Torres García

and the Pre-Columbian Art:

by Anna Rank

Volver al Sur

Torres-García has been very influential to three generations of Latin American Artists because of his artistic and ideological concepts. His interest in finding an artistic tradition in South American pre-Hispanic cultures not only changed his own work, but also the course of South American Art, creating a new consciousness of artistic-cultural identity.

Torres found many parallels between precolumbian culture and the ancient Mediterranean civilizations not only in their profound concepts of metaphysics and universality, but also in their geometric structures.

He had already separated from his European Constructivist tendency when, in the 1920's, he incorporated medieval symbolism and the magic of numerology to his work. In 1928, he visited a pre-columbian art exhibit in Paris,"Les Arts Anciciens de L'Amérique" organized by the Museum of Decorative Art, Palais Louvre. From that time on he began to make regular visits to the Trocadero Museum, (presently the Museum of Man) which at the time was the principal collection of archaic and tribal art. This became the source of a new symbolism in his work. His investigations into that theme became part of his life's work and the base of his Universal Constructivism. (1)

"One day he stops. He thinks : something abstract must correspond with the idea of the abstract. What could this something be? It must be able to be expressed graphically, like the written name, or a schematic image (as far from reality as possible). Something like a sign. And he does that. He puts together grids like a stone wall and in each compartment the design of some thing. And that's it. It must be that". (2)

"He first used a grid structure, but the grid is neither rigorous nor systematic. On the contrary, the grided forms and geometric configurations of this period appear intuitive and expressive to evoke in some instances the Inca stone work of Perú. Inca masonry was founded on certain astrological and numerical laws as well as upon a need to withstand earthquakes. It reflected a symbolic order and practical concerns. In a sense its geometry was a natural geometry, and this appealed to Torres-García" (3)

In his divergence from the Neo-plastisism of Mondrian, in 1929 he was committed to a balance of intellect as well as emotion. He wanted to include the whole of nature, as the image and representation of all creation and the microcosm of universal order. "This is found in geometric order, going from pure shapes to forms of life, and then symbolically, in a geometric scheme, we find the world and man". (4) He arrives to the UNIVERSAL CONSTRUCTIVISM, " This concept encompassed rational structure, emotion or intuition and symbolic references to the world of nature". (5)

From 1930 on Torres García integrated to his work images from pre-columbian and North American Indian Art. (6) In 1931, in Madrid, he included among his neo-plastic structures geometric shapes that relate to each other in the style of the Peruvian Nazca ceramics. His pictorial space is more rigorously divided and his orthogonal scaffolding includes schematic images, symbols and pictograms which present us with a two dimensional vision of universality.

In 1934 Torres decided to move to Montevideo, Uruguay. His return in South America fueled not only his interest in pre-columbian art, but also in the geographic, human and religious aspects of the ancient American cultures. (7)

Torres wasted no time in integrated himself with the local art circles. In August of that year he brought together many national artists for a workshop based on his concepts."What I have called Constructivist Art is a universal concept". Under this school of thought (la Escuela del Sur) artists gathered around Torres-García. His workshop organized various exhibits bringing the work of international artists, like German Cueto, Jean Helión, Theo Van Doesburg, together with the local artists' work.

In February 1935 Torres-García wrote the inaugural manifesto of the "Escuela del Sur" where his famous phrase "our North is their South" (8) appeared. Torres García later explains this concept in his book "The Metaphysics of Indo-American Prehistory". "Having found our 'North' in pre-incan culture we wish to solidarize ourselves with it until we can identify ourselves with it . . . Already in the Incan culture. . . in its unity. . . it can be used as a perfect goal. Because of this it could provide not only the basis of the unification of South America, but also the possibility of possessing an authentic integral and native culture." (9)

It is the first conscientious approach to the present problem of a Latin-American cultural identity-where the cultures of precolumbia, Africa and Europe are fused together the european culture being dominant. In the same book he also makes clear that his intention is not to imitate or paraphrase pre-columbian art, but rather to identify himself with the spirit of these creators of the great civilization of the American Continent.

"Picasso, among other early twentieth-Century Artists, finds precolombian art too monumental, hieratic, and seemingly repetitious.The perceived inventiveness and variety of tribal art was much more in the spirit of the modernists". (10)

On the other hand Torres Garcia's concept opposed the Modernism that appropriated itself of the formal components of African Art as innovative elements for the revitalization of a waning European artistic tradition. (11)

The principle of "La Escuela del Sur" was based on the opposite of twentieth century modernism. Torres García suggests the study of Aztec, Mayan and, principally, Incan and pre-Incan cultures. He encouraged his students to "become primitive and work on the elemental. And here primitive does not mean prehistoric, but rather someone who is at the beginning of an artistic cycle" (12)


"La Escuela del Sur"

In May of 1935 Torres-García formed the Association of Constructivist Art (Asociación de Arte Constructivo), with a group of 32 artists. This group worked and exhibited together, under the motto of constructivism in the same way that the Circle et Carre group (of which Torres García was a part along with Marcel Suphor, Mondrián and others) did in París in 1930. The AAC was dissolved in 1939, its members being professional artists, found it impossible to maintain the ideals of the Association. In 1943 Torres-García formed the Torres-García Studio (Taller Torres-García), composed of young artists more disposed towards new ideas. This studio would expand on the geometric tradition of the American Continent bringing it into different realms of art-painting, sculpture, ceramics, architecture, etc.

In this workshop Torres-García taught drawing and painting independently from the traditional European Academy; with a modernistic focus, hence developing new methods of teaching. The dynamics of this interaction with his students enriched his own work as well as his ideology which consequently produced many lectures, books and articles.

In 1942 a group of the Taller students traveled to Bolivia and Peru to study the pre-Columbian Andean Culture. Some members of the group, like Francisco Matto, had begun to collect pre-colombian art and Augusto Torres (his son) continued adding to his collection of African and American Indian Art. These pieces were studied by TG's group where they used these designs as sources of inspiration for their own compositions. They also organized an exhibition entitled "Art of Ancient Civilization and Primitive Peoples".(13) in which more than 300 pieces were shown, including Greek vases, African masks, Peruvian weaving and other objects from Oceania.

The work of La Escuela del Sur was as much philosophical as it was artistic. The AAC published a trimestral magazine "El Circulo y El Cuadrado (Circle and square) (with articles in Spanish and French) which continued in the spirit of the "Circle et Carre" published in Paris in 1930.

This magazine was the voice of this new school of thought in Uruguay as well as in Europe. Edition #7 was dedicated to the constructive tradition in America where the relationship between pre-Colombian Art and Constructive Art is established" Also appeared an article by the Chilean Professor Luis E. Valcarcel, entitled "Notes for a Philosophy of Incan Culture", which shall be referred to in the presentation of pieces by the artists of the school.

"The straight line dominates in Incan shapes (forms). This supremacy emphasizes the angular aspect, especially tectonic in the art of Tawantisuyu...When the nature of the object does not permit this, its ornamentation multiplies in straight-line combinations, included in the stylization of the zoomorphic or anthropomorphic figures."

Torres and the School used these figures in their language of symbols, including universal timeless ones, like the man (individual), is the abstract man, heart (feeling), the triangle (proportion, harmony), the sun (light, Unity). And the more contemporary like the train, the bottle, the clock (time), the ship (the encounter with the New World).

About architecture Professor Varcarcel says " is resolved in pure geometrization. This strips the building, allows the stone to be seen and the corners cut space like weavings of shadow and light..." As in Hellenistic architecture, the Incas' show all the honesty and loyalty of the mason. This is where it gets its eternal strength.

Torres-García made the Cosmic Monument of 1938 in Montevideo. This work is of great importance because it incorporates the Constructivist ideal with the Universal. It is a wall of pink granite framed by a bas-relief frieze. At the top, the three elemental geometric shapes- the sphere, the cube and the pyramid rest . The cosmic name indicates a common origin with the monuments of Tiahuanaco (observation stations of the solar year-which were considered the center of the cosmos). Each compartment is shaded in an illusion of depth and contains a symbol. The sun is the central symbol of the composition. Next to the monument is a granite plaque which has an inscription of salutations to the Father Inti (the Sun) and at its base a text on the ideas of the AAC was buried. (14)

"But the curve has a sense of exception that symbolizes something specific, possibly a Solar cult, the image of the Sun that was composed in a disc or an ellipse of gold".

Rosa Acle one of the AAC members, shows us in her 1938 piece "Northern Composition" a representation of architectural forms, walls or temples crowned by a dawning sun. In this structure we see symbols of Nazcan inspiration, ideograms (Norte-Sur-reminding us that our North is their South), and, the symbol of the contemporary element, the ship, which represents the Conquest. This piece also reminds us of the Andean ceramics, with its earth colors, bringing us back to the continent's past.

"The straight line adorns the weave by following the nature of the urdimbre, the master of stylization, which, when applied, must adopt the most essential shape".

A great part of the AAC's and the Workshop's work make continual references to these symbols which are the language of communication between Divinity and Man. Francisco Matto, a disciple of the Torres-García workshop, liberates the symbol in his work. He frees it from the context and makes it live through its own magic. His "flat sculptures", extracted from the pictorial plane, from the vase, from the weavings or the wall are transform into monumental totems on the vertex between painting and sculpture. In this "Construction", made of wood he takes his inspiration directly from the symbol of the llama in Incan Art, which we find in Andean weavings. In this work he uses the sculptural resort that is characteristic of Torres-García, which we also see in the work of Louis Nevelson, "the two dimensionality of sculpture." Motto's work emanates a kind of magic, the same we feel when we confront the totem.

In 1950, Collel and Fonseca, interested in the area of archaic ceramics, were able to reproduce the Greek and pre-colombian techniques of pottery with their earth color and diffused surfaces.(15) Collel opened a studio on the use of this technique through which Lidia Buzio, a third generation Torres-García studied this technique. She incorporated pre-colombian and Greek design to her work. She later moved to New York where she studied with other Torres-García disciples. Buzio creates ceramics where the perspective of urban landscapes are incorporated with fresco technique and the earthen palette typical of the Torres-García studio. These images are part of a space which is both vase and sculpture. In this way she accomplishes an interaction of between painting, the symbol and the object.

After Torres-García's death in 1949 the studio continued to teach until 1967 when, after 24 years, its doors were closed. In the same way that pre-colombian art influenced the master so the master influenced the school. It is the legacy that he has left us. This legacy is a language with which artists can communication no matter their origin. This universal language fraternizes us with our fellow artists as wells as with archaic cultures and Contemporary Art.

La Escuela del Sur is Joaquín Torres García's greatest masterpiece for it continues its influence up to the present time leaving a legacy to the young artists of our Continent.


(1) In 1928 the pre-colombian Art Exhibit "Les Arts anciens de L'Amerique" in París organized by the Museum of Decorative Arts, Palais de Louvre a la cual Torres-García , which Torres-García Attended with his son Augusto who later worked at the Trocadero Museum (presently The Museum of Man)

(2) JTG, Historia de mi vida (escrito en tercera persona), Asociación de Arte Constructivo, Montevideo, 1939

(3) Margit Rowell, Grid Pattern Sign Paris-Montevideo, 1985, Arts Council of Great Britain, p 15.

(4) J.T.G., Metafísica de la Prehistoria Indoamericana, Publicaciones de la Asociación de Arte Constructivo, Montevideo 1939.

(5) Margit Rowell, Grid Pattern Sign Paris-Montevideo, 1985, Arts Council of Great Britain, p 17.

(6) En 1928 se inauguró la exposición de Arte precolombino "Les Arts anciens de L'Amerique" en Paris a la cual Torres-García asistió con su hijo Augusto quien más tarde trabajo en el Museo del Trocadero actualmente el Museo del Hombre.

(7) Cecilia Buzio de Torres, La Escuela del Sur-El Taller Torres García y su Legado, Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1991, p.22.

(8) JTG, Estructura, P.113. Donde ilustraba este concepto con un mapa invertido de América del Sur.

(9)JTG. Metafísica de la Prehistoria Indoamericana, Asociación de Arte Constructivo, Montevideo, 1939. p.3.

(10) William Rubin, "Primitivism" in 20 Century Art, MoMa, New York, 1984. p.3 (introduction)

(11) Mari Carmen Ramírez, La Escuela del Sur-El TAller Torres García y su Legado, Museo Nacional Reina Sofía, Madrid, 1991, p.119

(12) J.T.G. El Nuevo Arte de las Américas, UC, Lección 148

(13) The concept of "Primitive"that was used in this show differs from that of the MoMa exhibition of 1984 entitled "Primitivism" in 20th. Century art" where William Rubin considers Tribal Art as primitive, excluding pre-colombian art and including it in archaic or court art, grouping it among Egyptian, Javanese and Persian Torres-García agrees with this last part since he finds a paralle between pre-columbian and Egyptian Art.

(14) Cecilia Buzio e Torres, La Escuela del Sur-El Taller Torres García y su Legado, Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1991, p.24

(15) Cecilia Buzio e Torres, La Escuela del Sur-El Taller Torres García y su Legado, Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1991, p.24


Joaquín Torres García.

Joaquín Torres García y la Escuela del Sur.

Salutación a Joaquín Torres García, por Vicente Huidobro.

La Escuela del Sur, por Celilia Buzio de Torres

Cronología del Taller Torres García, por Celilia Buzio de Torres y Anna Rank.