FERNANDO MONTES Interview by Robert A. Parker for the magazine “Américas”
“A keen critic of Latin American painting said that what I was painting was the pachamama, which is an Indian word for our Mother Earth. And I realized this was true. It was what my paintings were fundamentally about, the spirit which is so present in the air in Bolivia.”
On a chill spring afternoon in New York City, Bolivian artist Fernando Montes talks about the clear light one finds at 12.000 feet in his homeland, the collapsing of distance, the immensity of nature. Disregarding the hiss of a heating system the distant sirens and horns of traffic, both Montes and the interviewer find themselves transported to a silent landscape that looks out from the art gallery walls. The paintings suggest the windows to the primitive soul of a sophisticated man who has lived in London for nearly a quarter century while exhibiting his work throughout Europe, North and South America, and Japan. His voice soft, his gestures gentle, his jacket and turtleneck a muted brown, it is the ideas, the mind that carries one through the windows to that distant, primitive world.
I remember one day climbing to the top of a mountain in La Paz and being struck by this sudden view of the altiplano. Usually when you climb, you discover a grand landscape below you, but in this case the immense land was precisely at my eye level and the light was brilliant, dazzling. It is something astonishing, to see everything distant and close at the same time. And when I became an artist, I remembered this, but it was a long time before I discovered its use.
Tel us about that discovery.
My first exhibition in La Paz in 1956 featured portraits and was very successful. Afterwards, I earned a scholarship to study painting in Madrid, and then I went to London, which in the early 60’s was featuring a celebration of youth, creativity and the working classes. I began doing my portraits in pubs, often small groups. Then I met a girl there whom I had known in my home town in Bolivia. We married and I began to paint portraits of her, and then of my children, in my studio or in front of a window, because I liked the intimate environment. Once I started a self-portrait that way. And really, one shouldn’t look too closely at the origin of one’s art, because it comes from the subconscious, and understanding can destroy the mystery of these creative forces coming out of you.
Then one day at the Bolivian embassy I wondered how the figures I was creating would look in a Bolivian environment. So I began to work with four figures on this landscape I had remembered and viewed at eye level. When my wife saw the beginning of this painting, she was quite moved, and we realized this was a departure that it was something I should pursue. Actually, I produced three paintings that were shown at the embassy, and one day a Mexican chap introduced himself and said he wanted to talk about my work. That was when I discovered these new paintings would have a fundamental appeal to people from other countries, so I began to explore them more. Then a keen critic of Latin American painting said that what I was painting was the pachamama, which is an Indian word for Mother Earth. And I realized this was true. It was what my paintings were fundamentally about, the spirit which is so present in the air in Bolivia.
Is the Indian’s view of Mother Earth different?
No, it is very universal, but I think it is far more alive in the Indian that in other people. The Indian feels he belongs to the earth, whereas the Western man manipulates the land, has no respect for it. Toynbee called his last book Mankind and Mother Earth, and he wrote that if we continue to use the earth as we are, we are committing matricide, we are destroying the very origins of everything that is living. I find that very true. We should be more contemplative, more respectful of the wonderful thing that is nature.
I remember when I went to Spain, and then to London, I felt that all the landscape was in man’s proportion. Whether it was a Roman road or a Gothic cathedral or a medieval village, there was this feeling of man using or dominating nature. Whereas in Bolivia, you feel a great solitude in front of the greatness of nature. And the Indians do not want to transform that. All the houses, all the villages, even the colour of their clothing is in agreement with the landscape. You go onto the plateau and see what look like rock formations, and they are villages. They are integrated into the land.
You must understand that it was only after I started painting this way that I asked myself why. Recently, I met a shaman in Brussels who said my paintings were filled with mysticism. A painter in Amsterdam said my work was primitive and religious. So people sense things that I do not consciously try to create. I mentioned the subconscious before. Actually, I always have felt that doing these figures and landscapes is like working with subterranean water that is running there and that you can tap. A French sculptor once wrote the best description of my work. He put in all the essential things. He said my painting gave him a feeling of great silence, and the people represent small bits of humanity enveloped in their skins, that night and day and cold and warmth, everything is one. And he ends by saying that the figures are dreams of human sculpture.
Let us talk in more detail about those figures and about space.
Most of the figures are looking away toward the landscapes, and you identify with the human element in the painting. In a few cases they are looking at each other, such as a mother and her child. But fundamentally it is the figure and its relationship with distance, with space that is infinite that is my subject. Once a painter told me that for him space was a multiple relationship between a figure, for example, and a table and a chair, as well as the floor, the ceiling and the walls. Each was related to the other. And I got desperate. I felt confined. The way I experience space is the very opposite. It is infinite and boundless, and also luminous. I don’t use a frame because of this reason. I want the maximum feeling of space.
The colours you use also seem to be an expression of nature
Well, I mix my own paint, which is the best way to know how the materials will behave, what they can do. I work with tempera, which is easier than preparing colours with oil. I prepare the base with plaster of Paris and also rabbit skin glue. This is a primitive way, it was used by all those Italian painters, it comes from the 1200's’, and it is unsurpassed. You cannot find anything in industry like it. Its marvelous quality is that it reflects light, which is one of the essential things I look for. It also produces the coarse base, the texture that you see in my paintings. And the colours I prepare come from the earth. Burnt sienna is beautiful; it gives an orange-red colour. Ochre is an earth yellow that is transparent. And I also use amber, plus ivory, black and ultramarine blue. But my range of colours is minimal. More important is light, which is why I use white first of all. And tempera. If I can use a metaphor, tempera is like a baritone, while oil is like a bass. So everything you do in tempera is lighter in tone than in oil. And finally, to capture white as much as possible, I use silver and gold. If they are very polished and put in the correct light, this gives the white an enormous brilliance, a white that is more than white.
I also use egg yolk as a binding material. It is a perfect emulsion made by nature. You mix it with the pigment and use water to dilute the colour that results. So you have the plaster and then the pigment, yolk and water. The result is a paint that will not alter or crack. It is a beautiful technique but extremely tedious to master-it took me years. When possible, I use tempera on hard board because the surface holds best the gesso ground-plaster of paris, and this helps the luminosity. But I use canvas for larger works, since it is less cumbersome to transport.
Do you consider yourself unique, or do you see yourself as part of a movement of artists who are going back to their roots for inspiration?
I think my self-imposed isolation in London has helped me to produce a work that is very different. Perhaps this originality comes from my roots, but it really was a result of wanting to be myself. And as I started going around the galleries, it became a very rewarding experience to see that my work was so different, because then you feel you are contributing something that is not derivative. But the pendulum is always swinging. For a while abstract works created an international style, and now it has moved to super-realism, the very antithesis. In an international center like London, however, art goes in all directions. Every artist is looking for some sort of personal answer and is doing so in the midst of chaos. What has happened is that we have lost the concept of classical art, against whose canons we could compare our personal search. So the variety of choices is endless, and I find that looking for your own answer, to have that freedom, has been fantastic. And that has been the attraction of London. Someone has said that in political life, London is the balcony of the world. I have found that it gives you the same closeness and the same perspective in the world of art.
And, of course, it has also given me a better perspective of the Bolivian highlands. From abroad you can see the forest as well as the trees. You can better see your own culture and discover what you are. It is difficult when you are in the trees to go against the environment in which you live. Living away from home is much more difficult, yes, but it gives you perspective. You see much more the essence of things.
You exhibit in Japan. Has this experience influenced your work?
It was extraordinary. It made me realize how close the Indian is to the Oriental race. And aesthetically, I was amazed to find in their culture a measure of beauty called the shibui, which is characterised by monochrome colours (black-brown, soft white) -tranquility, simplicity and reticence. So it was an amazing experience when I saw one afternoon the Horyusi, the first Buddhist temple in Japan and said to be the oldest wooden structure in the world, dating from AD 600. It was like having a hallucination, seeing the mellow white walls, the brown-black of the structure, the mud wall around the temple in an exquisite pale ochre-it was the very combination of colours in my own work, and it was also a living example of the shibui. It was the very effect I was trying and trying to achieve in my own painting. You can imagine what an experience it was, perhaps the greatest experience of this kind in my life. So my visit to Japan made me even more sure of the way in which I was painting, that as Michelangelo said, one must go on simplifying until only the essence can be felt…
Will you sum up by describing what that essence is you have discovered?
I have discovered that Bolivia is an Indian country, and that this Indian element expresses itself through many things that I didn’t understand when I was living there such as the words, the feeling for the land that is expressed in la pachamama. From a distance you see the power of these cultural factors and how they seek expression. And so I have found in London what was lurking in my mind but couldn’t find expression. I have found Bolivia, the sense of the earth, the endurance of its people, the texture of its life….