At his typewriter, while working on his memoir about his time in France, a bloodied Ernest Hemingway concluded that, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
It’s with this gracious sentiment toward the European nation in mind that Gary Nader’s eponymous gallery in Wynwood presents “Merci La France,” an exhibition that showcases the artistic works of South American expatriates, who—like Hemingway—lived, starved and honed their creative crafts in Paris.
In entering the show, Fernando Botero’s Girasoles greets you with its golden hues. The piece is an obvious homage to Vincent van Gogh’s series of paintings depicting sunflowers, works that Botero was evidently familiar with as a young artist living in Western Europe. Though the original Sunflowers is today housed at the National Gallery in London, the Dutch master painted it while living in France.
Since van Gogh’s passing, illustrations of sunflowers have stippled across Paris, sprouting in various forms; by various hands, as though a testament of the city’s perennial artistic spring.
In the Colombian’s nod to his artistic forebear, the color scheme of Girasoles remains melancholic—as though congruously lamenting the evanescent fragrance of the snipped bouquet—yet the style of the subject matter, with the voluptuous curves of the vase and the flower petals is distinctly Botero’s. Rather than an imitation of a masterpiece, it is a respectful reimagining.
Deeper into the exhibition, hangs Amelia Paláez’s Niña con Paloma (1947), a work that is another blending of worlds. Through Cubist style, which blossomed in Paris during the late 1920s, the Cuban painter depicts a Caribbean girl cradling a dove below the stained glass of a cathedral, which casts an otherworldly light on her.
Before returning to her tropical homeland in 1934, Paláez had studied drawing in the City of Light’s most eminent art schools: La Grande Chaumiere, l’École Nationale Superiéure des Beaux-Arts and l’École du Louvre. She is said to have received her greatest instruction while in Paris, however, from a Russian tumbleweed, a gallivanting artist named Alexandra Exter, who was a close friend of Pablo Picasso—the co-founder of the Cubism movement.
With this historical context in mind, particularly the interconnectedness of the artists in the French capital, the strange light pouring on Niña con Paloma imbues her with Parisian glow—she is the child of an avant-garde movement given birth to and nurtured in France. Perhaps her name is Madeline.
Among the dozens of paintings in “Merci La France” there is one that is as haunting as it is alluring.
Western Europe was also an incubator for Nicaraguan artist Armando Morales, who, in the mid-‘70s (just before permanently settling in Paris), revealed a dreamscape of a work: ghostly figures reposing in a harsh twilight.
Though their bodies are conspicuous, even carefully detailed (you can see rib cages), each of their faces is obscured. The visage of one of the figures is somewhat discernable—but the casted shadows both define and cloak the person’s face.
In some ways, the work, with its somber colors and orange highlights, evokes a scene from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy—a work repeatedly referenced in French art in the last century.
But what could have possibly been going through Morales’s mind while in his late 40s to make him conjure up such a cryptic body of work, such mysterious creatures? Well, the name of the work may offer insight. The sublime painting is bluntly titled Mujures—women. Like the clouds swirling above them, the depicted feminine subjects are impossible to fully grasp.
In all, the “Merci La France” comprehensively showcases the various approaches that eminent South American artists picked up while in Paris—whether it be Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism or other. With that said, the exhibition does as its name declares, offers a sense of gratitude to France for not only welcoming the wandering artists, but endowing them—through the nation’s rich artistic resources—with a cornucopia of techniques to render subjects and scenes, especially those, in full circle, of their respective homelands.