Elena Izcue. Peruvian, 1889-1970. El Arte Peruano en la Escuela (detail), 1926. Rare Book Collection. Denver Art Museum Library.

Historical Revivalisms in Latin America

Elena Izcue. Peruvian, 1889-1970. El Arte Peruano en la Escuela (detail), 1926. Rare Book Collection. Denver Art Museum Library.

In the aftermath of World War I in the 1920s, artists and designers in Latin America initiated a return to local visual cultural traditions, eschewing foreign artistic models—chiefly European— in favor of ancient and colonial artistic repertoires. The holdings of the Denver Art Museum include a distinguished group of artworks reflecting this critical change in the region's visual culture during this pivotal moment. This blog, the first of a series, aims to bring to the public insights on some key artworks from the collection that showcase the dynamics of change and renovation by the hand of artists that, from the 1920s to today, departed from past artistic legacies in exchange for creating original modern visual identities unique to the Americas.

This change in the arts of Latin America in the 1920s roughly coincided with the commemoration of the centenary of the independence from Spain of many nations. These celebrations sparked a reassessment of national identities. It was a time of significant political, intellectual, and economic transformation across the region. For example, in the 1920s, Mexico enjoyed a period of artistic change fueled by ideas of liberty and democracy after the triumph of the revolution. The renovation in the arts that resulted from the political transformation in Mexico had a tremendous resonance across the region, inspiring, or reaffirming, individual and collective aspirations for renewal in the artistic world. Issues of national and local identity became a central concern among generations of younger artists that sought to find a place in the changing cultural landscape of the period.

Ancient and Indigenous art traditions revisited

It is during this period when we see a shift in the perception of the Indigenous populations and ancestral cultures. Until the early 1900s, the image of the peoples of Native descent was somewhat negative and generally associated with European narratives of fallen pre-conquest empires redeemed by the "enlightenment" and "civilization," brought by the conquerors and their descendants. However, starting in the late 1910s, we saw across Latin America the surge of the Indigenismo, a political and cultural movement mostly comprised of urban mixed-race intellectuals and artists who sought to vindicate Indigenous rights, as well as their cultural and linguistic inheritances as key elements in the construction of modern national identities. At the same time, modern archaeology studies carried on the various cultures of the ancient Americas and resulted in the emergence of public interest and appreciation for the cultural legacies of the civilizations that predated the arrival of the Europeans. Influenced by this cultural change, Latin American artists, architects, and designers drew on an idealized historical past to create new and hybrid cultural identities that were associated with concepts of national pride, while also attempting to shift national history away from the European cultural narratives.

Art and design for daily life

From the 1920s to the 1950s, Latin America was rapidly modernizing, and the art scene of many cities was often cosmopolitan and innovative. Government projects promoted cultural and artisanal traditions in an attempt to develop strong local economies. In addition to the fine arts, textile and fashion design offered unique spaces for experimentation, mostly because artists and designers from the period were interested in creating works that connected ancient artistic traditions with modern ones, and at the same time opened up new possibilities for elevating the quality of life during this social and political transformation. This creative environment attracted intellectuals and artists, such as the individuals presented in this series. They were transformed by what they learned from the past, drawing inspiration from ancient lifestyles and artistic practices, including the patterns and designs of ancient indigenous textiles, the geometries of rediscovered cities and buildings, and the rich expressions found in millennia of craft traditions.

Elena Izcue (1889–1970)

Born in Lima, Peru, and trained as an art teacher and painter, in the late 1910s Elena Izcue became interested in the cultures of ancient Peru. In 1921, together with her twin sister Victoria, on the occasion of the Centenary of the Independence of Peru in 1921, they designed an "Inka room" in the National Museum. The way that the Izcue sisters presented the final furnished room to the public demonstrated the possibilities of ancient Peruvian motifs applied to a modern life. Elena Izcue also saw the art from ancient Peru art as a pedagogical tool. In 1926, with the support of the philanthropist and collector Rafael Larco Herrera, Izcue published in Paris a two-volume set entitled El arte peruano en la escuela (Peruvian Art in the School), which was a pattern book with ancient Peruvian motifs meant to be used for artistic instruction (figs. 1-2 shown above and fig. 3 below, left). Imbued in nationalistic ideas, the publication offered local models for stimulating children’s creativity.

In 1927, encouraged by the success of the book, both Izcue sisters moved to Paris to complete their education. They studied printmaking and graphic arts with Andrée Karpelès de Högman, Fernand Leger, Marcel Gromaire, and Jean Darua. In Paris, Elena saw an opportunity to continue her research on the application of ancient Peruvian art in modern life and fashion. From 1928 to 1938, she set up a small workshop that produced hand-printed textiles, garments, and decorative objects with ancient inspired motifs (fig. 4 below, right).

Izcue found her own path in the fashion industry in Paris and New York. The fashion designer Jean-Charles Worth, who by then was the head of The House of Worth, became one of the main clients and promoters of her work. She also collaborated with other fashion designers such as Edward Molyneux and Elsa Schiaparelli. Izcue also exhibited and retailed her work in New York City through Saks & Company and Henri Bendel.

In addition to working on textiles, the Izcue sisters played a key role in organizing the Peruvian pavilions for the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris, and the 1939–40 New York World's Fair where they collaborated with Reynaldo Luza y Argaluza.