Folks always get plenty of world-famous local culture during Memphis in May, but the annual fete also becomes a chance for cultural exchange, and this year's honoring of Chile is no different.
For fine art seekers, this means a golden opportunity to see examples of that country's trained painting traditions.
At the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, an exhibit coordinated with Memphis in May offers 12 paintings on loan from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago de Chile.
The occasion to partner with an international museum and present another culture to Memphians is exciting, says Marina Pacini, chief curator at Brooks. "We consider that part of our role -- educating the public about other cultures -- and this is a great opportunity to do that."
Simply titled "Treasures from the National Museum of Fine Arts, Santiago de Chile," the show runs through May 31 and shows not only a strong sampling of painting styles and themes from the 19th and early 20th centuries -- a time when Chilean artists largely looked toward European models -- but also provides a snapshot of the country's character at the same time.
"A flavor of Chile" is the intent, says guest curator Cecilia Polo, who notes that pieces were chosen for being representative of Chilean history, landscapes, people and customs.
To that end, the national dance, the cueca, is captured in "La Zamacueca," by Arturo Gordon. And the Festival of Andacollo, a traditional miners' veneration of the Virgin Mary, is the subject of "The Procession of the Virgin of Andacollo" by hailed historical painter (and later monk) Pedro Subercaseaux.
The cynosure of the show, however, has to be "La Viajera" (The Traveler) by Camilo Mori, who studied in Paris and associated with Cézanne, Picasso and Braque. His lessons from the continental avant-garde can be seen in this subtle yet striking portrait of his wife, which is such an iconic image for Chileans that it was appropriated as a postage stamp in the 1980s.
After taking in the panoramic canvases at the Brooks, you can wander over to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens for a visual and ideological leap into the tumultuous 1960s, a time of Marxist-leaning politics in Chile that culminated with the short-lived presidency of Salvador Allende. Put another way, this is art on the cusp of the long dark night of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.
Titled "¡Abstracto! Chilean Paintings of the 1960s," the 13 abstract expressionist works (on view through June 21) are on loan from the Chilean Embassy in Washington and, like the Brooks show, are presented in conjunction with Memphis in May.
"It's really refreshing to have such a contrast with the art that we usually have here," says Dixon curatorial assistant Julie Pierotti, noting the shock-of-the-new feel the paintings create nestled as they are between the gallery's collection of impressionist works and the current touring exhibit, "Regional Dialect." "It's interesting that we're connecting this art with Memphis in May, because you usually think of it as celebrating great things about the country, but I think this art speaks to a hard time in Chile's history."
Indeed, the arguable master of the movement, Guillermo Núñez (born in 1930), paid a heavy price for his art, having been a victim of torture, imprisonment, and exile. In the paintings of Núñez and his peers -- notably Grupo Signo members Eduardo Martínez Bonati, José Balmes, and Gracia Barrios (also featured in the Dixon exhibit) -- abstraction is heavily tied to social commentary and the human form, as if to say ideas are irrevocably bound to physical experience.
For example, in the Núñez works "Como se fabrica un héroe" (How a Hero Is Made) and "Saber del dolor" (To Know of Pain), abstraction is a powerfully effective method to deal with the primal, reductive emotions of violence, suffering, and pain. Yet the hints of osseous, skeletal form that rail against blasts of color and negative space also suggest solidarity in the face of oppression, almost as if the painter is rebuilding the human spirit bone by metaphorical bone.
Come to think of it, "¡Abstracto!" is both a fine companion show with that at the Brooks and a perfect exhibit for Memphis in May to host Chile. No greater honor can be had, after all, than addressing the soul of a country's people.
Memphis in May-related Chilean art exhibits
"Treasures from the National Museum of Fine Arts, Santiago de Chile." On display at the Brooks Museum of Art, 1934 Poplar, through May 31. For more information, call 544-6200 or go to brooksmuseum.org.
"¡Abstracto! Chilean Paintings of the 1960s." On display at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park, through June 21. For more information, call 761-5250 or go to dixon.org.
For other Chilean-themed exhibits in town during Memphis in May, see memphisinmay.org/exhibits. All run through May 31 and include:
"Crowds in the Shadows": Photojournalism exhibit documenting Chilean civil rights history at the National Civil Rights Museum, 450 Mulberry.
"Landscapes of Extremes": Chile's natural beauty is captured by nature/landscape photographer Gerhard Hüdepohl at the Memphis Botanic Garden, 750 Cherry.
"The Life of Pablo Neruda": Images and photos related to the Nobel Prize-winning poet at Central Public Library Gallery, 3030 Poplar.
"Chilean Maritime History and the Hunt for Commerce": An overview of Chilean nautical history at the Mississippi River Museum, Mud Island, 125 N. Front.