist’s presence in Lima and to the widespread recognition of his work. This is evident in the divergent statements of Indianist painter Sabogal, abstract artist Fernando de Szyszlo, and muralist Teodoro Núñez Ureta. None of their readings took into account the complexity of Urteaga’s work, which Buntinx describes as “a peripheral expression with its own strains of sophistication, chief among them a certain classical inspiration: colonial traditions, as well as popular traditions and traditions of the republican era, seem, at times, to converge in Urteaga’s work as they are joined to a European and Renaissance canon.”