By José María Palacios

Art Critic

Occasionally I used to see him in a café in Bandera Street, a retired employee of Chilean Railways. Reserved, with a distant air, no bourgeois would have suspected that he was an artist, particularly a modern one. However, this unassuming artist inspired the critic Antonio Romera to write about him: ‘Perhaps, in the entire history of Chilean painting, there isn’t a clearer example of dedication to artistic creativity for its own sake.’

Carlos Sotomayor was born in La Serena (Chile) in 1911. As a teenager he had already begun to show imaginative talent. At 14, he took part in a poster competition for the Spring Festival, encouraged by his father. Shortly after this, he began to study architecture and it was during this period that he met the painter and sculptor Laura Rodig, already successful in Europe. He worked with her, and exhibited for the first time with Pedro Olmos. The exhibition was well received and in 1923 he decided to study at the College of Art where he met Jorge Caballero and Hernán Gazmuri, the latter a very solitary and audacious artist like himself with whom he nurtured a close friendship. The same occurred with the writer and poet Teófilo Cid, great satirist of life and its profiteers. Sotomayor would partly join him through his paintings, accentuating at times the incidents of everyday life with unusual violence. The friendship between these three artists was close, and they often met in the same café, talking for hours on end.

An excellent draughtsman, capable of both, the graceful and the vigorous as a classic artist, Carlos Sotomayor could have settled for a style of painting which would have brought him instant commercial success. With his ability to draw in detail, he could also have diversified into engraving, but his instinct was pictorial and oil painting remained his chosen means of expression. As a result, in 1934 he joined the Grupo Decembrista, a neocubist group led by the poet Vicente Huidobro, one of his most fervent admirers, who revealed his enthusiasm for Sotomayor’s work in the magazine PRO published in the same year.

Curiously, it was the writers of the avant-garde who were the first to recognise Sotomayor’s genius. E. Anguita, who won the 1988 Writer of the Year Award, Julio Molina and Guillermo Atías were among his most significant apologists, praising him as a painter who did not confine his work to the replication of reality, or to conventional romanticism. Relying on the solid architecture of his drawings, Sotomayor transformed reality to amplify the real, in the quest for more sensitive communication through a highly personal, expressive medium. His work conveys a sense of distance and isolation from the majority, but retains an underlying tenderness beneath the surface of violent imagery.

He remains an enigma, a solitary figure, praised by few and still unknown to most. He did not receive many official accolades, nor did they interest him. Reserved, retiring, talking only with his friends, he preferred to confront his own solutions. Always sensitive to current events, the initial figurativeness suddenly reemerged in his work, but not as a final phase of his expression, only as the rebelliousness of a clean spirit. It is for this reason that, although efforts were made to classify it, Sotomayor’s work admits no labels. Picasso may be in the background, but it is the restlessness and the creative independence which lay at the source of Picasso’s work which has been the indirect influence on Sotomayor’s painting, rather than any particular stylistic feature.

The poet E. Anguita goes as far as saying that Sotomayor’s painting is like the image of a “restless idea”, a definition which the critic Romera elaborates on, underlying it as “a certain restlessness or agitation of the spirit.’ It is what one would expect from an artist who from the early hours was already working in his studio.

I met him occasionally in the café he used to frequent in Bandera Street, and talked to him. His modesty always puzzled me. Many young artists think they have originality and vision, and yet it is easy to see that their work actually fits into a particular genre or conforms to particular expectations.

Carlos Sotomayor was indeed a great artist and most people don’t know it. What is worse, perhaps they never will. Many critics remained ignorant of his painting or weren’t interested because he was no longer young. Young? What do we understand by young today? I fear some associated him with the stupidity of indiscriminate audacity.

And it is because Sotomayor showed discriminate audacity that I extol his work, one in which, as Romera well noted, you have “the clearest example of dedication to artistic creativity for its own sake”. It is something that many young artists of today know nothing of. And it is for this reason that they will never be able to reach the heights of Carlos Sotomayor. He was a pure artist, originality in our pictorial history, whose personality was able to feed itself on silence and distance from the majority.

At the age of 77 he was working as in his younger days and was thinking of putting on an exhibition, but his heart failed him and he left us, quiet and humble, as he was in life. It is therefore fitting, at least as a posthumous tribute, to organize a retrospective profile of his work so that the young artists of today and some critics can, even at this late stage, appreciate that Sotomayor’s work is indeed unique in the history of Chilean painting.

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