South America’s Radical Geometries

The beautiful passing patterns woven by the best football teams evoke - for me - the characteristics of good design: order, harmony, rhythm, harmony, balance and precision.

I've drawn this comparision with design and football before after reading David Winter's excellent book Brilliant Orange, which sets the 'Total Football' style pioneered by the great Netherlands sides of the 1970s in the context of Dutch visual culture.

This World Cup has seen the sad decline of my favourite team of recent years, Spain, whose tik-a-tak style of possession football derived from the techniques developed by their Dutch predecessors. But at the time of writing we're still able to enjoy the elegant passing games of the remaining South American teams: Argentina, Columbia and, of course, Brazil.

I was interested to learn the other day that London's Royal Academy is to host an exhibition of abstract South American art and design, Radical Geometry running from July through to September. Perhaps there are some kindred spirits among the Academy's curators, alive to the parallels between pleasing abstractions on the football field and the canvas. Or perhaps not.

The exhibition traces the development of the continent's vibrant abstract art movements, from their emergence in the 1930s up to the present day, with a particular focus on their golden age during the post-war decades.

The story starts in 1934, when the artist Joaquín Torres-García, returned to his home city of Montevideo, Uruguay, after many years residence in Europe, where he participated in the early 20th century avant-garde, mixing with figures such as Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky.

Torres-García arrived home with the ambition of establishing a movement that would filter the principles of European modernism through a South American sensibility. He was convinced by the radical egalitarian ideals of the European constructivists: art and design should be constructed from simple, fundamental elements, primitive building blocks such as simple shapes and symbols, a visual grammar common to all cultures and classes, accessible regardless of social background. This was to be a pure, fresh abstract art free of layers of symbolism that could only be interpreted by an educated elite.

For Torres-García this most modern of European philosophies had compelling affinities with South America's indigenous visual culture. He noticed strong parallels between the geometric compositions of Mondrian et al and the sophisticated patterns characteristic of the art of native Americans such as the Inca. They shared the same sense of composition, and placed the same emphasis on logical mathematical order. Many of his works seek to make those parallels explicit, notably his Construction in White and Black of 1938, a stark construction of shaded blocks evocative of native art.

Construction in White and Black, Joaquín Torres-García, 1938

Torres-García took these similarities as proof of the modernist belief in the commonality of essential design principles across cultures, a theory he elaborated in his book Constructive Universalism, published in 1944.

The school Torres-García founded in Montevideo achieved only modest success in Montevideo, but it was sufficient to plant the seed for the modernist movements that flourished across South America in subsequent decades. A particularly astringent expression emerged during the 1940s and 50s across the Rio Grande in Buenos Aires, where a group of young artists including Tomás Maldonado, Gyula Kosice, Carmelo Arden Quin, Rhod Rothfuss and Juan Melé formed the Concrete Art-Invention Association in 1945 and Arte Madí in 1946.

These groups eliminated the figurative elements that lingered in the work of Torres-García and his followers: for the radicals of Arte Madí had to be strictly non-referential, free of all allusion to entities normally encountered in the natural, visible world. They were explicit in their commitment to the aesthetic and political programme of the Russian Constructivists, the Utopian art and design movement that briefly flourished during the early years of the Soviet Union. Their work was uncompromisingly geometric and severe, and, at the time, anonymous: even an artist's signature was taken as a mark of bourgeois decadence.

Abstract art movements rose across the border in Brazil during the 1950s and 60s, though rather more apolitical than their radical Argentinian counterparts. These were years of great optimism in Brazil. The government had embarked on an ambitious process of economic modernisation, employing new technolobgies to construct industries capable of competing with the west. This wave of Brazilian Futurism was epitomised by the construction of the new city of Brasilía, celebrated (or notorious) for the sci-fi designs of the architect Oscar Niemeyer.

National Congress, Brasilia, Oscar Niemeyer

Visible Idea, Waldemar Cordeiro, 1958

The new Brazil's focus on technological and industrial progress found its parallel in the art world through the work of Waldemar Cordeiro, Geraldo de Barros, Hermelindo Fiaminghi, Judith Lauand and several other São Paulo artists, who founded the splendidly named Ruptura group, a movement inspired by a machine aesthetic that celebrated mathematical principles and diagrammatic clarity.

Untitled (from the series Weaving), Lygia Pape, 1959

Untitled, Waldemar Cordeiro

Chromatic Rhythms II, Alfredo Hlito, 1947

Untitled, Waldemar Cordeiro, 1952

Triangulo Espiral, Mauricio Nogueira Lima, 1956

The final movement charted by the exhibition emerged in Venezuela, during the final decades of the century. It too was unequivocally abstract, but less severe, more concerned with movement and the play of light. The work of Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt) is particularly characteristic of this group: the wire structures in her Sphere series are geometric, but have an organic quality, redolent as much of tree branches as mechanical objects.

Sphere, Gero (Gertrud Goldschmidt), 1959

For full details of the exhibition I refer you to the excellent overview Minimalist migrations by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro on the Royal Academy website, and a useful review in The Guardian, Radical geometry: South America's surprising art.