Heroes of the Revolution

Cecilia Vicuña, Karl Marx, 1972
Oil on canvas, 36.25 x 28.25 in.
Courtesy Gallery & Co. and the artist 

Queering the orthodox figures of politics has been one of the most powerful devices in questioning the heteronormative social construction of gender. The feminist Chilean poet and artist Cecilia Vicuña (Santiago de Chile, 1948) produced a remarkable series of paintings entitled Héroes de la Revolución (Heroes of the Revolution) (1972) in which she portrays some of the most important political figures of international and Latin American socialism: Karl Marx, Lenin, Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende, and Violeta Parra. In her paintings Vicuña parodies the rhetoric of the Marxist revolutionary hero by pointing on the one hand to the masculine lineage of socialism and on the other to the construction of a “revolutionary subject” which turns away from anything that might be associated with pleasure, subtlety, eroticism. Here follow Vicuña’s own words in regard to her first painting in this series, entitled Karl Marx (1972):

“ This is the first painting in the series “Heroes of the Revolution.”  In order to exalt Marx, I wanted to associate him with ideas that dogmaticians consider way removed from him, such as eroticism, poetics, blues, jazz and rock, female and homosexual liberation and that I consider intrinsic to the revolution.”[1]

In the mentioned painting Vicuña produces a queerized version of the father of Marxism, by replacing the military and revolutionary iconography with flower-wreaths and several androgynous or homosexual bodies dancing naked against a turquoise landscape filled with differently shaped trees.

 

Cecilia Vicuña, Fidel y Allende, 1972
Oil on canvas, 28.5 x 23 in.
Courtesy England & Co. and the artist 

Similarly, in another painting, Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban revolution is portrayed next to the Chilean President Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected socialist president in Latin-America. The double portrait suggests a sensual way of greeting that may as well be a courting game. Salvador Allende is shown shrouded in a pink veil and holding a turquoise butterfly in his hand. Fidel Castro is featured in a yellow suit and with pink-colored nails. According to the British curator Dawn Ades, the artist paints this picture the very day of Fidel Castro’s arrival in Chile. Ades also notes that in the initial painting Castro appears with one hand uncovered because originally the painting also showed his bare leg.  At the time this was questioned, so the artist was compelled to add pants.[2]

Vicuña’s paintings were an attempt to imagine a wider frame of political discussion of the Left’s thinking. The feminization or queerizing of president Salvador Allende and other socialist leaders was a call to reassess the limits of an ideological project that was not only exceedingly restrictive and hierarchical in regard to the role of women in that process of social transformation, but was also incapable of fully incorporating and recognizing other ways of desiring and experiencing sexuality and gender, which were part of the debate in the feminist and LGTB movements in Chile at the time. The queer historian Juan Pablo Sutherland, reminds us that the first public homosexual meeting, held at the Plaza de las Armas in Santiago de Chil during the first stage of the Unidad Popular government of Allende, was qualified by the leftist media as an act of “degradation and perversion.”[3]

It is also significant that at the occasion of the last exhibition of these paintings by Cecilia Vicuña at the Royal College of London in 1974, a British critic claimed that several of her works from that period could be considered “rubbish,” probably because of the almost childish and exaggerated strokes, far from any sophistication and much closer to popular iconography, 18th century religious baroque or amateur painting.[4] Her aesthetic proposal comes over as inadequate and unintelligible. According to the parameters of the British critic, the critical density of these pictures is incomprehensible. It is also revealing that following this comment in the press and also as a result of her exile in London –where she co-founds the Artists for Democracy movement– Vicuña decides to abandon forever the way she had been painting until then. Today, however, we can celebrate the audacity of these early paintings in which a beguiling combination of irreverence and humor presents us a more plural and dignified image of any Left political project that intends to be truly democratic.

Cecilia Vicuña, Violeta Parra, 1973
Oil on canvas, 22,75 x 19 in.
Courtesy England & Co. and the artist

 

[1] Artist’s working notes, 1972 Cecilia Vicuña’s archive

[2] Dawn Ades, “Cecilia Vicuña’s Calcomanias” London, May 2013. The artist narrates another telling anecdote : “When I painted Fidel and Allende (1972) in Chile, [the director] Nemesio Antúnez wanted to show it at the Fine Arts Museum, but at the last minute changed his mind and censored it not because he didn’t like but quite on the contrary. She told me: “I can’t show it because the right ferociously attack Fidel and Allende as fairies (meaning queers) and your paintings could be misinterpreted.” (personal correspondence with the artist 2014). The irony of the work and the way in which it represents the bodies was lost at that very moment and the painting was never exhibited in Chile, but in London in 1973 . The work has never been presented in Chhile

[3]  Juan Pablo Suhreland, Op. Cit. page 14

[4]  The comment by the British critic is quoted by Ades, op. cit. This exhibition was part of the Arts Festival for Democracy in Chile at the Royal College of Art. The exhibition in London at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in 1973 was individual and was entitled Pain, Things and Explanations.