We are grateful to Mrs. Cecilia de Torres for her assistance in confirming the authenticity of this work; to be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist under archive number P 1931.78
"As the painter Torres-García says, we must live within the universal," Theo van Doesburg wrote in 1929 of his friend, with whom he shared a commitment to the Neo-Plastic vision of a timeless and universal art.(1) Working in the international milieu of Paris between 1926 and 1932, Torres-García sought to translate an invisible, metaphysical order in paintings symbolically structured to embody an ideal harmony within the universe. Like van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, Torres-García defined his mature pictorial language around the grid, whose linear and spatial relationships posited the oppositional relationships of the cosmos--male and female, material and spiritual, active and passive--in dynamic and creative equilibrium. Neo-Plasticism offered the meticulous purity and spiritual transcendence that Torres-García sought, but by the end of 1930 he no longer believed that pure abstraction adequately expressed the humanist values that could positively reconnect modern art to its ancestral and universal past.
Amid the tremendous interest in primitive art in Paris during the 1920s, Torres-García began to recognize affinities between aspects of pre-Columbian art and avant-garde European abstraction. His awareness of New World art dates at least to 1928, the year of a major exhibition, Ancient Art of the Americas, held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris; and he quickly recognized the importance of the pre-Columbian artistic tradition and its relevance for a modern, international and universal art. The introduction of schematic, representational motifs into the gridded spaces of his abstractions within the next few years, as in the present Composition, marks the beginnings of a new, integral aesthetic that he would promote as Universal Constructivism following his return to Uruguay in 1934. Himself a child of the New World, born to a Spanish father and an Uruguayan mother, Torres-García a drew parallel inspiration from the cultural inheritance of both Europe and the Americas. His synthesis of archetypal motifs and ancient hieroglyphs with the formal values of modernism would catalyze the development of modernism in Latin America and illuminate the magnitude of native, pan-American sources of inspiration.
This cosmopolitan and synthetic vocabulary of forms is rendered with great subtlety and clarity in the present work. The finely drawn linear patterns appear almost etched into the textured weave of the canvas, each symbol placed within a shallow rectangular division balanced asymmetrically in constructive equilibrium. Torres-García's repertory of symbols was fairly well-established by 1930-31, and each symbol was carefully ordered within the grid according to the idea or feeling to which it corresponded. Although he used symbols in an intentionally universalist and generic mode, certain meanings can nevertheless be postulated. In the present Composition, ideograms may narrate the passage beyond instinctive nature (fish) to a higher state of reason, a metaphysical course (ship) facilitated by constructive architecture (building). "A ship can suggest the idea of exploration and discovery, the process of traveling from one place of consciousness to another," Valerie Fletcher has suggested. "If a ship suggests perennial passage, its anchor suggests stability and security. . . . Similarly, a ladder or key can suggest the transition from one domain to another, while a clock suggests the changes occurring with the passage of time."(2) A microcosm of creation and universal order, Composition projects a holistic effect of metaphysical transcendence, achieved through the interaction of different states of being and consciousness. The humanist integration of figurative motifs against the abstraction of the grid embodies the interface between these differing layers of reality, giving a timeless expression of cosmic order, unity, and harmony.
1) T. Van Doesburg, "Torres-García's Planism," Torres-García: Grid-Pattern-Sign, Paris-Montevideo, 1924-1944, London, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1985, 101.
2) V. Fletcher, Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers, Diego Rivera, Joaquín Torres-García, Wifredo Lam, Matta, Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1992, 115.