Femando  Montes' more recent work is  instantly recognisable: stark landscapes with silent, immobile figures or fragments of ancient architecture, painted in muted greys tinged with blue or brown, and always against  a sky of the  purest white.  At  first glance these paintings appear to belong to the well established Latin American indigenist tradition that had its roots in the nineteenth century, and flowered, for political as well as artistic reasons, in the early decades of the twentieth.

Throughout Latin America the rural peasantry is still predominantly Indian, and in the 1920s artists identified in it a theme which suited their countries' burgeoning nationalism, a theme
which was their own and which demonstrated that Latin America has a culture quite separate from that of Europe, a culture with ancient roots, and with an affinity with the earth. Within this artistic tradition the image of the woman is especially pervasive: with long black plaits and motherly proportions, and often seated on the ground,  in touch with the land and the landscape. Diego Rivera's Mexican women wear sarapes or rebozos; in Peru José Sabogal's wear llicllas or mantas, and  colourful  polleras, but they all belong  to the same broad family as Montes's monumental figures of the altiplano.

But although Montes's work  may be descended from this tradition there are other strands woven into it, some, I should like to suggest, much more ancient,  some entirely contemporary. Most strikingly, to my mind, is  the way in which his work over the past twenty or so years is so evocative of stone, in colour, texture and form. In all his more recent work  figures, architecture and landscape  are all painted  in soft grey tones. These range from blue-grey to brown-grey, the colours of stone, and while it is not surprisingly that the architecture is unmistakably stony, the mountains and even the  rounded  figures have similar lithic qualities, like weathered  pebbles. This  is surely no accident.  In  the  Andes  stone has always been  valued as the essential element of the earth, of what is termed in quechua kay pacha and in Aymara aka pacha. It also links the different levels  of  the  world: stone crags and mountain tops give Access to the upper world of the air and the sun (hanan pacha,  alax pacha), while caves, crevices and cracks - the gaps between the stone of the earth's surface – lead down into the earth's womb (ukhu pacha, manqha pacha), the source of  water and so, in conjunction with the sun above, of life.

In the years following the Spanish conquest the chroniclers and missionaries recorded innumerable accounts of sacred stones and rocks to which they often give the name huaca.  The  Jesuit Pablo José de Arriaga, investigating the persistence of idolatry in Peru in the early seventeenth century, gives a detailed account of the various beliefs associated with stone: 'A cerros altos y montes y algunas piedras muy grandes también adoran y mochan, y les llaman con nombres particulares  y tienen  sobre ellas mil fábulas de  conversions  y  metamorfosis y fueron antes hombres que se convirtieron  en aquellas piedras. As stones may conserve life in an altered state, so  they can have  feelings: they can  become tired or distressed, they may speak, or weep blood or tears. Guaman Poma  mentions  a stone that was being transported from Cusco to Huanuco: 'dicen que la piedra se le cansó y  no quiso menear y lloró sangre la dicha  piedra, y asi quedó  hasta hoy, and several early chroniclers recount stories of another tired stone at Sacsahuaman. Arriaga  also identifies a  category of much smaller objects of  worship for which  he uses the term  conopa.  These he understands to be small,  movable idols, generally of stone, without faces,and often adorned with shawls and jewels. He also suggests that  there  is a relationship between the small conopas and larger landscape features and  objects  of veneration:  'Porque es cosa cierta y averiguada que estas figuras y piedras  son imágenes y representación de algunos cerros, de montes y arroyos o de sus progenitores y  antepasados y que los invocan y adoran como a sus hacederos  y de  quien esperan todo su bien y felicidad. Arriaga goes on to list many different categories of sacred stones, each of which has its own name and specific function.  A huanca,  for  example, is  placed  in the fields to encourage fertility a larca villana  is placed in an irrigation ditch and worshipped during the growing season. When women want to  have children they pick up small stones, 'y las envuelven y fajan con hilos de lana' and then leave these huasas beside a large sacred rock as offerings.Arriaga's problem is that only relatively few of the stones he identified as 'idols' were actually carved into any recognisable form, so that every stony element in the entire landscape is potentially sacred, from mountains to pebbles.

Ideas concerning the magical properties of stone are ubiquitous in pre-hispanic Andean culture. Legends tell of how the great monoliths of Tiahuanaco represent a race of giants who  were turned to stone. The most common version of the Inca origin myth holds that Manco Capac, his three brothers and their wives emerged from a cave at Pacariqtainbo, the tambo of the dawn. One brother was sent back and walled up inside as in a stone tomb. Another brother was turned to stone  on the top of  Huanacauri  hill, the third  went  on ahead and was turned  to stone in the centre of  what was to be the Inca capital of Cusco, and on his death Manco Capac himself was also turned to stone. In other  words the ancestral Incas were all  transformed into stone monuments. In other accounts  the  process is reversed: the chronicler Betanzos relates how after the god Viracocha emerged from Lake Titicaca he used stone as the raw material with  which to Create the human race.  Femando  Montes'  work evokes this tradition of stony metamorphosis. It is not hard to imagine his figures of women and children as in some stage of transition from flesh and blood into permanent stone monuments, even mountain ranges.  Or perhaps it is the other  way around: perhaps the mountain peaks and rocky outcrops are being reincarnated into human life.  This is a tradition which has also been explored  by other Bolivian artists: Marina Núñez del Prado's sculptures for example  are  unmistakably, simultaneously, both stone and woman.

This close relationship between the human and  the  natural world is also an essential characteristic of ancient Andean architecture. At Tiahuanaco the artificial Akapana pyramid echoes the great peaks of the Andes round about, and in the enclosing walls of the Kalasasaya, sections of precisely-cut regular blocks alternate with irregular megaliths suggesting again a dialogue between nature and artifice. With Inca architecture it is often hard to tell where a natural rocky outcrop ends and the human interventions and additions begin. The architecture often seems to grow out of the surface of the hillside, the two are deliberately blended together: the worlds of the natural and the artificial interlink and  overlap. Fernando Montes  goes  further,  stripping his landscape  of vegetation to emphasise the affinity between the rocky mountains (the bones of the earth), and the stone architecture. In his Inca walls the joints between the stone blocks, such a famous and distinctive feature of Inca architecture, are often understated in a way that again makes the visual link between the landscape and the architecture more explicit His figures are similarly generalised. Like Arriaga's description of the little stone conopas, Montes' women are lovingly enveloped in cloth, but are without faces and other incidental detail. In his paintings mountains, architecture and figures all share the same stony essence.

But the visitor does not experience the Andean region in the way Fernando Montes paints it. It is true that women may sit motionless for hours by a roadside waiting for a bus, or in a town square waiting for someone to buy an orange from a carefully arranged pile.  But my  more  enduring memories are of bustle and activity. From a  distance  the  altiplano around Lake Titicaca may appear bleak and inhospitable, but it is, and always has  been, densely  populated. The flatter land is a dense tapestry of fields and  farmsteads.  Here are people everywhere, herding flocks, tilling the soil, always on the move, and not moving at the leisurely pace popularly associated with the peasantry in Europe, but with a sense of urgency and  purpose, usually at a speed somewhere between a  walk and a  run. Neither are my  memories of the altiplano of a world dominated  by  grey  and  white: Wherever there are people there will be splashes of pink, red, yellow or blue. The mantas and polleras may now be factory-made using imported dyes, but brightly-coloured fabrics are part  of a deep-rooted cultural tradition that can be traced back thousands of years to the Paracas culture of the Peruvian coast  and  beyond. The  landscape,  too, is far  from monochrome: the intense blue of Lake Titicaca,  the many and varied  greens  of  the vegetation, the rocks that glow a fiery red in the setting sun. So why, at least in his more recent  work, has Montes chosen to ignore all this colour and life and activity?

In  this  respect  César  Patenosto's recent study of Inca aesthetics  is  very  interesting. Paternosto  argues that the  pre-hispanic art styles of the Andean region, and especially that of Inca architecture, are unique in their profound preoccupation with the essentially abstract qualities of form, volume, mass  and geometry. This he sees a s prefiguring, or rather pre-empting developments in Western  art, and goes on to suggest that  Andean lithic art has had a profound and largely unacknowledged impact on the development of Abstraction as a self-conscious artistic movement in the twentieth century. It is illuminating  to consider Fernando Montes' paintings in  the context of this ancient  and fundamentally Andean tradition of abstraction. His work is representational, yes, but it represents an almost platonic idea, an abstracted reality where the underlying qualities of permanence, silence and simplicity are made manifest. The  people, the landscape and the architecture have had all that is miscellaneous, particular, transient,  or  merely decorative distilled out of them and what is left are the solid foundations, the stone at the core of the Andean world. Montes'  working method  is a metaphor for this  process Surprisingly, the gentle greys of his stony objects are achieved using subtle combinations of ultramarine, raw umber and titanium white: a bright blue, a rich brown and pure white are distilled down to  suggest something infinitely old and  permanent.  This in turn  is a nice metaphor  for the traditional Andean view of stone as a living  sentient element  that also  encodes  the  past  as  a  living  power  in the  present.

While Montes reduces his subjects to stone, to the fundamental earthly element, the other essential elements - light and water - are also abstractions. His water is not water with ripples, fish and algae but an unalloyed chemical element, represented as shining silver or white. The skies in Montes'  paintings are not air and  atmosphere  but  the purest white light. It is the extraordinary clear, luminous s light of the  altiplano  that renders the colours of the quotidian world so bright, but over the years Montes has moved away from colour to pursue the concept of light itself.  The  profiles  of  the figures and the mountains are etched against backgrounds so white that they take on a force  of their own. At one level these can be seen as a thoroughly  twentieth-century preoccupations: the figure/ground dialogue has of course been a recurrent feature of representational art, and from Malevich's White on White of 1918, to  Ben  Nicholson's white reliefs of the 1930s or the work of Lúcio Fontana from the 1950s onwards, artists have  repeatedly returned to the theme of whiteness as a colour, as light, as pure nothingness. Again, however, Montes' work evokes an essentially Andean theme, exemplified perhaps  in one of the most abstract of all his paintings, the stark Gateway of the Moon. The time when the sky most nearly approximates to white in the altiplano is at dawn. It is no accident, then, that the quechua word for white, yuraq, is a synonym for the dawn. Holguín's great quechua dictionary of 1608 includes the phrase yurakyan ñam pacha which sounds as if it comes from some ancient hymn.  Holguín translates it as ya amanece, but a more literal translation might be some like 'the world now becomes white'. As we have seen, dawn and stone are linked in the Inca origin myth: they emerge from the stony heart of the cave at a place named Pacarinatambo, the tambo of the dawn. But a pacarina is also the place to which the soul seeks to return after death, back to the place from which it originated or, as the word implies, had its dawn. The dawn is therefore not just a vision of the future; it is also a vision of the past. Andean culture looks  both ways, or rather, it looks forward to the past. The ancestors are enshrined  in the stones of the landscape in order to show the road ahead. Fernando Montes' art is similarly of its time and of all time, past, present and  future.

Valerie Fraser, May 1999
Essential Montes
Prof Valerie Fraser