The Expanded Field
Mario Fonseca V. For Lofscapes

This week our outstanding guest columnist Mario Fonseca invites us to reflect on the Chilean landscape in art history, not only from the recognized testimonies of poets, but from the eyes of a series of painters, with particular emphasis on the latest work by the painter Leonardo Cravero, Registros Atmosféricos (Atmospheric Registers).  Cravero’s work will soon be exhibited at the Pablo Neruda National Railway Museum in Temuco and at the Museum of Modern Art in Chiloé, Castro.

(1) Atmósfera en erupción (Atmosphere Erupting). Fusión gutural de Dioses expectantes (Guttural fusion of expectant Gods) 2015, oil on wood (35 x 35 cm) © Leonardo Cravero G.
(2) Pino Solo. (Only Pine) El mutuo asombro de encontrase juntos (The mutual amazement of finding each other) 2015, oil on wood  (35 x 54 cm) © Leonardo Cravero G.
(3) Convergencias en el Toltén. (Convergences in Toltén) Todo se toca, todo se desliza (Everything is touched, everything slips) 2015, oil on canvas (90 x 120 cm) © Leonardo Cravero G.

I will begin by recalling a brief conversation with theorist Ronald Kay, to whose emblematic book Del espacio de acá (From the Space Here, Editores Asociados, 1980), I contributed.  He told me there is no tradition of the Chilean landscape in painting, and that the Chilean landscape is more recognized in poetry than in painting. It is true, there is in Chilean poetry a luminous and reassuring testimony of our landscape; Mistral, Neruda and Zurita are enough to illustrate that point. But this does not obscure the persevering record of our geography started by the naturalist artists of the first decades of the Republic, like the Englishman Conrad Martens, who accompanied Darwin in Chile, or the German Moritz Rugendas, who collaborated with the French Claude Gay, another great artist. The Italian painter Alessandro Ciccarelli and the Chilean Antonio Smith, despite their conflicting diametrality, could be the bridge between those first naturalists and the great landscape. These would include from the second half of the century, Pedro Lira, Alberto Orrego, Alberto Valenzuela Onofre Jarpa, Juan Francisco González and Alfredo Helsby, as we enter the 20th century. The Chilean landscape is present in our painting, then, at least linearly, but without the variety and intensity that it demands − and that poetry is closer to interpreting. 

From the Centennial to the Bicentennial, Chilean art tries to insert itself onto the world stage, testing languages that allow it to express with local emphasis the assumptions of Western society. The landscape is not a regular reference but an environment in which the leading human figure is set or the works of man in general, and perhaps it can be seen with greater intensity in abstraction than in figuration. We can identify Don Pablo Burchard as a rural landscape designer who puts the light before the territory, while the subtle horizons of his disciple Adolfo Couve necessarily imply an introspective perception. Sergio Montecino displays figurative landscapes that evoke his southern countryside, while, on the contrary, the 19th-century naturalist and American painter Thomas Daskam records the most extreme places of our territory, always involving in some detail the human presence − equally extreme − of those who inhabit it. Among the painters of the generation born around 1950, Patricio de la O, Benito Rojo and José Basso adapt the landscape to their personal standards, while Roberto Geisse and Ismael Frigerio exacerbate it in their confrontations, whether urban or political. Jaime León knows how to honor it however briefly, while a generation later, Felipe Cusicanqui emulates Pablo Burchard using castoff materials. But Pablo Chiuminatto is ultimately the authentic contemporary landscape painter, committed in his case to the ‘classic order’ of the Central Valley, that ‘solar plexus’ of Chile, according to the quote he himself makes of Gabriela Mistral: 

“There are three geographical orders in our territory. There is a desert in the north…’our mystical order.’ Then comes the explosion of the mountains, that great disorder and great confusion of our Cordillera, the same as the southern archipelagos with a great fantasy, so extravagant, crazy and unleashed…a kind of ‘romantic order’ in our country…but the body of Chile is formed by the central valley, clean, flat, relatively wide, organic, continuous, and that is our ‘classic order’…the valley that forms our solar plexus” (1).

Leonardo Cravero, on the other hand, is interested in the ‘romantic order’, that ‘fantasy, that is attractive, crazy and unleashed’ of our Cordillera and the southern territories to which Gabriela Mistral alludes. The geographer Hans Steffen indicated that, in Chile, Patagonia begins south of the Biobío. Cravero, installed in the Araucanía, has at his disposal the continental body of the cold forest or Valdivian Forest, which in these latitudes is generously displayed from the western slope of the Andes to the abrupt ocean that precedes the southern archipelagos and canals. An evergreen mountain presided over by the sacred canelo trees and populated by other native Chilean trees among them ulmos, lingues, mañíos, coigües, laurels, tepas, ñires and olivillos, interspersed with deciduous species such as oak and raulí, and crowned from one thousand meters by the solemn araucaria trees. How is it possible there are no painters in Chile who come to make these groves their own, cut against skies in ranges of blue, orange or gray, or against the light and dark foothills of the Andes? How is there no one who is imbued with so many volcanoes that one single glance can at times encompass? How does someone not turn around to verify that the sea and the sky merge into one heavenly body? And in these questions, certainly, to verify, permeate and make the landscape one’s own does not mean to copy it. 

Cravero (1958) has painted landscapes forever. He apprehends them and interprets them in processes that are sometimes more intellectual than others; he details them, he abstracts them, but he never ceases to cite the source of each. Change the height of the horizon and thereby prolong or detain the gaze; replicate the sky in the water so that it flows, or make it opaque so it is that the earth takes charge of the clouds. Formats and sizes, frames, general views, lonely trees, tight forests, volcanoes contained in equilateral perimeters all vary. He takes notes and draws in endless notebooks, that inveterate naturalist; then he translates onto fabrics and panels the sensitive emphases of his industrious transcriptions. Either he installs a light support to paint from nature, or he prepares a larger canvas and recalls dramatic instances, or he invents the scene because his imagination does not betray him. Leonardo Cravero makes the landscape of Araucanía his own and allows us to perceive the emotional substrate on which it is tabulated. Our land, our sea, our sky are different from the northern hemisphere, from Mr. Constable or Mr. Turner, from M. Corot or M. Monet, from Sr. Mir or Sr. Rusiñol. But no one, or almost no one, has interpreted them from here, in the manner of our poets. No one has painted something like this:

 The Pacific Ocean overflowed the map. 

There was nowhere to put it.

It was so big, wild and blue that it couldn’t be contained in any one place. 

That is why they left it in front of my window. 

And neither:

He who does not know the Chilean forest, does not know the planet. 

Of those lands, of that mud, of that silence, I have gone out to walk, to sing for the world

as Neruda wrote. 

Nor like Zurita: 

And then standing high as if a thought had moved them 

from the same snowy ranges

from the same stones

from the very same voids

Chile’s imposing cordilleras began their lawless march

Leonardo Cravero has returned to the landscape on the ground, where the map is not the territory, where only perception allows the atmosphere to be registered, where the brightness or the penumbra changes with the breath of a breeze, then decants in the stillness, and moves on again with an upsurge of air that now freezes our face. Where the storm turns the sky inside out and clouds explode like waves over a startled look. Because what is out there can only enter the painting from the outside and for this it is necessary to leave, and be willing to make it your own and willing to succumb in amazement, trusting in yourself but fearing God. The landscape is life, and it is death and our transit through it demands that we breathe in its atmosphere, even in our dreams, to perceive its attributes, its immanent identity, because only then will we know who we are and even why we do what we do − by what we paint. Perhaps Leonardo Cravero has just started the path and his previous trajectory only guided him to this threshold that he has just crossed, from where he now observes without still knowing how much he has already seen, how much he still has to see, how much he is going to see. But he is already outside, clamoring before the landscape like a telluric poet. 

Mario Fonseca V. (1948) is a visual artist, art critic and curator, as well as designer, editor and writer.

The exhibition Registros Atmosféricos (Atmospheric Registers) by Leonardo Cravero will be open to the public from October 1 to 30 of this year in the Art Gallery of the Pablo Neruda National Railway Museum in Temuco and from November 7 to December 7 in the Museum of Modern Art of Chiloé in Castro.

(4) Humedal. (Wetlands) Reflejos de orillas bajo un cielo incoloro (Shore reflections under a colorless sky) 2015, oil on canvas (20 x 60 cm) © Leonardo Cravero G.