Cecilia Vicuña

Violeta Parra


Not on display

Cecilia Vicuña born 1948
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 581 × 481 mm
framed: dimensions TBC
Purchased with funds provided by Catherine Petitgas 2017


Violeta Parra 1973 is a half-length figure painting of a naked woman. She is depicted with both her hands raised and an orange shawl wrapped around her lower thighs, behind which is a laurel bush. Her figure is represented as if sliced into three sections – her lower torso is severed from her upper torso and another cut runs diagonally from her left shoulder to her right hip. Her mutilated form is framed by a brightly coloured scarf-like banner which billows like an arch above her head. The painting is part of a series entitled Heroes of the Revolution, which also includes the portraits Karl Marx, Lenin and Fidel y Allende, each from 1972 (all in private collections). Describing this series, Cecilia Vicuña has written: ‘It is very hard to paint and choose them [heroes] because I don’t like the idea of hero. I paint them to laugh. Neither the paintings or heroes are “objects” of laughter but rather we laugh together.’ (In Institute of Contemporary Art 1973, p.6.) Vicuña’s paintings from the early 1970s narrate her own personal biography interwoven with the history of her native Chile and the rise of socialism. ‘My paintings’, she has explained, ‘are political in a personal way. My canvases are born as representations of a socialist paradise where everything is possible; in fact, they are part of my poetry.’ (Quoted in press release for Institute of Contemporary Art 1973, held at Tate Archive, TGA 955/7/8/64.) This approach also underpins her work in other media, such as the installation Precarios: A Journal of Objects for the Chilean Resistance 1973–4 (Tate T14170).

Often described as naïve or even ‘primitive’, Vicuña’s paintings employ flat and simple compositions characterised by the inclusion of a narrative through the representation of objects that carry symbolic readings, a synthesis of influences that brings together pre-Columbian, indigenous or popular art and folklore with her knowledge of European poetry and painting, in particular surrealism. In 1973 – the year she painted Violeta Parra – she delineated some of the influences on her painting in the following way: ‘They [my paintings] have a relation descended from Rimbaud, Holderlin, Artaud, John Coltrane, Chuang Tze, Ste Teresa de Janus, John Cage and Violeta Parra, Aretha Franklin, William Blake.’ (Quoted in Institute of Contemporary Art 1973, p.3.)

In 1969, Vicuña met the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) in Mexico City, and learnt from her a painting technique that she was to apply to all her subsequent works and has described as follows:

I first create a plain, flat background, with a single, very diluted oil colour that creates that liquid feeling. (I usually use burnt sienna, but have used other colours too), I let it dry somewhat, and then I draw with a very fine brush the outline of the work, with a clear oil colour, with plenty of white, so that it will stand out against the background. I then ‘fill’ the outline with colour, transferring the image from my mind to the canvas. It is like drawing oil on a receptive field. There is no room for mistake, [because] everything shows, and mistakes become part of the piece.
(Quoted in England & Co 2013, p.4.)

Violeta Parra was painted using this technique, and is a portrait of Chilean composer, singer, songwriter, poet, ethnomusicologist and visual artist Violeta Parra (1917–1967). In 1952, encouraged by her brother, the poet Nicanor Parra, Violeta embarked on a tour around rural Chile, recording and compiling popular and folklore music. She thus rescued a tradition that had been forgotten for many years and initiated the artistic movement known as Nueva Canción Chilena (New Chilean Song). In 1965, together with her children Angel and Isabel, she founded the space La Carpa de la Reina in Santiago de Chile, a cultural centre and a meeting place to showcase Chilean folklore or popular art and music. Parra also took on traditional pottery and embroidery and Vicuña depicts her as the ‘World Weaver’, whereby her ‘magic activity’ (quoted ibid., p.8) is represented also by the banner that surrounds her, representing scenes and symbols relating to Parra’s life and the words of her most famous song Gracias a la vida (‘Thank you life’), which she included in her last record Las últimas composiciones (1966), released shortly before she took her own life. Vicuña shows Parra cut in three ‘because the world was a butcher’s shop that cut her up and put her on display like a beefsteak’ (quoted ibid., p.9). It was only later that Vicuña discovered Parra had tried to take her own life three times.

Further reading
Cecilia Vicuña, Pain Things and Explanations, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1973, held at Tate Archive, TGA 955/15/228.
M. Catherine de Zegher, The Precarious, The Art and Poetry of Cecilia Vicuña, London 1997.
Cecilia Vicuña, exhibition catalogue, England & Co, London 2013.

Carmen Juliá and Andrew Wilson
May 2014, August 2016

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