A Dream Lives On

Mike Newton Sep 28, 2013

"¡CHILE VIVE!, Historical Posters from the Popular Unity Government (1970-73)"
El Taller Latino Americano
Through November 2

And just like that, a whole museum disappeared. Facing a dearth of international media coverage, Chile’s leftist Popular Unity government — led by President Salvador Allende during its short life in the early 1970s — invited artists and intellectuals to come and show their support. Many did: unveiled in 1972, the Museo de la Solidaridad Chile featured work by hundreds of artists from around the world, including heavyweights like Joan Miró, Victor Vasarely and Lygia Clark. Then, after 1973, the art was boxed up and hidden away.

Allende’s electoral win in September 1970 represented a victory for peaceful, democratic and constitutional socialism: an existential threat to the “domino theory” mindset of the United States, and to the common, Cold War aphorism that leftist governments could only ever be born out of violence. In other words, Allende had enemies. On September 11, 1973, a military-led (and U.S.-backed) coup d’état put General Augusto Pinochet in charge, inaugurating a right-wing dictatorship that lasted 17 years. Dissidents were “disappeared,” leftist political parties were outlawed, books were burned and, yes, art was destroyed. Under Pinochet, not only were revolutionary murals and monuments demolished, but even the smaller things, the printed ephemera — posters and publications from the Allende years — became something illicit. Those bright, eye-pleasing graphics were too dangerous to be caught with.

Indeed, the posters on view in “¡CHILE VIVE!, Historical Posters from the Popular Unity Government (1970-73)” probably wouldn’t have survived in Pinochet’s Chile. Co-curator Carol Smith, who lived in Chile in the early 1970s, mailed the posters out of the country before the coup took place, and has held on to them for over 40 years as commemoration of an important historical moment (and an important time in her own life, too). As an historical record, the show gives just a glimpse — but a revealing one, at that — of something huge: a culture-wide movement.

There’s a poster for the Museo de la Solidaridad Chile, with a lovely Miró painting, and a poster featuring a catchy, simple woodcut illustration of birds perched above bold, pink type: “Graphics of the Residents of the Granja District.” The Popular Unity government organized neighborhood cultural centers where locals were encouraged to create visual and performance art, and publications; this poster was promoting an exhibit of such work at a major Chilean museum.

On another poster, a dramatically-posed, heavily-shadowed dance troupe appears beneath crimson block letters: “Art is Born from the People.” The poster was made for the occasion of a major performance of Luis Advis Vitaglich’s Santa María de Iquique, cantata popular — a musical piece concerning an infamous 1907 massacre of Chilean miners. Such performances were meant to be accessible to ordinary people: they weren’t just about copper miners, but for them, too. These works reflect the importance of artistic and cultural participation in the Allende era. In her book Marketing Democracy: Power and Social Movements in Post-Dictatorship Chile, Julia Paley quotes a community activist who came of age during the Popular Unity period: “There was a different sense of participation that we lived [then]. It was what we thought, what the neighbors thought, what the child thought, everyone was important in this process.”

The imagery in this exhibit hints at some of the broader trends in the graphic arts of the time. Some of this work has the sort of hard-edged, ink-stained brazenness often associated with protest imagery (a raised fist, a red star, that photo of Che), but some of it is also just really cute. A poster promoting voluntary work brigades shows two adorable, brightly-colored birds building a nest together. A poster to celebrate the nationalization of the country’s copper mines shows a wide-eyed, smiling cartoon kid waving a Chilean flag. These posters, presumably, were not just out to appeal to scrappy activists and idealists — they were meant to communicate the merits of socialist policy to a dubious middle class.

Quoted recently by the Associated Press, director of Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights Ricardo Brodsky said that “to Chilean society today, the greatest legacy of Pinochet remains the human rights violations, the disappeared and the dead.” And while those killed under Pinochet can’t be brought back to life, since the end of the military dictatorship there’s been an effort to reverse, at the least, cultural disappearances. In 1991, the contents of the Museo de la Solidaridad were taken out of the basement of the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of Chile, where they had been in storage for years, and put again on public display. In 2008, restoration was completed on a pro-Allende mural that the dictatorship had tried to destroy with 16 coats of paint, Roberto Matta’s The First Goal of the Chilean People. And in the last few years, Chile has seen huge waves of protest, with tens of thousands of students demanding a more equitable educational system and many young demonstrators holding signs that read “Salvador Allende.”

Walls get smashed and governments topple, but — as this exhibit attests to — art, ideas and culture have tricky ways of surviving their own destruction, so long as they persist in some sort of collective memory, so long as they’re not forgotten.

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