Two issues reported recently in the American news involving Chile, my country of birth, triggered memories of my late uncle Carlos Hermosilla Álvarez, the father of Chilean realist printmaking, and his lifetime commitment to social justice. These issues were the plight of 33 miners trapped underground in northern Chile and the hunger strike onducted by Mapuche Indians.
Carlos was born in 1905 in Valparaiso, Chile. He showed artistic talent at a young age but his studies were interrupted by a serious illness-a bone decalcification due to tuberculosis which cost him a hand and a leg. He perservered and studied on his own while he worked. He won several major art contests in the mid-twenties and was eventually accepted into formal art studies at the University of Chile in Santiago in 1930.
In 1939 after completing his formal studies, he was appointed Professor of Drawing at the University of Playa Ancha in Viña del Mar, Chile, a post he held until his retirement following the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Uncle Carlos established a program which brought him the love and respect of students, fellow artists, and the general public. In 1947 he married Marina Pinto, a nurse and artist, who was his lifetime companion.
Carlos translated his own pain and suffering into an empathy for others. He was a central figure in the movement to change the focus of Chilean art from subjects which appealed to the country’s elites to a concern for working class people and outsiders. Hundreds of exhibitions of his work, solo and collective, were held in Chile and other Latin American countries during his lifetime as well as in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, France, Spain, Finland and other countries. During his lifetime, he received approximately 50 honors and prizes for borth his art and his social commitments.
His work included prints of Chile’s working class: fishermen, construction workers, homemakers, miners and the Mapuche Indians. One of the first known appearancea of Carlos’ work in the United States occurred at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1942 in an exhibition sponsored by authorities in Chile and the United States. The participants were selected from a competition in Santiago, Chile, to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the nation’s capitol. Carlos’ print was Hombre de la Montaña ( Mountaineer). The exhibition was shown at seven other art venues in the United States and was so successful that it was also sent to Canada from1943-1944..
In New York in the 1940s his work was included in an exhibition of printmakers from every Latin American country in a project which was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America. The Policy resulted in many cultural exchanges between the United States and Latin American including Chile as an effort to stem the Nazi influence in the continent.
The book which memorialized this exhibition was entitled Portrait of Latin America as Seen by Her Printmakers, published in 1946, and was edited by Anne Haight. Carlos was one of eleven Chilean artists whose works were included in the exhibit and publication. As a teenager while his family resided in Concepction, he had visited a mine in the southern Chilean city of Lota and he drew upon that experience for the print selected for inclusion. It was entitled Minero Cansado (The Weary Miner). The print was Carlos’way of characterizing the plight of the country’s mine workers. It is obvious from recent events in northern Chile that the danger to these men has not abated since he took up their cause approximately seventy years ago.
In the case of the Mapuche Indians, Carlos sought to bring their humanity to the consciousness of the larger Chilean population. The Mapuche were one of the few Indian tribes in either North or South America who were never conquered by the Spanish. However, they had not been fully integrated into Chilean society during Carlos’ lifetime and that failure persists. Some of their members we recently on a hunger strike to protest the taking of their ancestral lands and their treatment by Chile’s legal system.
Carlos’ depiction of the Mapuche represented his general approach to the subject matter of his printmaking and art. He produced prints of the Chilean working class and outsiders as well as prints of the political, intellectual and artistic elites of Chile, including Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, the country’s two Nobel Prize winners, both of whom he knew personally. He produced works of the same spectrum of subjects, the ordinary workers and the elites, in other countries including the United States.
His prints of the Mapuche include a Mapuche youngster, Joven Mapuche, as well as skilled workers like the Mapuche Weaver, Tejedora Mapuche, seen below in full native regalia..
As noted above, Carlos went on to become a much honored and admired man. Hundreds of exhibitions of his work, both solo and group, were held in his native Chile and around the world during his lifetime and continue today. Among the honors he received during his lifetime were awards for his art and for his various social commitments. A partial list is documented on the website of the Sala Carlos Hermosilla named in his honor and located in Viña del Mar, Chile. (http://www.salacarloshermosilla.com)
After he left his position following the military coup, Carlos continued his work at his modest home in Viña del Mar, Chile. He also turned his attention to poetry and published numerous books of poetry about many of the same subjects which had engaged his printmaking. His prints and poetry also contributed to the dialogue of the Chilean exile community in the United States and their Chilean counterparts and many of his prints and his poetry can be found in issues of Literatura chilena, creacion y critica (e.g. Number 7 trimestre 1979) published in Los Angeles, California as well as Araucania de Chile published in France and Spain.
Carlos and his wife Marina Pinto, a nurse and sculptor, opened their home to visitors from throughout the world during these years. Artists, writers, academicians sought him out and he generously gave of his time and his artwork. There are a number of interesting interviews with Carlos in Spanish available for reading. One of the most touching is that of Chilean American Juan A. Epple, Professor of Roman Languages at the University of Oregon, who interviewed Carlos in 1988. Entitled “El Buril y La Memoria,” the inteviewed was published in Simpson 7, 6 Santiago (1994): 86-94.
Carlos sent his work overseas, sometimes surrepticiously, to support members of the exile community as well finally assist the causes for the poor and children which he supported within Chile itself. My husband Joel Rosenthal and I sponsored exhibitions of his work in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin, in 1975 and 1976, respectively, and sent the proceeds to Carlos. He put the money to good use during the early nd most difficult economic years of the Pinochet government.
Carlos died in 1991 having seen democracy return to his beloved Chile. He was aware that the transition would not be easy and that many would have to pay for their crimes as he expressed in his final letter to me prior to his death. His legacy was enormous. He was one of those rare individuals whose personal life and professional life were one and the same. He never forgot his humble origins. He lived among the ordinary people of Chile, the same people he drew and wrote about with such empathy.
In 2003 the Universidad Playa Ancha in Viña del Mar, Chile, published a work in Spanish edited by Hugo Rivera entitled CARLOS HERMOSILLA; artista ciudadano Adelantado de grabar (CARLOS HERMOSILLA; Visionary Citizen Artist of Printmaking) which contains a hundred pages of his prints as well as historical and critical analyses.
Celebrations were held throughout Chile in 2005 to mark the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. Exhibitions and historical analyses of his work were presented in many cities throughout the country including Santiago, Valparaiso, and Viña del Mar.. Even today there are exhibitions in Chile and other countries including his work as well the sculpture of his late wife Marina Pinto.
My husband and I donated prints from our personal collection of my late Uncle Carlos’ work to a number of requesting institutions in the United States including the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Art Museum of the Americas of the Organization of American States, Washington D.C., the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas-Austin, Texas, and the Metropolitan Museum & Art Center of Coral Gables, Florida, whose collections are now part of the the Frost Art Museum, Miami, Florida.
Fifty prints of Uncle Carlos are available for viewing online from the University of Essex Latin American Art Collection in England through a loan by Chilean art collector Ruby Reid Thompson. http://www.ueclaa.org/ueclaa.Oneline/Collection.jsp
The September 21, 2010, issue of the English language paper Santiago Times, José Aylwin, in an article translated from Spanish into English, took note of the two “Wounds of the Bicentennial,” Chile’s celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of its independence from Spain. The plight of the miners and the Mapuche described in Aylwin’s article and recent American news reports indicate that Uncle Carlos’ social concerns of seventy years ago are alive today.
Chile has made enormous strides since my Uncle’s death in 1991. However, the issues that drove his life persist and his commitment to a socially conscious art is as relevant today as it was during his lifetime.
*Liliana Hermosilla Rosenthal was born in Concepción, Chile, and is the niece of Carlos Hermosilla Álvrez. She has resided with her husband, Attorney Joel Rosenthal, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA since 1971, and is owner of Spanish Language Services. She has translated some of her Uncle’s poetry as well as catalogues for the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Chicago Art Museum. Website: www.spanishlanguageservices.org; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org