I’m just back from a week in Santiago, the capital of Chile. The third time I’ve been there, but the first two were just before Pinochet stepped down as President in 1990, and just after – that’s quite a while ago now.
Santiago is a completely modern city, not much trace of the historic past. And Chile in any case very different from Mexico, or Peru or even Colombia, where one is constantly aware both of the echoes of ancient empires, those of the Aztecs and the Incas, and also those of the Spanish Colonial past. The centre of the city now looks like the set for a Science Fiction movie – one where the build-bots are currently hard at work, with lots of scaffolding going up.
The Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts is a bit more traditional than that. It looks like a clone of the Petit Palais in Paris. One of the mosaic roundels high up on the façade is supposed to be a portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, in the company of similar roundels portraying the likes of Raphael and Titian, but I couldn’t identify it before my companions swept me through the doors. It was put up in 1985 when Rauschenberg had a big show in the museum.
The paintings exhibited then were from the Copperheads series, in which, so Wikipedia tells one, “Rauschenberg silkscreened his own photographs on to cupper supports and used tarnishing agents to produce sombre hues. The use of copper was meant as a sign of solidarity with the Chilean people.”
If this means what I think it means, Pinochet, then still firmly in power, can’t have been too pleased. But perhaps, as a professional military man, he didn’t pay much attention to subtly subversive art, even when it was displayed in such a prominent location.
When I visited, the main entry hall or atrium was filled with great wood and canvas constructions resembling sails, as it a complete clipper ship had somehow got itself stranded there. This made quite a spectacular installation, but it was what lay beyond, in a series of upper galleries, that provided the real set of surprises.
First, a real Caravaggio, the famous homoerotic St John the Baptist borrowed from the Capitoline Museum in Rome – perhaps a more famous example of the artist’s work than any of the six paintings by Caravaggio now in view in the Caravaggio and Caravaggisti show at our own National Gallery here in London.
Then, continuing the homoerotic theme, a grand display of homoerotic art by local Chilean artists. This anticipates the Queer British Art (1861-1967) show due to open at Tate Britain on April 5th, 2017. Some of these paintings, notably a grandiose series by an artist called José Pedro Godoy, far outstrip in daring and grandiosity anything I expect to see in the upcoming Queer Art show at the Tate. Here, as elsewhere, distant Chile is ahead of the game.