December 7, 2023

Radical Geometry RA – Modernism from Latin America

The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros collection of Latin American art does not have permanent home. Instead it travels the world introducing audiences to modernist art from six of the continent’s biggest cities. It has touched down at the Royal Academy, filling the Sackler Wing with Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America.

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The works are from Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, Rio and Caracas and date from the 1930s. None of these cities were big players in the international art world, but they each had a small posse of artists including Cruez-Diez in Caracas, Maldonado in Argentina and Gego in Venezuela. Creative inspiration was often taken from other cities and artists – Paris and Mondrian being the most glaring examples, but the show also contains some new work that shows local artists were developing their own directions and experimenting with space, movement and colour.

An odd curatorial decision meets you as you enter the exhibition. The age old question of where to put the labels has been answered by putting them on the floor. This is not a good solution. It achieves the great curatorial aim of leaving the walls free of text between images, but makes spotting whom anything is by tricky, especially when the galleries are full of visitors. The small rooms of the Sackler wing (well, small by Royal Academy standards) are over-filled, but the entrance area is a success. As you enter the galleries you see directly through a round window Play-School-like into another room full of intriguing hanging sculptures.

Latin America is a large area and the concerns of the artists are not uniform. In Buenos Aires artists were politicised. Some were Marxists, embracing the stridently abstract and decrying the restrictive nature of the traditional rectangular canvas. Here, even signing a painting was seen as decadent and bourgeois. In Montevideo Torres-Garcia was interested in developing a regional version of the European avant-garde. He created a mashup of ancient iconography within modernist grids that had been drained of colour and painted on rural, earthy colours. The result is playful but was a deadend – his experiment was not taken on by other painters who preferred to work with the prevalent European visual language.

The exhibition includes some sculptures, and it is here, as the work becomes 3D and dynamic that it is most interesting. Lygia Pape was working with kinetic sculpture designed to be touched and moved by the viewer. Triangles, parallelograms and pieces-of-cheese shapes interlock and hinge. However if a piece of work is created to be touched then every effort should be made to make it touchable. If it was made of blown-glass and snowflakes there might have been a reason for ignoring the artist’s intentions, but these sculptures are created from metal. To look at them in one configuration is not the same as being able to experience them yourself. It is akin to the difference between looking at an Italian Polygonal Virginal from 1640 and actually hearing it being played. That’s not quite the random comparison it appears – if you go to the Royal Academy of Music museum they have such an instrument, and if you ask nicely you can see and hear it being used. At the very least a model that could be touched should have been created.

The stars of the show are the Drawings without paper by Gego, that are glimpsed as soon as you enter. To begin with she uses pristine metal to create hanging line drawings, delicate wire shapes and grids that look like skeletal furniture waiting to be upholstered. The best though utilise cast-off electrical components and springs to build up a more local, less monied language. Her pieces hang a few centimetres from the walls and throw shadows that depend on the lighting system in the gallery and on the wall colours. The artist has not had a say in these factors, so the effects will differ everywhere the pieces are shown. The forms thrown onto the walls change as you walk past, your focus moving between delicate shadows and sharply defined metal. Moving spontaneously as they hang from the ceiling they appear as unfinished doodles given three-dimensions. By any normal definition they are sculpture, yet the artist’s insistence that they are drawings without paper is apt, the narrow links and pathways mapping routes between way markers like a cartographer’s pen.

Radical Geometry is of specialist interest, showing something of the development and history of art in Latin America since 1930. It doesn’t set the pulse racing but does bring to London artists who are not on the usual museum show roll-call and shows how the art world developed away from the main 20th century art cities.

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