Regarded as an integral figure in the twentieth-century history of Argentinean art, Gertrudis Chale (1898-1954) was part of what the art critic Romualdo Brughetti calls the Generation of 1939-40—a group identified by an important exhibition of their work in Buenos Aires galleries in 1958. Among a larger group of fifty artists, a small circle of artists stood out. This circle most notably included Juan Carlos Castagnino (1908-1972), the surrealist Juan Batlle Planas (1911-1966), Luis Seoane (1910-1979), Miguel Diomede (1902-1974), and Chale. 1

According to Brughetti, Chale represented within this group one of the most fervent desires to investigate and represent the reality of the South American figure and landscape. 2 Her landscapes and figurative works in oil and tempera, bearing elements of expressionism and the surreal, addressed the tension between the timelessness and enormity of the Andean world and the modern reality of the indio in South American urban and rural cultures.

Her complicated identity as a European émigré to South America was integral to her evolution as an artist. But her early demise in a plane crash in 1954 cut short her burgeoning career as a painter of national and international reputation and left many questions about her personal history and artistic motivations unanswered. The little that has been written about Chale has come from art critics who were fortunate enough to have known her in Argentina. But fragments of her writings and travel diaries that have recently resurfaced offer new insights; 3 and the synthesis of Chale's own reflections with the critical assessments and personal recollections of her contemporaries offers a more textured picture of the artist's life and work.

Born in Vienna in 1898, Gertrudis Chale grew up in the artistic and cultural ferment of the Viennese fin de siècle. While little is known of her early childhood and education, the art critic and friend of Chale, Mauricio Neuman, writes that she “dreamed at sixteen” of attending Vienna's School of Arts and Crafts. After graduating from the prestigious school, she traveled to Munich and Geneva to continue her formal training as an artist. 4“In Munich I enrolled in the school of Heimann,” Chale wrote. “In Geneva I took classes in plastic anatomy and dedicated myself to painting women, either nude or half-dressed in something frivolous, and still lifes. There they painted under the sign of Cézanne.” Her description suggests dissatisfaction with her early subject matter and a search for artistic identity. Chale's claim that she arrived in Germany and Switzerland more drawn to theater and variété than to painting would seem to confirm the ambiguity of her feelings about her work in those years. 5

Yet through her innate talent and her formal training, she attained undeniable technical mastery. The first exhibit of her work was in Geneva, and she also began to work in the decorative arts and commercial design there. Her success in advertising took her to Paris, where she worked for several major firms. Chale found herself "reborn" in Paris, discovering architecture and history as well as the city's artistic milieu, including the work of Picasso, Braque and Dufy. She also got married, to a Frenchman with South American roots. Inspired by the cultural and artistic vitality of Paris at the end of the 1920s and impressed by its history and physical beauty, Chale swore she would stay there for the rest of her life.6

Yet other lands soon beckoned. Chale's writings make clear that her migrations through Europe were a product not solely of her formation as an artist but also a deeply felt wanderlust, a constant desire to discover new environments. “I am a nomad,” she insisted. “I always look ahead and feel that I have many lives and landscapes to live and embrace.” She left France for Spain, where she was invited to work as an artistic collaborator for an important fashion house. 7 In Spain she experienced an artistic 4 epiphany. Living for a year on the islands of Mallorca and Ibiza, Chale discovered the stark beauty of the Mediterranean landscape and the rural inhabitants of the Baleares. “There the landscape revealed itself to me for the first time as something paintable. The trees there were scarce, I discovered the beauty of brown and ochre tones—the profundity of the sky, the architecture and rhythm of a landscape. And more: the human figure of the ibizeño, the beautiful women exotically dressed, gave me…color and light atop the sober background of dazzling, African clay.” 8

Chale's artistic sensibilities were even more profoundly affected by her travels in peninsular Spain. Here she encountered climatic extremes, the Guadarrama mountains and the vast open plains of the Castilian interior. “I traveled all or almost all of Spain,” she wrote, “and I felt reborn a third time. The ampleness of the landscape, its austerity, found a deep resonance in me. I felt an exaltation until then unknown, an inebriation of space and of light—I felt a strange liberty in those arid pathways of Castile.” 9 Chale also lived in Madrid for over a year, and her growing fascination with landscape was fed by many hours in the Prado's Spanish and Flemish collections, contemplating not only the work of Goya and Velazquez, but also the haunting landscapes of Brueghel and Patinir. Her writings suggest that it was in Spain that she devoted herself fully to painting, improvising new professions that allowed her to earn enough to continue to paint and travel.

The vicissitudes of war sent Chale and her husband to South America in 1934. Chale attributed the decision to cross the Atlantic that year to the violence and instability that was quickly escalating toward the Spanish Civil War—she decided to leave when a bomb exploded in the church next door to her apartment.10 Mauricio Neuman explains that Chale was not only fleeing Fascism in Spain but also the Fascism that was gaining force throughout Europe. The artist felt herself not simply a nomad but an exile: she was an artist, an intellectual, and a Jew irrevocably distanced from the Europe of her birth by its oppressive transformation under Hitler. Chale's intense identification with the American continent and its indigenous peoples, Neuman insists, stemmed from a shared sense of loss and exile. Like her, they were fugitives of a holocaust. 11

But her emigration was also clearly motivated by her experience in Spain and desire to journey further, to Spanish America. Earlier influences may have played a part in the attraction as well: the South American origins of her husband, and her memory of her father as a man who “dreamed of the Pampa.” It seems evident that Chale chose to make Argentina her home not only because of external political circumstances, but also in response to deeper questions of personal identity.

Whatever political or personal circumstances motivated Chale to emigrate to Argentina, once there she became part of a group of artists and intellectuals in which both European exiles and Buenos Aires natives were well represented. Mauricio Neuman met Chale in the early 1940s. He saw her frequently at the parties hosted by the avant-garde poet Oliverio Girondo and his wife, writer Norah Lange. 12 Lange was a childhood friend of Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote the prologue to her 1924 work La calle de la tarde, and with whom she founded the journal Proa in 1922. Girondo and Borges also collaborated, creating the famous journal Martín Fierro. Lange and Girondo were famous for their parties, which were attended by the cultural elite of Buenos Aires, including literati such as Borges, Neruda, Lorca, González Tuñón, Conrado Nalé Roxlo, and Olga Orozco, and artists such as Rafael Alberti, Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola.

Neuman also attended Chale's parties, where he met the artists Carl Meffert and Clément Moreau, the orchestra director Carlos Böhm, and other Buenos Aires natives and European exiles who comprised the city's cultural elite. 13 Chale's circle seems to have been typical of South American urban culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The cultural and social life of most South American cities was historically defined by its emulation of European culture (a phenomenon made physically evident by the Hausmannization of cities like Buenos Aires).

Chale was critical of the American phenomenon of “looking to Europe,” sharing in the growing desire among her American peers to turn their intellectual focus to autochthonous and indigenous cultural forms. She immersed herself in the native artistic movements of Buenos Aires, and her impeccable mastery of Spanish was another sign of her desire to integrate herself fully into a life that was authentically “American.” This was not to say that she renounced her European origins, but she considered them a part of her past, inconsequential to her ability to embrace a new patria. In fact, she considered her European identity an advantage, claiming that to recognize as an artist that which is distinctively American, “one must know that which is not American.”

This duality of identities was mirrored in her early work in Argentina. Her paintings and drawings explored the suburbs as a liminal space, between two worlds: the urban and the Pampa. Chale resided in this ambiguous space: when she arrived in Buenos Aires she moved to the suburb of Quilmes, a neighborhood at the city's edge, “where the suburbs opened onto the country and the Río de la Plata.” 14 Both Neuman and his compatriot Brughetti emphasize the significance of Quilmes' suburban landscape and its inhabitants in defining Chale's work in that period.

The artist's own words suggest that her interest in urban/suburban boundaries existed even before she arrived in Buenos Aires. Describing her stay in Madrid, she claimed, “I lived for 15 months in the neighborhood of the Puerta del Sol before I discovered the modern city of grand avenues.” 15In Buenos Aires, Chale discovered the “country” before interning herself in the city, according to Brughetti. “In Quilmes she felt the mud and the rain and the zinc houses invaded by the floodtides of the Plata.” 16 For Neuman too, this early Argentinean work “reflects suburban environments and evokes a primitive urbanity at the fringes of the suburban landscape.” 17

The work of this first period, according to Neuman, “is more rationalist and colorful than that of the second period, in which the immensity of the Andean world is her main preoccupation.” This evolution between periods came in the first decade of Chale's life in South America, as her interest in the landscape radiated outward. She began to travel extensively throughout Argentina, south to Patagonia and to the north where she discovered the Andean altiplano (high plains). “In this later period,” writes Neuman, “Chale abandons color for color's sake, in order to transcend her senses through a chromatism that vibrates with sound. The work is balanced, atemporal, with a surreal atmosphere. America [for Chale] was a telluric civilization.”18 Describing her own expanding vision, Chale wrote that

faced with a certain type of American landscape we are in environments of “discomposure.” The phenomenal world here adjoins and even juxtaposes with arbitrary creation. In painting such an environment, I try to insinuate something of its physical size: the vastness, the immensity, the unusualness. Instead of filling my canvases, I empty them, leaving only that which is most significant. I hate the decorative “motive.” Where I find the starkest landscapes, the pampa and the puna, I locate their most outstanding aesthetic qualities. Yves Tanguy, in his abstract representations painted, without realizing it, landscapes of this kind. 19

Having explored the northern altiplano of Argentina—“I had breathed its air that gives such a particular mental clarity and extraordinary euphoria, I had seen the marvelous colors of these highlands, the diaphanousness of their air, the architecture of their grandiose landscapes, and the peoples who animate them”20 —Chale felt an “irrepressible urge” to continue her journey even further north. In April 1945, the artist began a journey of more than eighteen months through Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.21 The trip quickly took on a broader goal than a quest for new landscapes, and would prove seminal to Chale's conception of her project as a South American artist.

As she prepared to leave Argentina, Chale was urged by her friend Oscar Cerruto, then the cultural attaché to the Bolivian Embassy in Buenos Aires, to take some of her canvases to show in La Paz. “Though immensely inconvenient in material terms,” she wrote, “the suggestion gave a deeper meaning to my trip, to carry an artistic message from our country to our neighbors.” She quickly fixed upon the idea of taking not only her own work but also the work of fellow artists. Juan Carlos Castagnino, enthusiastic about the project of “vinculación artística” (artistic connection), put a collection of his watercolors and drawings at Chale's disposal, as did Clément Moreau. Chale also took a series of photos by Horacio Coppola and Grete Stern of huacos (Andean religious artifacts) from the Museo de la Plata, which had been recently published in Buenos Aires. 22

Other friends well-connected with government and cultural institutions and artists in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador armed Chale with letters of introduction, arranged meetings and facilitated shows, and Chale soon found herself on an official tour. She spent several weeks in La Paz, where Cecilio Guzmán de Rojas, the Bolivian painter and ex-director of the School of Fine Arts, helped her organize a large show that included not only the work she brought with her from Argentina, but a number of tempera works that she made during her stay in Bolivia. She mounted similar shows in Lima at the Peruvian-North American Cultural Institute and in Quito at the Museo Colonial. The documents and news clippings that Chale collected during her trip attest to the critical and public interest the shows generated, and she herself wrote with excitement and satisfaction of the unanimously enthusiastic reception she received from the artistic and intellectual communities in those cities.

Chale placed great emphasis on the numerous professional and personal connections she made with respected artists, writers and journalists. Perhaps most influential was her contact with the Peruvian indigenist painter José Sabogal and his students. This grupo indigenista represented a vital and significant artistic movement in early to mid-twentieth century Peru. Their work focused on the rural landscape and inhabitants of the Andean world, and they were intensely interested in the continuity of pre-colonial and colonial tradition within popular art and artisanship.23 Chale felt a deep respect for and kinship to their project, which resonated with her own vision as an American artist.

Chale spent a month in Cuzco, where Sabogal, former director of the School of Fine Arts in Lima and the director of the newly founded Museum of Popular Arts of the Institute of Peruvian Art, introduced her to the rich artistic and indigenous culture of the city. The two were inseparable, according to Chale, touring Cuzco and neighboring Andean towns and discussing “problems of American art.” In Lima, Chale became particularly close to Sabogal disciple Julia Codesido, whose house “became a real home” to her during her eight-month stay. Codesido's work was a revelation to Chale, “a concrete demonstration of how a real artist can take advantage of the marvelous source of inspiration these indoamerican lands offer, without falling into…the folkloric.”

Exposure to other artists grappling with Andean culture and environments was one of the most profound results of the trip for Chale, but just as profound was her exposure to the land and people themselves. She spent much of her time venturing from the cities into the country, riding perilous mountain roads in buses and trucks and spending significant periods in rural and largely indigenous communities where she participated in everyday life and local custom. She wrote of Ayacucho in central Peru, where she spent one Easter: “there I lived with deep emotion unforgettable images of the popular life and mysticism of the indio. I shared in their festivals on more than one occasion, staying with them, sometimes for five or six days at a time, dancing, drinking, and… drawing and photographing as much as I could, sometimes in the rain and the most intense cold.” The opportunity to immerse herself in the rural life of the Andes was transformative for Chale, and she considered these travels fundamental to her evolution as an artist:

No journey has been as rich in every kind of experience as those I made by truck, often surrounded by indigenous people. Voyages on roads sometimes frighteningly bad, or no road at all, traveling along the edges of rivers barely marked by a track, but always immensely interesting, stimulating for what there was to be seen and simply by the contact with the reality of the people. I believe that it should be an obligation for every artist to deliberately impose such experience upon him/herself and realize it at any cost.

At the same time, Chale was sensitive to the dangers of folklorism and romanticism in her depictions of indigenous culture. Brughetti writes that “for her virtues as an illustrator, a painter, an observer, Gertrudis Chale might be placed in the lineage of travel artists who made evident the Argentinean and American reality in the nineteenth century.” Yet he insists upon an important distinction: “there are no romantic traces or naturalist pressures in her. With metaphysical accents and expressionist characteristics, when not at times ingenuist, she allied the visual with the plastic, apart from the excesses of realism and abstract simplifications, infusing in her forms and colors a breath of telluric existence.”24

Even after Chale's return to Argentina in 1946, her project of “vinculación artística” continued. Replicating the idea behind her shows abroad, Chale brought back work by José Sabogal and the Ecuadorian artist Jorge Kingmann to exhibit in Buenos Aires along with the work she produced during her trip. She also published essays on her travel and the art she saw in other parts of South America in magazines and journals, and she planned to write a book on South American artistic movements. 25 Among her notes is also a detailed proposal for a journal to be called Vínculo, an “indoamerican journal (with its back to Europe),” whose mission was the cultural connection of American countries and the representation of their particular “human, intellectual, artistic, topographic and sociopolitical aspects and values.”

Chale continued to travel and exhibit in other countries, including Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay, and critical acclaim of her work continued to grow. In 1948 she obtained the First Prize in Painting from the Society of Watercolorists and Engravers and First Prize in Drawing in 1951, and she was invited to exhibit her work in the prestigious São Paulo Museum of Art.26 During those years she was also increasingly consumed by her friendship and collaboration with another rising group of artists: the Brazilian artist Carybé, Luis Preti, Carlos Lugo, and Raúl Brié. The five of them shared a love of the northern altiplano, and spent time living and working together in the province of Salta, generating a vital artistic community of their own there in the early 1950s.

Chale also became part of a nascent muralist movement in Buenos Aires. Inspired by the work of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who came to work and teach in Argentina in the 1930s, a group of artists led by Lino Spilimbergo and Castagnino founded the Taller (Studio) de Arte Mural, and in 1946 began a collaborative project of mural works in prominent Buenos Aires commercial and architectural spaces.27 In 1954, Chale was invited to paint a cupola of the Galería Santa Fe, her work joining those of several other artists including Batlle Planas and Seoane.

Her mural in the Galería Santa Fé was her last major work before her death in 1954. She died in a plane crash on April 23 in the Sierra de Vilgo, a province of La Rioja in northeastern Argentina, while returning from Mendoza to Buenos Aires.28 Beyond his overwhelming sense of sadness and loss upon learning of Chale's tragic death, Mauricio Neuman recalls thinking that the “immensity of the Andes, the center and backbone of the continent, was a fitting resting place” for the artist.29 Chale wrote in 1945 of her awe and wonder as she flew to Lima: “a memorable trip, for I made it with a map on my knees, and lived concretely the reality of the Peruvian coastline, just as I had dreamed it when I traced the map with my finger.” She painted some of the memorable views from those plane trips30 , which she clearly appreciated as another way to visually experience the South American continent. It does seem appropriate that she was afforded a final opportunity to take in that vast landscape, and that her life ended dramatically in the altiplano which had become her home.


© Copyright 2002 Julianne Gilland. All rights reserved.
Julianne Gilland has a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Berkeley.