The enduring conception of the Latin American landscape as an Edenic paradise abounding with virginal vegetation is both upheld and transformed by Armando Morales in his paintings of tropical forests executed over the last fifty years. First appearing in Morales' work in 1956, the dense jungle is now the artist's signature subject. Among his many surreal depictions of nudes, still-lifes and Sandinistas, the tropical forest is the most expressive and personal theme in the artist's oeuvre.
Born in Granada, Nicaragua in 1927, Morales has spent much of his life abroad living and working in New York, Paris and London. Despite his long absence from Nicaragua, Morales continues to return to his homeland in his paintings. The wide expanses of water illustrated in many of his images are veiled references to the great Lago de Nicaragua adjacent to his hometown of Granada. More obliquely, the animals, bathers and bicycles that fill his canvases, are, according to Morales, fragmented visions from his childhood. The tropical forests, however, are the clearest representation of the artist's roots in Latin America. As Morales explained in an interview:.
I think that perhaps of all of my themes, that of the jungle is the one that most reflects my roots, my interests in the integrally American-ness of my art...My images of the jungle are linked to the memories I have of trips made to the rain forests of eastern and northern Nicaragua as well as to those of my first trip to the Brazilian Amazon. In 1959 I went to Iquitos in Peru and from there traveled in a small boat on the Amazon until I reached Manaus. I will never forget the dense vegetation and the aliveness of the green forest.(1)
Beginning in the 1980s, while living in Paris, Morales returned increasingly to painting images of the jungle. Works such as Fôret Tropicale, executed while Morales was abroad, should thus be understood as the artist's reflections on home from a distant time and place. The French title suggests both Morales's absence from Nicaragua and his presence in a country with no tropical forests of its own. Morales thus reveals that Fôret Tropicale is an imagined landscape drawn from his memories and dreams rather than one which he sees before him.
Fôret Tropicale not only alludes to the artist's own personal history but to broader historical and artistic contexts as well. Early accounts by European explorers describe the New World as a kind of paradise lost, a pristine place of fertile foliage, a garden of endless delights. Later nineteenth century artist-travelers such as Frederic Edwin Church advanced this fascination with the lush Latin American landscape by meticulously rendering the region's abundant vegetation. More contemporary images of the tropical forest by Latin America's own include, perhaps most notably, Cuban artist Wifredo Lam's The Jungle from 1943. In painting verdant rainforests, Morales follows in this tradition yet his images do not convey unmitigated rapture for the landscape as expressed by early foreign explorers nor do they suggest an undercurrent of biting political commentary as seen in Lam's work. Morales' tropical forests lie somewhere in between.
In Fôret Tropicale, Morales depicts a dark dense grove of trees from the perspective of someone standing within this tangle of foliage. Appropriately, emphasis is placed on verticality; more than six feet tall, the trees surge upwards. Towering above the viewer below, the trees form a canopy that almost completely blocks out the sky. The trunks and branches extend beyond the confines of the canvas suggesting the infinitude of this wild place. Although thick with growth, Fôret Tropicale does seem penetrable at center where the crowded trees in the foreground part to reveal a shaded opening in the distance. The trees lining the side of this opening at center create an illusion of depth leading the eye back into the deep recesses of the forest. This overgrown path beckons the viewer further into the picture plane inviting him/her to discover this uncharted territory.
As with all of Morales' images, there is a sense of surreal mystery added to this realistically rendered forest. The careful details of the trunks, lianas, branches and leaves seemingly illustrate an actual forest yet filtered through Morales' memory this eerily still and silent jungle becomes otherworldly. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Morales' work, however, is the patinated appearance of his canvases. Each of Morales' paintings is the result of a painstaking process often involving months of uninterrupted concentration in which the artist builds up the surface of the canvas with layers of paint only to scrape it down again and cover it with a beeswax varnish. Through this idiosyncratic practice, coupled with his personal perspective, Morales adds a unique interpretation to the representation of the tropical landscape.
1) As quoted by Armando Morales in: E. J. Sullivan, "Armando Morales: Southern Visions of the Mind," Arts Magazine, 62:3, November 1987, 65.