Armando Reverón: Light That Dazzles, Light That Maddens

‘’Arman, why do you paint like that?’’ This is the question which the first Venezuelan modernist painter, Armando Reverón (1889–1954) sought to escape when he began leading a self- imposed Robinson Crusoe existence in the Caribbean village Macuto. Although an eccentric and a schizophrenic, Reverón spent the major part of his life in endless, yet groundbreaking attempts to make the invisible visible by capturing pure light. In 1917, the repressive Venezuelan government declared artists enemies of the state, which prompted him to flee the tense political situation. In Macuto Reverón built his Castillete (‘a little castle’) — both a rustic living space and a studio, which became the axis of his artistic universe. Mesmerized by the dazzling tropical light, Reverón produced a prolific amount of abstract coastal landscapes, nudes and figure compositions, which began with a ‘Blue period’, culminated in his ‘White period’ and transitioned into his ‘Sepia period’ towards the end of his life.

Armando Reverón, Landscape, 1922, Source: Public domain

Reverón’s oeuvre exhibits several paradigmatic features of Latin American modernism, which set it apart from its European counterpart: formal eclecticism, experimental attitude and referral to the past. Reverón’s training in Caracas was essentially informed by the European academic tradition, so it was only when he travelled to Europe similarly to many of his colleagues throughout the continent, that he encountered Impressionism, Postimpressionism and Fauvism. His time in Madrid and Barcelona and particular, made him acutely aware of the work of Goya and Velazquez, who remained major influences on his work throughout his life. This is clearly recognizable in his nudes and self-portraits. However, Reverón’s blue period also betrayed the influence of Spanish Impressionists such as Sorolla, and several Catalan modernists. As a result, the nocturnism of fin-de-siecle Europe, as well as the symbolism of art nouveau are merged with Reverón’s fragmented brushwork to produce a profoundly eclectic oeuvre, yet one adapted to the local context of the Caribbean.

Armando Reverón, Coconut trees on the Beach, 1926, Source: Public domain

Coconut Trees on the Beach, 1926 is one of the most striking examples of Reverón’s ‘white’ paintings, when he centered on the use of white as an absolute value. He rejected the exotic and colorful imagery, characteristic of usual portrayals of the Caribbean. Furthermore, Reverón subverted the modernist abandonment of figuration. Instead, by a deconstruction of the optical, he revealed a paradoxical and omnipresent objectivity in painting — light. Light imbues the world with color, yet remains unattainable and invisible in its essence. From here stemmed the artist’s conflicting relationship to it: he struggled to conquer something he could not really see. Reverón believed in an idealistic, ascetic veracity of painting, and he strived to make it as authentic and unmanufactured as he possibly could. This resulted in his incision-like application of paint, the Cezannesque fragmentation of the picture plane, and the monochromaticism of his palette. Coconut Trees hence exhibits how the thickness and transparency of light are understood in reference to the same qualities of paint as a medium.

Although, clearly influenced by Impressionism in his swift and light application of paint, Reverón diverted from it in one important way: he did not seek to capture atmospheric changes and their effects on our perception of the world. Instead, he tried to isolate pure, tropical light as that which constitutes the essence of reality. He usually achieved this effect by isolating one dark and one light tone, onto the unprimed canvas. Painting acquired a double-edged meaning for Reverón, as it was not only a means to depict light, but it also reflected it. Thus, Reverón’s works are reminiscent of a mirror onto the world in a purely conceptual sense. His treatment of light also alludes to sunlight and its ability to blur the outlines of things by its intensity. It raises issues of optical emergence and recession, while the use of white inevitably conjures up notions of erasure and the instability of vision.

Armando Reverón, White Landscape, 1940, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund in honor of Enrique Pérez-Olivares.

By contrast, the sandy sepia tonality of many of his later works on the other hand, implicitly alludes to historical disintegration and memory. White Landsape, 1940 illustrates how Reverón’s pictorial space eventually became less and less palpable, retaining only a mere indication of form. The artist eliminated depth, stripping down figuration and bringing it as close as possible to abstraction. Hence, there occurred something akin to a dispossession of the materiality of painting — authentic experience of light leading to the disintegration of the visible world. Reverón’s experimental attitude is also present, as he continued painting variations of the same themes incessantly until the rest of his life.

Armando Reverón: Woman of the River, 1939. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund in honor of John Elderfield.

Another prevailing subject in Reverón’s sepia period were his female nudes, which have often been compared to those of Gauguin and Degas. The connection to the former is particularly evident, given his own self-exile in Haiti and his paintings of indigenous women in settings of lush equatorial vegetation. Reverón’s Woman of the River, 1939 and Maja, 1934 are paradigmatic of the way in which he adapted his vivacious and gestural brushwork to his figural compositions, imbuing them with a sketchy tangibility. Maja in particular quotes Goya’s famous Naked Maja. Although Reverón’s paintings embody a radical reduction of form, he retains a relationship to the past by referring to the corporeality of painting before the rise of abstraction.

Armando Reverón: Maja, c. 1934. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund.

Whereas the European avant-gardes are distinguished by their constant efforts to break away with tradition and challenge institutional artistic values, Latin American modernists often did precisely the opposite: they signified the present through the past. This tendency is informed by the relatively late introduction of modernist practices in Latin America — mostly from the early 1920s onward, after gaining independence from Europe. The inversion of the tenets of European modernism evident in Reverón’s eclectic way of painting is thus dictated by local factors, while also being adapted to his personal aims: ‘I am here because of my obligations to light.’

So why did Reverón paint ‘like that’? Regardless of any academic explanation, he painted the way he did for a love of visual reality — for him that meant the perpetual creation of light and colors. In the Venezuelan context, this obsession preceded some of the major proponents of kinetic art a couple of decades later: Carlos Cruz Diaz and Jesus Raphael Soto. Light and color then, emerge as symptomatic of the modernist period in Venezuela, bringing sensorial perception to the fore. Hence, Reverón’s pictorial experiments anticipate the emphasis on a cognitive experience of art, developed in the work of later modernist artists, by centering on one core principle: painting as ‘the true light’.

Notes:

Elderfield, John. “The Self-Portrait Drawings of Armando Reverón.” Master Drawings 40, no. 1 (2002): 24–42. Accessed March 15, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1554552

James, Merlin. The Burlington Magazine 149, no. 1254 (2007): 633–34. Accessed March 15, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20074979

Pérez Oramas, Luis. “Armando Reverón y el arte moderno.” In Armando Reverón, 1889- 1954, 55–68. Caracas, Venezuela: Fundación Galería de Arte Nacional, 1992.

Sanabria, Angel. ‘La Luz Encarnada: el Cuadro y el Cuerpo en Armando Reveron.’ Revista Bitacora, n. 2, 2013

Art History and Russian MA student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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