Venezuelan Artist Oswaldo Vigas Finally Gets the Recognition He Deserves

Organico1969, Oil on canvas. 42 15/16 x 40 15/16 in, by Venezuelan artist Oswaldo Vigas. Image: Oswaldo Vigas Foundation

With a new art exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art and other major global art events, Venezuelan artist Oswaldo Vigas finally gets the recognition he deserves.

BY KAZEEM ADELEKE, ARTCENTRON

Oswaldo Vigas: Paintings Between Latin America, Africa, and Europe, an exhibition of works by the Latin American master currently on view at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, provides an insight into the amazing career of this often overlooked and underrecognized artist.

The exhibition features paintings the artist created in Paris in the 1950s and in Venezuela from 1969 to 1976. The majority of the paintings in this show are on loan from different collections, including the Oswaldo Vigas Foundation. Several are appearing in any exhibition for the first time in the United States.

Lorenzo Vigas, Oswaldo Vigas’ son, organized this exhibition to honor his father. It is the first in a series of tributes commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Oswaldo Vigas (1923–2014). Accompanying the exhibition is a digital catalogue raisonné. The Oswaldo Vigas Foundation, with the support of Axel Stein, former head of the Latin American Art Department at Sotheby’s, compiled the catalog. It includes over 3,000 paintings, gallery and museum histories, and publications detailing Oswaldo Vigas’ trajectory over seven decades of art practice.

Evident from the catalog collection is Vigas’ artistic restlessness and his unrelenting desire for artistic success. With every turn of his career, he was constantly shifting, pulling, and pushing as he navigated the crevices of artistic traditions and styles in his effort to attain greatness. He struggled but nevertheless persevered in the face of daunting challenges. It is remarkable and thoughtful that the Boca Raton Museum of Art is allowing free access to this expansive digital catalog. The compendium is an immense opportunity for scholars, curators, collectors, and the public to explore the depths of Vigas’ oeuvre and his accomplishments.

Venezuelan Artist Oswaldo Vigas: Beyond Latin America

Through the years, Venezuelan artist Oswaldo Vigas has variously been described as one of the most prolific and influential Latin American painters of the twentieth century. But history has shown that he was more than that. His exceptional ability to amalgamate multicultural roots with European sensibilities to create a singular visual language puts him on the same pedestal as other notable founders of modernism. “My father’s art was always woven with the primeval roots of Latin American culture, yet he is no longer viewed merely as a ‘Latin American artist’— he is now acknowledged as a modern universal artist,” notes his son Lorenzo Vigas.

Strong colors, bold shapes and lines, and a confluence of influences from Latin America, Africa, and other places are major elements in Vigas’ paintings. In his paintings, symbols, images, abstract figures, animals, organic life, and other ideas are carefully and intelligently composed to give birth to a noteworthy concept. This approach to painting is perhaps more evident in Tres Brujas Naciente (Three Rising Witches), 1952, in which the artist inserts petroglyphs from Venezuelan territory into this contemporary work.

Tres Brujas Naciente has three figures superimposed over a dark brown background. Each figure is unique based on color and the shapes of its heads. While the central figure is yellow, the one on the left is black, and the one on the right is white. Interspersed around the witches are multicolor geometric motifs similar to rock paintings found in Venezuelan caves. In some ways, the colorful motifs give credence to the witches as powerful beings.

Tres Brujas Nacientes, an abstract painting with three mytical figures
Oswaldo-Vigas, Tres Brujas Nacientes 1952. Image: Oswaldo Vigas Foundation

Another painting in this art exhibition is La Red (The Net), 1952. Originally titled La Cabeza en la Red (Head in the Net) in the exhibition catalog, the oil on canvas painting, measuring 39 x 21 5/8 in, depicts a giant mouth with sharp, jagged teeth enveloping another mouth that looks like the beak of a bird or crab claw eating a seed. Done in different gray colors, the painting highlights Vigas’ outstanding compositional ability and his gift to communicate multiple thoughts and ideas in a singular painting. The layering of different gray colors and the interconnectivity of shapes, symbols, and lines reveal an individual style, evident in several of Vigas’ paintings.

El-Alacran-1952 by Venezuelan artist Oswaldo Vigas
El-Alacran-1952 by Venezuelan artist Oswaldo Vigas. Oil on canvas. 30 11/16 60 5/8 in. Image: Oswaldo Vigas Foundation

The technique and style in La Red are also unmistakable in El Alacrán (The Scorpion), 1952. Using a stained glass painting technique as a background, the artist superimposes a large scorpion’s pincer with scary jagged teeth over a gray-lined background. Around the scorpion are leaves, flowers, buds, and seeds that help situate the subject in a particular environment. As if trying to grab something, the scorpion’s pincer reaches across the canvas with some ferocity. The painter tells the story of this ferocious scorpion using all the elements of art and a variety of gray colors. To further unravel the story, Vigas creatively helps viewers experience the whole painting using the warm red color of the scorpion’s pincer and its lemon yellow, sharp, jagged teeth. The intermingling of lines, planes, and shapes adds kinetic power to this painting already pulsating with abstract energy.

Vigas’ outstanding ability to unify multiple thoughts, ideas, symbols, and concepts—some borrowed from ancient and mythological sources—with powerful and unrestrained imagination gives credence to his unique artistic style. It is not surprising that he got so much recognition from art critics for his vision of the Americas and his outstanding abilities. In interviews with the news media in the 1950s and 1960s, Vigas compared his art to his birthplace:

“The Americas are a cosmos. Our continent is full of dark signs and warnings: telluric signs and magic that are deep components of our condition. At the same time that they reveal something, these symbols also compromise us in a disturbing world of effervescence. The intention of my painting is to reach them, interpret them, and translate them into new warnings. My paintings are halfway between Latin America, Africa.”

Who is Oswaldo Vigas

Venuzulan artist Oswaldo Vigas in his Caracas studio in 1977
Venuzulan artist Oswaldo Vigas in his Caracas studio in 1977. Image: Oswaldo Vigas Foundation

Oswaldo Vigas was born in 1923 in Valencia, Venezuela, to a Spanish father and an indigenous mother. He began painting at a young age. Vigas later studied art at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. In 1952, he won Venezuela’s highest honor in painting and was awarded a trip to Paris, where he lived for 12 years. Those 12 years were eventful in the development of Vigas’ artistic career. It was a time of great artistic and cultural growth in Paris, and he was surrounded by the artistic figures that formed the École de Paris. Vigas soon immersed himself in the contemporary art scene and began expanding his own artistic horizons. However, it was his exposure to the work of European modernist painters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse that served as a major influence on his work, even as he developed his own unique style.

Oswaldo Vigas Meets Pablo Picasso

In 1955, Vigas met Picasso and became good friends and colleagues. Together, they organized Exposición Internacional de Pintura, one of the most significant exhibitions in the history of Venezuelan art. The show was held to commemorate the fourth centenary of the city of Valencia. In addition to Vigas and Picasso, the exhibition also included works by famous artists, including Karel Appel, Bernard Buffet, and Max Ernst. Others were Wilfredo Lam, Fernand Léger, René Magritte, Candido Portinari, and Diego Rivera.

From Paris to Venezuela

Vigas returned to Venezuela in 1964 and continued to paint. He also taught art at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Vigas’s work became increasingly political in the 1970s and 1980s. The financial downturn and political unrest consuming Venezuela became major themes in his work. He painted scenes of violence and poverty, and used his art to raise awareness of social issues. His painting style, color schemes, and technique also changed.

Paintings from this period have very subtle color schemes, mainly tints and shades of brown. Works in this category include Asmodé (1970), Hierática (1970), Hierática IV (1971), and Aguiladora (1972). Perhaps the only deviation is Concitadoras(1972), which has saturated hues, especially red. Other paintings from this period include Agorifera Gris (1976), and Ludica III (1970). What is obvious from the collection of paintings from the 1970s is that Vigas continued borrowing from the past to meet the needs of the present.  Drawing from the well of cubism, surrealism, constructivism, and mythology, he used his paintings to make commentaries about the derelict state of affairs in Venezuela.

Oswaldo Vigas’ achievements are astounding. Museums all over the world have exhibited Vigas’ work. He also won numerous awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1960. A towering figure of modernism, Vigas’ career spanned seven decades. His first solo exhibition in the U.S. was in 1958 in Washington, D.C. Vigas was celebrated for his experimental approach to art throughout his career.  He received the International Association of Art Critics Award twice (in 2008 and 2014) for his outstanding ability to bridge the gap between pre-Colombian iconography and the experimental art movements of the 20th century. Additionally, he was the recipient of the Latin Union Award in Washington, DC, in 2004.

First Artist to Represent Venezuela at the Venice Biennale

Vigas was the first artist to represent Venezuela at the Venice Biennale when its national pavilion was inaugurated in 1954, and again in 1962 to organize the Venezuelan section. He was successful in France, where his works were on display alongside those of Jean Arp, Chagall, Giacometti, Laurens, Magritte, Matisse, and others.

Painting tiled Concitadoras by Venezuelan artist OVigas
Venezuelan artist Oswaldo Vigas: Concitadoras1972. Oil on canvas. 70 7/8 x 59 1/6 in. Image: Oswaldo Vigas Foundation

Today, Vigas’ work continues to be a powerful and moving testament to the human condition. His tenacity to use his work to explore important themes of identity, sexuality, and violence and make social commentary makes him even more relevant today. He dedicated his entire life to creating art and never stopped painting until his death in 2014. His work continues to inspire and challenge viewers.

The Boca Raton Museum of Art deserves commendation for giving Venezuelan artist Oswaldo Vigas the recognition he deserves. Through this single act, the museum brings attention to this outstanding artist whose contributions to modernism are indelible. The hope is that new generations of curators, like those at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, will make efforts to give a voice to underrepresented artists who are producing exceptional works and contributing to art history.

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