In this text, Peruvian poet Adolfo Westphalen comments on the series of works painted by Fernando de Szyszlo in 1963 based on Apu Inca Atawallpaman, a colonial-era Quechua poem translated into Spanish by anthropologist José María Arguedas.
While abstraction was initially defined as a cosmopolitan language, it veered, in the late fifties in Peru, towards a formal repertoire rooted in pre-Hispanic art. Artist Fernando de Szyszlo was crucial to that process, as well as one of its most polemic spokespersons. His production, starting in those years, entailed a series of chromatic and archetypal references suggestive of the universe of pre-Columbian art, particularly of pre-Incan coastal cultures; in some cases, he even used Quechua titles. This strain of his work reached its height with the series Apu Inca Atawallpaman (1963), inspired by the colonial-era Quechua poem of the same title translated into Spanish by writer and anthropologist José María Arguedas (1911–69). The poem addresses the death of the last Inca emperor at the hands of the Spanish conquerors; its eulogy-like character took on obvious political connotations with the rise of anthropological studies and social struggles in the region. The series occasioned a significant critical reaction from, among others, poet Emilio Adolfo Westphalen (1911–2001), which in turn influenced later readings of the painter’s work. Pursuant to the critical acclaim enjoyed by the show in Lima—it even received praise from long-standing opponents of abstraction like Sebastián Salazar Bondy (1924–65)—the series was exhibited in a number of cities around the continent, starting with the Museo de Arte Moderno in Bogotá. It was in response to that show in the Colombian capital that influential young critic Marta Traba (1923–83) asserted that the Atawalpa series was one of the soundest attempts to venture a modern artistic language with Americanist content. De Szyszlo’s work, then, came to be seen as “progressive” and, hence, tied to the expectations that the Cuban Revolution stirred in Latin American leftist intellectuals. In 1968, the series was exhibited at the Casa de las Américas in Havana; only three years later, de Szyszlo publically broke with Fidel Castro’s regime due to its treatment of writer Heberto Padilla (1971).