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Arts and Literature in Chile

Chile has a remarkable record of artistic and literary achievement considering its relatively small population. Social and political circumstances have had a strong impact on Chilean society and culture inspiring groups of artists to protest against policies of the regime and rousing strong emotions which translated into works of art and cultural achievement in different fields. Art in Chile works as a reflection that safeguards the cultural heritage of the country.

The conquest of Chile by the Spanish and the immigration of Europeans brought new artistic forms to Chile, all of which followed classic European styles. These artistic expressions were influenced by the local culture, especially folk arts and crafts as the Mapuche were skilled crafters.

Fine arts

Chile’s churches and cathedrals are the expression of early Chilean art with European influence. In the early eighteenth century many well-known painters who worked in Chile came from other nations such as Raimundo Monvoicin  and Jose Gil de Castro. In 1849 the creation of the Chilean Academy of Painting as part of a new art school in the University of Chile cultivated a new generation of local painters. Many of them lived and worked abroad for long periods of time, one of them is Roberto Matta (1911-2002), probably the most internationally known Chilean artist. He used surrealist and abstract techniques in his work.

Other artists who achieved notoriety in the field are Nemesio Antunez (1918-1993) a painter and an engraver who promoted art in Chile. He founded the famous Workshop 99 and served as director of the National Museum of fine Arts. Carlos Sotomayor (1911-1988) is considered one of the leaders of neocubism from South America. Camino Mori Serrano (1896-1973) was the founder of the Group Montparnasse. Claudio Bravo (1936-2011) was a hyperrealist who lived and worked in Morocco since 1972.

Local Indian art is part of Chile’s cultural heritage. Found in markets and sold as souvenirs we can find pieces of lapis lazuli jewelry, colorful cotton and wool textiles and skillfully handcrafted baskets.  One example of a piece of folk art that has a powerful meaning in Chilean culture is a type of tapestry known as arpillera. Arpilleras are decorative wall pieces made of burlap or other coarsely woven fabric such as sackcloth. During the Pinochet regime, women whose relatives disappeared or were jailed gathered to make arpilleras to protest against the regimes policies. These pieces of cloth tell the story of the lives of women in Chile.

Many disappeared during the Pinochet regime, the mother is asking Where are they?

The most prominent sculpture in Chile is displayed outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago. Its author is Rebeca Matte and the sculpture is called “Icarus and Daedalus”. The original sculpture was commissioned by the government of Chile as a gift to the Brazilian government, it can be found in a park in Rio de Janeiro. The bronze copy of the statue is located in front of the main entrance of the museum and in its base it reads  “Unidos en Gloria y Muerte” which translates to “United in Glory and Death”. Another internationally known sculptor of the twentieth century is Marta Colvin who had her work exhibited in countries around the world.

“Icarus and Daedalus” at the main entrance  of the Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago


It is generally accepted that Chilean literature began with Alonso de Ercilla y Zuñiga, a Spanish conquistador who arrived in Chile in 1557. He wrote an epic poem, La Araucana published in three parts in 1569, 1578 and 1589. La Araucana is a major part of Chile’s cultural heritage depicting the heroism and bravery of both the Spanish and the American Indian, two distinct cultures that molded a new nation. Even though Ercilla y Zuñiga was fighting the Mapuches he recognized and appreciated their bravery and strength.

The 20th century saw the development of four remarkable writers: Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) who was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1945, Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948), Pablo de Rokha (1894-1968) and Pablo Neruda, who was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1971.

By mid 20th century there was another generation of fine Chilean writers, among them:  Jose Donoso (1924-1966), Jorge Edwards, Gonzalo Rojas, Isabel Allende, Antoni Skármeta and Ariel Dorfman.

Gabriela Mistral

The twentieth century was marked by extraordinary literary achievement. In 1945 Gabriela Mistral became the first Latin American woman and the first Chilean to win the prize. Gabriela Mistral was the pseudonym of Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, she was an elementary and high school teacher for many years until her poetry made her famous. Sonetos de la muerte (1914) are love poems in memory of the dead which made her famous as a poet in the continent. Her collection of poems, Desolacion was published in 1922, two years later in 1924 it was Ternura and in 1938 Tala. The subjects in Ternura and Tala were childhood and maternity themes.  Gabriela Mistral was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world”.

Gabriela Mistral receiving Nobel Prize of Literature from King Christian X of Denmark

Pablo Neruda

In 1971 another Chilean, Pablo Neruda, won the Nobel Prize in literature. Born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Pablo neruda started writing at a young age. In 1923 at age 18 he published Crepusculario and the following year Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada – Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which was notorious for its eroticism. In 1926 he published Tentativa del Hombre Infinito – The Trying of Infinite Man and Tentativa y su Esperanza. The following year in 1927 he started his political career when he was offered an assignment as honorary consul in Burma, now Myanmar. Neruda experimented with many literary forms and later wrote about social and economic injustice he witnessed traveling the world. His production is exceptionally extensive. Because of his unique style he was recognized with the highest award in literature.

Poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda

Isabel Allende

Throughout the twentieth century politics played an important role in Chilean literature. Isabel Allende, niece of Salvador Allende, became known after the publication in 1982 of La Casa de los Espiritus – The House of Spirits which deals with political and social conditions in pre and post military coup in Chile. De Amor y de Sombra – Of Love and Shadows deal with political violence under the Pinochet regime. Later Allende moved away from political themes and her experiences in her native country. Among her works are Paula, Hija de la Fortuna – Daughter of Fortune and the latest one El Cuaderno de Maya.  Her novels and short stories are noted for their powerful and dramatic story telling from a feminine point of view, it also depicts romance and female struggle in a male dominated world.

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