The man who spent his life promoting Venezuelan art
From Caracas with love
“Alfredo Boulton: Looking at Venezuela, 1928-1978,” ed. by Idurre Alonso (Getty Publications, $275 pp, $60), in connection with the exhibition of the same name on view through Jan. 24 at the Getty Research Institute
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Not very well known outside of his own country, Alfredo Boulton (1908-1995) was a noted photographer, an art critic and historian of Venezuelan art who published over 60 books, including a three-volume “History of Painting in Venezuela.” The latter is more foundational than definitive; it was well received despite some drawbacks. Even so, writes Janeth Rodriguez Nóbrega, and “despite his limited approach, Alfredo Boulton will remain forever associated with the revaluation of Venezuelan colonial painting.”In 2020 the Getty Research Institute (the GRI) acquired Boulton’s complete photographic archives, spanning 75 years and also encompassing his correspondence and other documentation. As GRI director Mary E. Miller notes, “He was, by many measures, the single most important intellectual of twentieth-century Venezuela whose subject was Venezuela.” But why stop there? “Alfredo Boulton is the essence of twentieth-century Venezuela, a mantle I suspect he would gladly accept.”
However, Boulton may not have achieved an international reputation for his photographs because his images seem less concerned with aesthetic values than in portraying Venezuelan everyday scenes as well as its people. One of the catalog’s essays delves into what Boulton called “belleza criolla,” a term for the harmonious blending or racial mixing (mestizaje) of white, black, and brown peoples. Another of his early subjects was portraying the classical beauty of the Venezuelan mestizo male.
Nonetheless, after his photo-essay “La Margarita” (1952), Boulton put aside his photographic pursuits for some 20 years and began writing. In 1956 he published “Los retratos de Bolívar” (Portraits of Bolívar), in which Boulton explored the existing iconography of “the Liberator,” Simón Bolívar (don’t confuse him with Simone de Beauvoir!), who led several South American countries towards independence from Spain. It was, writes Nóbrega, “the first study in Venezuela to trace the abundant iconography of the hero.” Among so many other works of art, Bolívar is the subject of “The General in His Labyrinth,” by Gabriel García Márquez, and “The Liberator,” a film with its soundtrack composed and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.
Venezuelan artists, painters and sculptors, are not widely known (certainly not like Colombia’s Fernando Botero), but a few of them are worth reckoning with: Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesús Rafael Soto, Armando Reverón, and Alejandro Otero, in particular, and Boulton wrote about them as well. Later, his interests went back further in time. Venezuela’s first colonial settlement, Nueva Cádiz, on the isle of Cubagua, dating to the 1540s, was excavated and explored with Boulton’s push and enthusiasm.And before that? Alessandra Caputo Jaffe points out that “the regions that today make up Venezuela constituted in the pre-Hispanic past a zone of confluence between cultures of the Andes, the Amazon, and the Caribbean, serving as a site of dynamic interethnic relations.” Various ceramics were uncovered from that time and “Boulton acted as a diplomatic mediator between the collectors of pre-Hispanic art and the archaeologists who analyzed such work scientifically.” A few related images, with dramatic lighting, are reproduced in the catalog.
One of the book’s curious essays, by Gabriela Rangel, is essentially a defense of the painter Aimée Battistini, who was expelled from the artist group Los Disidentes, which was comprised of expatriate artists living in Paris. The avant-garde group was together for six months, and most of them, excepting Otero, seem to be little-known today. Battistini corresponded with Boulton, who was something of an intermediary and who rebuked the artists for their infighting. The essay seems to diverge from the primary focus of the book, and one can imagine a “Justice for Aimée” intent as its real purpose. Two of Battistini’s paintings, in color, are reproduced here, and that’s more than allotted to anyone else.Some attention is also given to Boulton’s avant-garde decoration of what was otherwise his traditional home in Pampatar on Margarita Island during the years 1952-1954. This gets a bit of attention in the exhibition as well, by way of a sculpture, a chair, a painting or two and videos which enhance our overall appreciation.
That said, the show is impeccably arranged and informative, which is what you’d expect from anything mounted by the GRI, but it’s unlikely to make much of a splash otherwise. Even if we wish to learn more about Alfredo Boulton, virtually everything he wrote (and I’m talking about those 60-plus books) remains unavailable or untranslated from the Spanish.
Alfredo Boulton: Looking at Venezuela, 1928-1978, is on view through Jan. 24 in the Getty Research Institute, at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Information at getty.edu. ER