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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pedro Figari

Pericon Under the Orange Trees, Pedro Figari.
Pedro Figari Self-portrait
A couple months ago I wrote about the phenomena known as the "National Artist." I pointed out at the time that this designation has far less meaning for a large, artistically historic country like France, Spain, England, Italy, etc than for smaller countries. I believe I was talking about at the time Fernando Amorsolo, the national artist of the Philippines. There are any number of small countries of which I've never written about in discussing their art heritage. Many of them are in South America. One of them is the nation of Uruguay. And though he's never really been officially designated the "national artist," I'd like to rectify that in claiming the title for Pedro Figari. If you've never heard the name before, don't worry about it, you'd be almost as likely to have heard of Pedro Figari, the lawyer, of Pedro Figari the legislator, educator, administrator, and heroic foe of social injustice, as you would Pedro Figari the artist.

When your face starts appearing on your country's currency, you know you're a candidate for "national artist" honors. Two-hundred Uruguayan pesos is worth about $9.05 USD.
Pedro Figari was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1861. Though he showed no small amount of art talent as a child, as so often happens, young Pedro was guided (or perhaps, pushed) into law school, from which he graduated in 1886. Though he painted some as an amateur virtually all his life, Figari began a law career as what we in the U.S. call a public defender. That means he represented in court cases of those too poor to afford private counsel. The job seldom paid very well (even today) but it's steady work. As a result, Figari was exposed to the many areas of social injustice prevalent not just in his homeland but throughout all the slowly developing nations of South America.

Colonial Minuet, Pedro Figari
Eventually, probably around 1900, Figari traveled to Europe where he studied under various French and Italian artists and gained exposure to the rough and tumble art movements we've come to lump together as Post-Impressionism. Figari was especially influenced by the rebellious nature of the Post-Impressionist movements and the fact that they were veering further and further from traditional European academicism. In returning to Uruguay in 1826, Figari began painting and exhibiting more, attempting to define for his country a native style of painting. He was not alone in this effort; better known artists such as Diego Rivera, Gonzalo Endara Crow, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti were doing the same thing in their own countries during the first half of the 20th century. He helped establish a school of fine arts in his country while serving as a member of the Uruguayan Parliament and president of the University of Montevideo.

Picking up a Passenger, Pedro Figari. He frequently painted coaches.
Then, in 1921, at the age of sixty, Figari retired from the practice of law and most of his political activities to paint full time. In seeing Figari's work it quickly become apparent he cared little for natural or realistic academic elements. In fact he went out of his way to distance himself from such European influences. His work is "figurative." By that I don't mean "figural," though his paintings are sometimes heavily populated with people. Instead, Figari sought to convey scenes from the common cultural life he'd come to know so well with an almost child-like simplicity. Linear perspective is used sparingly and seemingly in a haphazard manner while social interaction dominates, usually celebrations, dancing, ceremonies, special events, and joyous occasions. Figari died in 1938. Don't expect to find dates associated with Figari's paintings. As is frequently the case with such artists, virtually none of them are dated. Today, Fernando Saavedra Faget operates a small gallery and Website promoting the sale of his grandfather's work. As the prices for Pedro Figari's work rise, his grandson has come to encounter a problem many such families of artists working in a highly simplified (or folk) style--fakes. Forgers see such work as easy-picking for their "skills."

Cat, Pedro Figari. (Look carefully, you'll find it.)


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