Venezuela's most important sculptor by popular acclamation, Francisco Narváez inaugurated his country's age of modernism at the start of the 1930s, returning from three years in Paris and instantly catalyzing the national culture. The son of a well-known cabinetmaker in Porlamar, Narváez practiced woodcarving at an early age before beginning his formal training at the Academia de Bellas Artes in Caracas in 1922. At that time, Venezuelan sculpture was still mired in a dated academicism, its dominant technique wax or clay modeling and its narrative subjects mostly catered to the statuary demands of the state. Within such a "sleepy and incurious environment," a critic for the magazine Elite wrote on the occasion of the artist's first solo exhibition, the early promise of Narváez boded well for the renewal of Venezuela's sculptural tradition: "The artist and the medium are evolving almost simultaneously, the stimulus of one synchronizing with the other."(1) Narváez's sculptural evolution would take a dramatic step forward during his time in Paris, where he enrolled at the Académie Julian and studied the origins of modern sculpture in the work of Rodin, Maillol and Bourdelle, whose expressive naturalism and physical intensity would leave a lasting impression.
Narváez returned to Caracas in 1931 and opened a studio in the working-class neighborhood of Catia that immediately became a gathering place for Venezuela's avant-garde. Stimulated by the growing national sentiment shared by this young intelligentsia, he began to work out the problems of figurative, volumetric sculpture in works that took the country's indigenous mestizo population and vernacular themes in general as their principal subjects. The artist's important criollista period lasted through the mid-1940s, and in works such as the present Criollas he demonstrated a powerful ability to integrate his nativist interests with a more and more refined carving technique, modernizing a local tradition of woodcarving that had languished since colonial times. "The Creole women, blacks, and Indian women that populate these works are men and women engaged in their daily routine," Katherine Chacón has observed, "but they are also compact masses, concatenations of curves and volumes, and smoothly shifting light reflected on polished surfaces. They become pretexts for volumes of stylized elegance, signaling a break with the narrative character of previous sculpture in favor of expressive form and matter. Here, Narváez displays his technical mastery as a carver. He uses minimal resources, saving details to achieve a notable synthesis in forms that represent their essential features."(2)
The present wood relief is a classic example from Narváez's criollista period, its clarity of line and sinuously articulated volumes a strong statement of the artist's formal and conceptual values. A stoic and timeless image of women at work, Criollas renders the mundane activity of gathering the harvest with a moving and almost reverential grace. The womanly outlines of the bodies rhyme organically with the fruits and foliage of the landscape; indeed, the symmetries of the sensually incised lines and rhythmic movements invest the figures with a visual and expressive gravitas that belies their meager station in life. It was precisely this "state of extreme plasticity, rendered with a great purity of means and an economy of resources and details," that best distinguished the sculpture of Narváez, according to the eminent Venezuelan critic Alfredo Boulton. "The artist has always modeled a very stripped-down body, very compact, very bare, of the purest harmony," Boulton remarked, and the distilled volumes and supple lines of these Criollas exemplify the simple eloquence with which Narváez treated his chosen mestizo subjects.(3)
1) Quoted in R. Pineda, Narváez: La escultura hasta Narváez, Caracas, Ernesto Armitano, 1980, 139.
2) K. Chacón, "Francisco Narváez: Sculpture in Venezuela," Art Nexus 5, no. 62 (October-December 2006), 91.
3) A. Boulton, Narváez, Caracas: Ediciones Macanao, 1981, 48, 52.