A painter

By Juan Manuel Ugarte Eléspuru

I met Macedonio in Berlin in 1924 at the Peru Legation. I had an uncle who was a diplomat and he visited this locale with certain frequency. Macedonio was a young man of thirty and I was 13. I was surprised by his attire: a wide-brimmed hat, a bow tie, a bright colored shirt, a “pana” jacket whose fabric was known at this time as the “strong devil” and which was generally used by miners and farmers. Today this fabric has been given the fashionable name of “corduroy.” I remember him vividly because he was, right up to the moment of his death, loquacious, communicative, euphoric and possessing of a mental vivaciousness that made his speech seem broken and disconnected due to the tumultuous accumulation of words that fought for space in his mouth. Few words were exchanged when my uncle introduced us: “the painter Macedonio de la Torre.” I didn’t see him again and knew nothing about him until 1942 when I returned to Lima following twenty years of absence. Logically, I frequented other local artists who were divided into the indigenous group led by José Sabogal and the independents, which was a varied group that set up camp in the cafes and circles of those years. This group was made up of individuals that had lived abroad and a few from the Fine Arts Society that belonged to the local academic registries of European inspiration.

We met a group of plastic artists, writers and musicians at the cafe “de la Zamba” in the plaza San Martín. We all had trained abroad and were antagonistic towards “indigenism,” which served as pictorial officialism from its bastion in the National School of Fine Arts, which had been directed by Sabogal for many years. Sabogal was impermeable to any contact with renewals in plastic arts shielded himself with unsociable regionalism. It was here, in this cafe that still exists but which is no longer a meeting place for the bohemia in Lima, that I met up with Macedonio again. He was part of that belligerent, anti-establishment group that was anxious for renewal. Macedonio was close to fifty and had not lost even a touch of the vibrant and dizzying impulse that characterized his speech and ideas. The following individuals gathered in this bustling cafe setting: Ricardo Grau, Sérvulo, Sabino Springett, Carlos Quíspez Asín, Juan Barreto, Ricardo Sánchez and Federico Reinoso amongst the painters. The music was played Raúl de Verneuil, who was subtle, intelligent and lazy. He wasted considerable talent on voluptuous conversation and illusions that were never taken to the stave; nonetheless, his music was vital and convincing. We nicknamed him: “Apollon Mucha Geta”, paraphrasing the work of Debussy: Apollon Musageta was in allusion to his corpulence and his thick mulatto lips. Another of these individuals was from Arequipa: Mr. Pancho Ibáñez. He was talkative but circumspect and made a precarious living as a piano teacher. Ibañez was also an excellent “dado” player and he often won small sums from us that he used to subsist. Politicians from the extreme left also frequented this circle, including Eudocio Rabines, Esteban Pavletich and the Bolivian exile José Navarro. This last individual asked us to call him by his pen name: Tristán Marof. Many other fellow diners of different persuasions and varied merits frequented this circle. Years later, this group would continue its meetings at the bar “El Negro Negro”, which was animated by Juanito Pardo de Zela and enjoyed the unforgettable patronage of Adriano Barba, whom we nicknamed “el Cholo Balzac” because of his physical resemblance to the famous nineteenth century writer.

I kept this company. We all shared a common ideal: renewal in the arts that went beyond the cajolery or the benefits of the folkloric thematic that the tourists anxiously sought out; however, each of us maintained our independence and respect for the esthetic or practical proposals of others.

From this watchtower of meetings and approximations, I have been witness to the extremely important role that Macedonio plays in contemporary Peruvian art. To start with, his life and his work are coupled with anecdotal richness and creativity. He was born in Trujillo in the heart of a noble and wealthy family; he is a descendant of Juan de la Torre, the Spanish founder of this city. This lineage was the reason behind Macedonio´s childhood nickname of the “Boy King.” But the aforementioned opulence disappeared over the years. By the time that Macedonio´s artistic desires had awakened, this privileged lifestyle was but a memory. He studied at the university in order to achieve a much-desired title that was so seductive to the “criollos”: Doctor. As a student at San Marcos, he found himself in the Arts patio just moments before he was to present the thesis that would give him the right to use said title. He looked towards the auditorium where the illustrious jury was waiting to hear his doctoral defense. At this moment, he turned around and walked towards the street, leaving the illustrious jury and his doctoral future behind. A few days later, he left for Valparaíso on an adventure with a group of friends. However, their money ran out in Chile and they had to make the trip on foot by crossing the mountain range to Mendoza in order to later reach Buenos Aires with the help of some Americans who paid their passage. In the Argentine capital, Macedonio made a living as a cafe-concert violinist and frequented a group of artists from the neighborhood in Buenos Aires known as “La Boca.” Benito Quinquela Martín, the famous landscape artist who was a true poet of rivers and jetties, led this group.

In 1917, he returned to the country and held his first exhibition in Arica. In 1921, he married Adriana Romero, with whom he would travel to Europe to complete his art studies. He did this in Germany, where I met him. Later, he continued his formation in Belgium and later in Paris where he took classes from the famous sculptor Bourdelle. He exhibited in the Autumn Room (it is a sign of merit to be chosen as an exhibitor) and later in the Independents Room where admission is open to all but competition from the vanguard artist is much greater. Years later, Macedonio would live for a short time in New York where he would hold ten personal exhibits. Finally, he would return to Lima. Here, he exhibited the first manifestations of plastic vanguardism with examples of cubism and advances of abstraction. He has since maintained a very personal line by elaborating this unmistakable style in successive stages in which spontaneity and impression dictate the nervous and impulsive imposition of chromatic matter carried to the extreme edges of delirium.

Regarding the spirit and technique that were innate to Macedonio, he affirmed on one occasion: “I paint like a child is born, playing, crying perhaps, but all in the same push.... when I begin, my hand burns with color. This is why I leave nothing for the next day; I don´t let my hand cool down.” On another opportunity he defined art as “making the mutable long-lasting, thus imprisoning an instant of life.”

He had a richly lyrical spirit. In his youth, he studied music and was an excellent violinist. He often walked along the coastal beaches playing his preferred melodies and collecting mollusks, detritus and rough stones with which he frequently made some very interesting formal combinations. I don´t know if he has saved any of these, but they certainly constituted forerunners of the “plastic objects,” that are so fashionable today. His spiritualism was so acute that when he contracted bronchial pneumonia in Puno during a tour that he had made of some remote locations, he believed that he had been cured not by the medicine of the village doctor that had attended to him but instead by this individual’s recordings from Chopin, of whom Macedonio was a passionate admirer.

The arts were familiar to Macedonio. As such, he was a violinist, photographer, sculptor and even a theater actor and musical composer. Our only testimony to these activities was his painting; the others were of a fleeting nature given that painting evidently constituted the greatest of his vocations; this is why his painting has survived in the cultural panorama and in Peruvian art.

Like all artistic personalities, his work throughout his long life can be considered as falling into four successive stages that begin with the first manifestations- he started to paint when he was twelve years old- up to his definitive and last work, which attests to a splendid temperamental and conceptual maturity that was not debilitated by time or sudden changes in his private life.

In 1930, in Lima, he displayed the results of his European training His paintings were of urban landscapes of the old continent along with some rural scenes and portraits (although the human figure was never one of his predilections or successes). The treatment of these first paintings reflected, in general terms, the prevailing characteristics of European plastics between wars: the School of Paris and moreover the influences of synthetic cubism with reminiscences of Cezanne and German expressionism. It was a mosaic of theories and tendencies of an amalgamated process of assimilated experiences. This was a novelty in Lima. It was the first pictorial vanguardist exhibition in our context given that it included all types of innovations: latent cubism in the stylizations and synthesis of urban images that are always seen from up close; fauvism similar to that found in the works of the Parisian fauvists in their colorful stridencies and audacious visions. Something of Picasso in his landscape “Hora de Ebro” is present as well as Cezanne and his depictions of mid-day in France; some contortions of expressionism are visible that were surely in remembrance of his contacts in Germany with the members of the “Die Brücke” and “Der Blau Reiter group.” Even a few incipient attempts at Kandinsky-like abstractionism are visible along with Nolde´s expressionism. Thus, this stage was the cauldron that served as the “boiling point” for the elements that were assimilated via a lively and cathartic process embarked upon by a young Macedonio in company of a restless spirit and an alert sensitivity.

César Vallejo wrote about his stay in Europe in 1929. The poet was a Paris correspondent for a magazine in Lima called the "Mundial":

“During the four years that he has spent in Europe, he has never wished to return home in the standard manner of other young men from America; instead, he has stayed in the middle of the world to study, meditate and produce like honorable men and authentic artists. He has been to no exhibition rooms. He has written nothing for newspapers. He has attended no guild gatherings.... He was absorbed in a profound and intimate esthetic introspection and practiced the most austere moral discipline in his life as an artist and as a man. He is in the process of preparing truly great and pure work. Nevertheless, Macedonio de la Torre- after having sent a painting to the Autumn Room at the urging of his friends- has elicited debate amongst the French critics worthy of a renovator in painting.” The poet ended by affirming: “Everything demonstrates that Macedonio de la Torre is the sovereign owner of a truly original and great esthetic.”

In Lima however, these were uncultured and isolated years. There were no exhibition halls or specialized criticism; there were only short news items, and this is the reason why Macedonio´s presentation, which should have been news, was reduced to circulation amongst intellectual circles and amateurs who more or less understood the work or at least pretended to. Another factor intervened in Macedonio´s lack of exposure: politics. Leguiá was in power and a deep economic crisis, product of the stock market crash on Wall Street, weighed heavily on the national scene. This event dragged down many South American dictatorships that had been recipients of donations from financial, and in particular “yankee,” imperialism.” The difficulties during this period were also a consequence of our political convulsions: the revolution in Arequipa, Commander Sanchez Cerro’s access to power and the multitudinous presence of the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA), whose founder and leader was the young politician Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, Macedonio´s first cousin. This family tie was damaging to Macedonio´s reputation not only at the beginning of his career but throughout his life. At this time, being “aprista” or maintaining any link whatsoever with the party was synonymous with condemnation and motive for discrimination from the official party and the anti-Apra press. This is the reason why Macedonio´s true worth was never recognized. His work went virtually unappreciated until Belaúnde´s government. This president, in a gentlemanly gesture of exemplary democratic principles, bestowed the Gran Cruz de la Orden del Sol upon Macedonio as he lay on his deathbed.

Throughout his artistic career, Macedonio was the subject of no official favor or interest from the press; these facts sealed his reputation. This was his dimension as a painter. The aforementioned elements also served to counteract the indifference that attempted to isolate him and the overflowing attraction of his personality and cordial goodness as well as his disinterest in acts of self-administration. In sum, we are speaking of a lifetime of worship of the truth.

His pictorial work was elaborate and conscientious but still spontaneous- I have already mentioned what he himself had affirmed: his worship of repentism and impression and his abandonment of methodical searches; his inebriating impulsiveness that ceded the primacy of expression to the intelligence of pure instinct. This makes him like another contemporary painter who was friend of Macedonio´s: Sérvulo. Like this individual, Macedonio orgiastically abandoned himself to the dictates of the dionisiac impulse and with this he achieved better results in his work.

But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that this was pure and irrational instinct that took delight in creating chaos. No way! He meditated extensively, but when he had matured in his feeling for the formal schema, he immediately threw himself into the creative process without turning back. This produced irregularities in his work. At times he achieved exemplary work through his “rushed creation” and feverish expression. There were other moments, however, that his work was weak due to a “stammering” that prevented him from developing an adequately terminated product. But when he does achieve, it is sober and unique contribution to our world of painting. No one else has achieved such inspired spontaneity with the exception of Sérvulo, who was another genius of our overflowing instinctivism

The pictorial predilection of Macedonio was landscape painting; but he did not seek out easy achievements in the picturesque: he attempted to penetrate the very entrails of that which nature holds as an enigma of itself.

During his stay in New York he painted imposing facades of skyscrapers or the interiors of theaters with large spaces for stages and miniscule ballet dancers. Sometimes he preferred dramatic empty stages at comedy theaters that were half-decorated or dismantled. The objects on these stages were limited to skeletons of scaffolding, unlit footlights and the nude backdrops of the illusory luxury of theater illumination. He showed the meatless and silent mimetism of the empty stages that were devoid of flashing lights and an audience. The technique changes and here I seem to perceive a memory of a broad spatula that was decided and colorist to the point of exasperation. The spatula in question belongs to the Argentine painter, or to be more specific painter from Buenos Aires, named Benito Quinquela Martín, whom Macedonio admired. Benito was our painter´s friend and companion at the studio Benito maintained in Vuelta de Rocha. This studio faced the port and the river, which was the exclusive source of Benito´s inspiration. Said locale is presently a museum and is a must-see on every tour of this picturesque neighborhood of Buenos Aires de la Boca.

Here in Lima, Macedonio felt attracted by poor neighborhoods and shanty- towns that were multicolored and picturesque when not providing tragic testimony to the belt of misery and exclusion that surrounded the city. At this time, the only areas occupied by said towns were located on the San Cristóbal and San Cosme (or el Augustino) hills that were home to picturesque groups of huts made of matting and every kind of material imaginable. These abodes were our painter´s inspiration. Macedonio had recently arrived from the United States and Europe. His brush registered these testimonies, giving them a colorfulness that they normally do not possess although they are now painting them- the huts- in a sensible white that improves their appearance but not their miserable and promiscuous interior. But the cities were not his principal attraction. Instead, he preferred lonely, far-off locations exhibiting the very elegant grays of our desert coast. No one has interpreted these scenes with the penetrating truth achieved by Macedonio in his landscape paintings. On one occasion I wrote: “Amongst the landscape artists that do not belong to the indigenist movement, Macedonio, who is a poetic and inspired painter of sandy coastal areas and the mystery of far-off sendals enveloped by fog, stands out most.” This stage of “sandy areas” was, in my opinion, Macedonio´s most praiseworthy if we do not consider the crowning glory of the next stage, which depicted lusty plants within an undergrowth. Curiously enough, Macedonio had never visited the jungle; thus, his work is the result of a spirit in search of expression tied to the delirious colors and formal vibrations that constitute the essence of tropical forests. These are not “views” of any jungle location; they are “the jungle.”

Macedonio lived for color, color and nothing but color. Do not search for the perfect drawer in Macedonio; his stroke is nervous and expressive but not narrative. Also, do not look to Macedonio as an author of compositions that entail a formal extrapictorial sense that transcends or attempts to transcend to reach a cryptic ethical message like that of the painters of the High Renaissance. Nor would it be fitting to expect a customary or folkloric genre painter given that Macedonio avoided the Andean theme with its picturesque colorism that so moved the Peruvian painters who cultivated this highly popular vein. The message and the mystery is: the Frenchman Formation’s definition of painting: “the expression of the invisible through the visible.” For our Macedonio, this definition resided in the magic of color given that he expressed the arcanes of the relationship of personal sensitivity with the cosmovision. His palette is the language and grammar with which he communicates to others the interior vision that he, as a creator, has of the universe that surrounds us and contains us and of which we are, in some way, the image and likeness.

The following applies to both Oscar Wilde and Macedonio: “he put genius in his life and only his talent in his work.” Perhaps, the most passionate aspect of his daily life was his personality, which was permanently restless, anxious in its questioning, nervously mobile behind illusions of absoluteness and solitary and pensive during his walks along the desolate shores of the coastline in search of the most unusual objects with which he recreated disturbing combinations. At one point, he dedicated time to breeding bees that he believed somehow mirrored his hurried and meticulous wanderings as he rummaged amongst the inebriations of color and the spasms of creativity that were stimulated by his discoveries. I do not know if he learned the art of Bonsai from some Japanese master, but he once told me that he was growing trees and dwarf woods. His speech was hurried and impetuous and he never finished a phrase or long sentence; he jumped from one to another riding on the back of the “given and understood.” His long, slim figure was the carnal image of restlessness and longing.

It will be a long time before another temperament like his, so rich in spiritual adventure and so pure in material detachment, is born. The empty space in Peruvian art created by his death will be difficult to fill. Macedonio passed away of May 13, 1981 in this Lima that did not know how to assess his worth but like it or not will have to remember him as one of the must valuable assets of Peruvian painting.

Lima, 1987 and 1992