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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Costa Rican Art

Parrots, Victor Chavarria
When traveling to various countries around the world, I always try to make a point of supporting and collecting the work of local artists. A month or so ago, in visiting the small, Central American country of Costa Rica, my wife and I were scheduled to take a combined bus/train/riverboat tour of the Costa Rican rain forest. In Costa Rica, they don't call it a rain forest for nothing. It rained in the morning of our scheduled tour in the afternoon. One of the morning tour buses got stuck along a muddy road resulting from the sudden tropical downpour. Though the small riverboat had a canvas awning, nonetheless, all the passengers got soaked to the skin in the torrent. Our afternoon tour was canceled. We were offered a bus tour of the highland areas near Puntarenas which included a children's native dance performance in a city park, a narrated history of the country by a personable and highly knowledgeable tour guide and--surprise, surprise--a stop at a fairly large and well-stocked souvenir emporium. We sampled Costa Rica's fabled coffee, availed ourselves of the local comfort facilities, and spent lavishly for a few choice local handicrafts. Among these were the two small, inexpensive painting by a local artist named Victor Chavarria.

Like most Costa Rican art, the work of Victor Chavarria is
colorful, to say the least.
I, of course, had never heard of Victor Chavarria, but was assured by others that he was among the best Costa Rica had to offer. I purchased two small paintings (above) for my growing international art collection. As they say, I didn't know much about Costa Rican art, but I knew what I liked. Each was about five by seven inches and set me back fifteen dollars apiece. I left happy with my purchase and hoping I'd acquired the early work of an up and coming young Costa Rican painter for a bargain price. It wasn't until I got home and did an Internet search that I discovered my Senor Chavarria was neither young nor "up and coming." Judging by the fact he began his painting career around 1985 he would be by now about fifty years of age. I could find only one example of his work online (top) which apparently is representative of some thirty-three of his paintings commissioned by a resort hotel to adorn the walls of their luxury suites. In perusing the work of other Costa Rican painters, I found I was the proud owner of two rather average examples of tourist art.

The Croaker, 2008, James (Yimi) Parker
I don't regret my purchases. I still like the work of Victor Chavarria. I wish I could have met him (assuming he spoke English). By comparison, The Croaker (above) by James (Yimi) Parker is also typical Costa Rican art. Chavarria's work compares favorably. Having said that, I should also point out that Costa Rica is hardly the art capital of the world...or even Central America. Costa Rica is literally a "banana republic," though it's far better known for its gourmet coffee than for either its art or bananas.

I'm no coffee gourmet, but I tried it. It was good. I didn't buy any, though.

Costa Rican fish painting, un-stretched
and easy to pack and carry home.
Although there are a few traditional art galleries in Costa Rica (mostly in the capital, San Jose) the vast majority of Costa Rican art is sold unframed, un-stretched, and thumbtacked to plywood (left) with a tiny price tag (literally and figuratively) attached to the unpainted edge of the canvas. There are seldom any titles and no information about the artist. Most such works are on canvas though some images may be found painted on native woods (below).

Formularized art covering beautiful wood grains.
Yellow Clavelón, 1997,
Elizabeth Steinworth
Despite the luscious watercolors of artists such a Elizabeth Steinworth (left), probably the most famous painter from Costa Rica was Francisco Amighetti, whose work can be seen below. He was born in 1907, and died in 1998 at the age of ninety-one. With the work of Amighetti, you won't find any colorful birds of the jungle nor blooming Birds of Paradise. As seen in his watercolor (below), Amighetti was a landscape painter, a man of the people, recording the day-by-day drudgery endured by the vast majority of Costa Ricans as they struggle to eke out a living in what is still a fairly crude, agricultural economy choking on dense jungles which are only rarely high-lighted with the local flora and fauna seen in the nation's tourist oriented art. Historically, the painter Aleardo Villa, with his Founding of San Jose, Costa Rica (bottom), would probably be considered the country's most revered artist.

Francisco Amighetti, the real Costa Rica
--beautiful but not "pretty."
Founding of San Jose, Costa Rica, Aleardo Villa,
on the ceiling of the National Theater


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