Joaquín Torres-García (Uruguayan 1874-1949)
Joaquín Torres-García (Uruguayan 1874-1949)

Navío constructivo

Joaquín Torres-García (Uruguayan 1874-1949)
Navío constructivo
signed and dated 'J. TORRES GARCIA, 34' (along the upper edge) dated and titled '34, Navío Constructivo' and inscribed by an unknown hand 'COL. HORACIO TORRES' (on the reverse)
oil on board
20 x 15¾ in. (50.8 x 40 cm.)
Painted in 1934.
Estate of the Artist, no. 36.
Horacio Torres collection.
Galerie de France, Paris.
Gobero Subastas, Barcelona, 11 December 1975.
Tajan, Paris, 10 December 1996, lot 50D.
Yvonne Destribats, Paris.
Anon. sale, Christie's, New York, 17 November 2009, lot 31 (illustrated in color).
Private collection, Miami.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
J. I. Marquet, 'Las Subastas: Gobero', Gazeta del Arte (Barcelona) Year IV, No. 58, January 11, 1976, p. 27.

Lot Essay

We are grateful to Cecilia de Torres for her assistance cataloguing this work.

"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 Museé 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 work, marks the beginnings of a new, integral aesthetic that he would promote as Universal Constructivism following his return to Uruguay in April 1934. Himself a child of the New World, born to a Spanish father and a Uruguayan mother, Torres-García 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 abstraction would catalyze the development of modern art in Latin America and illuminate the magnitude of indigenous, pan-American sources of inspiration.

Torres-García did little painting in the two years following his return to Montevideo, dedicating his time to the advocacy of a Constructivist school--a "School of the South"--intended to shake up the stale visual tradition then entrenched not only in Uruguay, but in virtually all of Latin America. One of few works that date from 1934, Navío constructivo was likely painted in the early months of the year while Torres-García was still in Madrid, where he had stationed himself since leaving Paris in December 1932. Although he used symbols in an intentionally universalist and generic mode, certain meanings can nevertheless be postulated. Boats were a recurring theme in his work, archetypal images that evoked both the artist's own trans-Atlantic passages and, in more cosmic sense, the allegorical voyage of life. "A ship can suggest the idea of exploration and discovery, the process of traveling from one place or consciousness to another," Valerie Fletcher has remarked. "If a ship suggests perennial passage," however, "its anchor suggests stability and security."(2) The present work, fittingly grounded by the anchor in its lower right-hand corner, may in this context suggest a metaphor for Torres-García himself, on the eve of his return to the country that he had left as a teenager in 1891. The deconstructed boat, built of simple geometric shapes based on the mystical Golden Section, becomes in this sense a microcosm of a life's voyage and of an artistic evolution that spanned more than four decades. An affirmative and positively universal image, Navío constructivo projects a holistic effect of metaphysical transcendence, an expression of the ultimate passage of life and its most basic organic and cosmic order.

Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
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.

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