Paper Stories

Christine Frérot

“Drawing is the father of our three arts (painting, sculpture and architecture) (...) Whoever masters the line will reach perfection in each of these arts”.

Giorgio Vasari, “Lives of the Best Painters, Sculptors and Architects”, Florence, 1558.

José Gamarra’s work is best known for the first evocative universes of Latin America, which emerged at the end of the sixties, in which he addressed, with a kind of apparent (or false) joy, the various problems of the continent’s politics with a critique carried by a very personal narrative, whose iconography was easily identifiable. In fact, inscribed in the frame of the exuberant tropical nature, several figurative images, recurring “signs” of this disturbed context, testified to the chaos experienced by Latin American countries victims of bloody military dictatorships. We found helicopters, tanks and soldiers that evoked the violence of war; cranes, foreign economic interference (mining and oil extraction), but also the presence of long and colorful snakes that referred to a wild fauna. There were also Spanish caravels and horses, unknown to the Americans of the time, accompanying the soldiers of the Conquest in their destruction of societies and cultures, religions, beliefs and myths. From that moment on, a whole iconographic vocabulary was established that would henceforth mark the artist’s future identity. Gamarra points out that “the symbolic language of signs that he used before in his painting has been opening up to another translation: landscape and human reality, forest and Latin American destiny (…) On the one hand, there is the clash between the primitive and the exploited world, the past and the present; on the other hand, there is joy, the search for stories and legends.

The aesthetic and iconographic changes linked to his arrival in France (he settles in Paris in 1963) will quickly assert themselves and for many years, it is the exuberant and abundant painting of inhabited jungles, in which he exalts color in an infinite variety of shades and sensibilities, which makes José Gamarra one of the most original colorist painters of Latin American painting. If for this artist, the pictorial practice seems to be linked to a true pleasure of painting and of constructing “landscapes” both historical and imaginary, fundamentally utopian – which do not fail to evoke a certain nostalgia for History and perhaps even for his own history (his various exiles) -, nevertheless in his prolific and above all early work (first exhibition at the age of 11), there is a dynamic and constant approach to drawing, with a true desire to investigate form and expression, a practice enriched by the wise use of different techniques.

From the great masters of art, not only in the West, but also in the Far East, with the virtuosity of the calligraphic gesture and the celestial mountains of the Chinese landscape, the practice of drawing, while having evolved, remains this noble discipline, sometimes underestimated, today again widely valued, even if it is no longer the exclusive medium of painting. Controversial from the outset, in the face of the development of oil painting, it was the subject of lively quarrels in France from the end of the 17th century, such as that between the Poussinists (defenders of drawing) and the Rubenists (defenders of color), with the consecration of the latter signalling the triumph of the colorists, on the model, in literature, of that between the Ancients and the Moderns which ended with the “victory” of the Moderns. From the painters of the Italian Renaissance and the Flemish, to the 20th century painters such as Hans Hartung, Hans Bellmer, Pierre Alechinsky, Roberto Matta, Philip Guston or Antonio Segui, and more recently Ernest Pignon Ernest or Marlène Tomas, to name but a few, the drawings of the greatest artists have given, through new forms of drawing, their letters of nobility to an artistic technique that the passage of time has never really altered.

Today, however, it seems that the teaching of drawing is losing ground in many French art schools. Film-related techniques such as video, photography and sound have often taken over in contemporary art, relegating the practice of a technique as old as the world, and so active in the recent past, to a less commercial position and less prized by the art market. However, for many artists, the practice of drawing is still very much alive today, as demonstrated by the organization in Paris of the 16th edition of Drawing Now in March 2023 – the first European fair devoted exclusively to contemporary drawing. The fate of painting as a technique has also undergone the same ups and downs as that of drawing, with a relative abandonment with the arrival of conceptual art and installations, only to return in force over the last twenty years or so to the forefront of the art scene and market.

So, what role does drawing play in José Gamarra’s work? Aside from the preparatory drawings for his large-scale Jungles, of characters or subjects most often inspired by historical research, drawing has played a major role in his artistic activity since the 40s. He claims to have no notebooks or illustrated diaries, but as we’ll see later, it’s all part of his daily work, in which he questions form and tackles new content. In addition, his use of photographs and other documents has enabled him to build up a body of figurative images that he uses as recurring motifs in his paintings, thus creating a veritable iconographic and formal style. When he isn’t projecting images directly onto the canvas, drawing is essential, and color is, as he asserts, constantly and simultaneously in thought.

José Gamarra has been drawing since childhood, almost always on paper, and he declares that he has no “particular system” when it comes to this activity, which leaves him free to use all techniques, from graphite pencil to charcoal, from pen to brush, from pastel to sanguine and watercolor… to nourish his imagination and allow his emotions to blossom freely. In his first portraits, he already showed an aptitude and a real sensitivity for questioning the mysteries of the world around him, and a particular interest in the human beings who inhabit it. A very open-minded child, his curiosity was forged at an early age, stimulated and encouraged by early art studies at a pilot school in Montevideo, which devoted part of its teaching to all forms of artistic creation.

In the ’40s, Gamarra’s first pencil portraits, drawn at the age of 13 (he was born in 1934), already convey an expressiveness that reveals a particular attention to others, a fine sense of character observation, with no real desire for caricature, but rather a tenderness for human beings, in whom he would never cease to take an interest. These qualities are particularly noticeable in the care given to the expressiveness of the gaze, which in certain portraits expresses astonishment (1947 – 09), mischief (1947 – 11) and the sadness of aging (1947 – 12), the candor and uprightness of childhood (1948 – 15) and adolescence (1948 – 16), but also malice (1947 – 14), this time with the expressionist force of color accentuating the hardness of a face through intense blue-gray eyes (1948 – 12). The line is strengthened by the use of charcoal, and in this 1952 portrait (06), a certain geometrisation emerges. The artist thus learned at a very young age to reproduce feelings, to linger on the veracity of a look and to capture what it expresses and gives off, with astonishing precision for his young age. As early as 1947, alongside this lively human gallery, drawings of animals, such as this eloquent cockfight (1947 – 13), stand alongside landscapes that would later occupy a central place in his painting (1947 – 15).

From the 50s onwards, there was an evolution not only in the artist’s preferred subjects, but also in his formal treatment. While he continued to paint portraits, a genre he was particularly fond of and in which he excelled at capturing expressiveness and bodily attitude (1954 – 04 and 05), a different treatment of the line, marked and sustained, appeared, as in these three portraits from 1955 (01, 02, 03). With the appearance of still lifes, we can sometimes think of the influence of Giorgio Morandi (1956 – 10) or that of Picasso, as in this drawing in which Gamarra associates familiar objects with his portraits (1958 – 21).

The real break came at the end of the ’50s, when the artist turned his back on a more realistic, representative image. With the appearance of signs, a kind of sui generis “calligraphy” unfolds in space, between abstraction and figuration, more pictorial than drawn, in a palette that is often rather dark (1959 – 18 to 1960 – 12). These “pictograms”, which can to some extent be traced back to parietal art, Paul Klee or even Joan Miro, testify to the artist’s great sensitivity and affection for the sources of myths, opening up infinite poetic universes imbued with a refined, inquisitive cultural spirit. Gamarra’s pictorial research is similar to that initiated and systematized by Joaquim Torres Garcia, in a space of meaning and form that combines geometric signs, bestiary images and zoomorphic representations to form an alphabet dominated by Andean symbols. Gamarra has always felt close to the great master of the Rio de la Plata, particularly in his use of color. In several of his works (1962 – 60 and 61), color is dominant, lending a particular strength to the drawing, whose line becomes firmer. Starting with certain drawings from 1962 (62-63) and 1965 (27), space becomes clearer, drawing takes precedence over color, and a new universe is established. Textual writing appears (1966 – 21), as do a number of objects in and out of nature, which become the iconographic supports for his future jungles (parachutes, helicopters, planes, palm trees), as well as everyday objects such as water taps, parasols and pipes. As Edward Lucie-Smith writes, these paintings are conceived and designed as “narratives”, but they are also, with great subtlety, narratives in which the underlying politics are no less evident; they are thus and quite rightly qualified by Juan Calzadilla as “bucolic strategies” (1967 – 11), (1968 – 08 – 09 – 10 – 11), as well as (1969 – 06 – 07 – 08 – 09).

The drawings on Latin American themes linked to the Spanish Conquest and the economic domination of the United States, which appear with greater frequency, signify the deep-rootedness and permanent confirmation of the artist’s political commitment, which is also revealed in his painting. In several drawings, he tries his hand at depicting indigenous peoples and Spanish Conquistadors (1979 – 10 – 11 and 1980 – 61 – 66), as well as elaborating specific situations (1980 – 54 – 56- 57 – 58 – 59 – 60 – 63) in which he demonstrates his historical knowledge; through these imaginary “playlets”, he reinvents the violence of wars, especially those of the Conquest, but also that of Latin American dictatorships (1980 – 67 – 68 – 70 – 72 – 74). There’s the image of those large snakes that, with humor and irony, are proudly “ridden” on the seas by ridiculous Spaniards (1980 – 78 – 80), not forgetting his sketches of Catholic missionaries imposing their religion by force (1981 – 20 – 21 – 25), or those of the animals that populate the tropical forest, notably the jaguar (1994 – 09).

From the end of the ’90s onwards, these drawings show a return to portraiture, in a fairly classical style, with a real desire to capture likeness, without forgetting to focus, as in his early teenage attempts, on the precision of the gaze, its tender significance (1998 – 15), (2000 – 25), (2003 – 09) or the quivering of a body (2009 – 09). Landscapes also reappear, as a constantly practiced exercise to reproduce the oppressive and mysterious, but always fascinating, atmosphere of the inhabited jungles that have occupied Gamarra’s pictorial space for many years. Unreal, with its dominant range of blues, as in (2000 – 27), the rainforest also bears witness to man’s destruction (2012 – 03); but it retains what makes it so rich: the flora and fauna, and in particular the birds that inhabit it (2021 – 07), but above all its tranquillity with the Indians who preserve it (2000 – 33).

Whether it’s early portraits, drawings of signs and landscapes, or preparatory drawings for jungles, Gamarra confides that, in the end, it’s always the painting that prevails over the drawing. While he has given himself over to the adventure of drawing, with great assiduity and obvious tenderness – he sees the practice as a “pure exercise” – color, which he says he discovered in France, nonetheless dominates his imaginary jungles, dreamed up, meticulous and detailed, mostly dark or obscure. These pictorial and iconographic universes, so recognizable, confirm what Martinique essayist Edouard Glissant wrote when evoking Gamarra’s art, “Every landscape painter is obviously a dreamer of the everyday”. The interest of this production on paper, which could be described as “marginal” – because it is stammering, hesitant or reworked – is nonetheless also affirmations, certainties and discoveries; it is therefore not an ancillary or secondary practice insofar as it is ultimately linked to the execution of large-scale paintings. Drawings sometimes foretell ruptures, just as they announce the premises, the very outline of a future work. They constitute the most fluctuating, yet liveliest, part of the creative act, for there is in these exercises of spontaneity, a search for the unknown that gives meaning to the work of art and constitutes its profound substance.

Christine Frérot
Doctor of Art History.
Researcher at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.
Art critic, member of AICA.
Editor of Art Nexus magazine.
Exhibition curator.

  • 1940
  • 1950
  • 1960
  • 1970
  • 1980
  • 1990
  • 2000 fuels a journey of discovery of the life and work of José Gamarra.