Location: Bowdoin / Latin American Studies / activity / 2012 / An Interview with Michelle Greet, '93, By Allen Wells, Roger Howell, Jr. Professor of History

Latin American Studies

An Interview with Michelle Greet, '93, By Allen Wells, Roger Howell, Jr. Professor of History

Story posted July 10, 2012

Michelle Greet '93 is Associate Professor of Art History and affiliated faculty in Latin American Studies, Cultural Studies, and Honors at George Mason University.

Tell us about your new book project, Transatlantic Encounters:  Latin American Artists in Paris between the Wars.  How did you get interested in the topic?  Where do you see yourself making a contribution to the scholarship?  In what ways does this build on your past work on Andean Indigenous Art and in what ways is it a departure? 

Transatlantic Encounters:  Latin American Artists in Paris between the Wars actually combines two areas of interest of mine. Before attending Bowdoin, I was an AFS exchange student in Belgium, where I participated in an intensive French-language immersion program, lived with a wonderful family and attended a Belgian high school. At Bowdoin I continued studying French, but decided to start studying Spanish as well, which led to my junior year abroad in Ecuador and a major in Romance Languages. Thus, purely on a linguistic basis, the project is a perfect fit.

As for the specific topic, while studying Latin American art, I have often come across references to artists who partook of a period of study or travel abroad in Europe, usually in Paris. These references are usually part of a biography or chronological overview of an artist’s career, but never situated in the context of European avant-garde developments. When I started my research, I thought I might encounter 50-75 artists working in Paris between the wars. I already knew about several major figures who were there such as Diego Rivera and Wifredo Lam, but I had no idea just how extensive this presence would turn out to be. The following is an excerpt from my book prospectus that describes the scope and intensions of the project:

To date, through extensive archival research, I have identified nearly three hundred Latin American artists living and working in Paris between 1918 and 1939, staying anywhere from several months to several decades. These numbers demonstrate a critical mass that rivaled or even surpassed other groups of foreigners such as Russian Jewish artists in the School of Paris. Nevertheless, the presence of Latin American artists has been overlooked in art historical literature on the period. While numerous scholars have written about the arts in Paris during this period, none examine the participation of Latin American artists in the Parisian art scene even though these artists both contributed to and re-interpreted nearly every major modernist trend between the wars, including cubism, surrealism, constructivism, and the more figural modes associated with the School of Paris. This book and accompanying website will examine Latin American artists’ intense interaction with European artists and critics as well as their major contributions to the international art scene in Paris between the two world wars.

Once in Paris, these artists initially socialized, exhibited, and sometimes shared a studio with their compatriots. I have chosen to examine Latin American artists as a group rather than tracing national alliances because I believe that it was the experience of Paris that allowed for a broader notion of “Latin American art” take shape. While the idea of “Latin America” as a geo-political construct existed since the days of Simon Bolívar (1783-1830), art academies primarily emerged after independence, in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, with the formation nation states. Consequently their agendas were decidedly nationalist. National governments often sponsored artists’ studies abroad since a European education was still envisioned as a sign of cultural status. Ironically, it was during their time abroad that these art students came into contact with artists from other Latin American countries and began to form alliances that would complicate a purely national construction of identity.  In the open academies of Montparnasse such as the Académie Colarossi, the Académie Julien, the Académie de la Grand Chaumière, and later the Académie André Lhote and Fernand Léger’s Académie Moderne—where art students could pay a daily or monthly registration fee and draw from a live model—those who shared a common language, ex-patriot status, and cultural heritage as citizens of former Spanish or Portuguese colonies began to band together to increase the possibility of recognition in a highly competitive art market that was already inundated with foreigners.  

As a result of this emerging sense of Latin American artistic identity, the first ever survey of Latin American art, organized by newly formed Maison de l’Amérique Latin (Latin American House) and L’Académie Internationale des Beaux-Arts (International Academy of Fine Arts), was held in Paris at the Musée Galliéra in 1924. The exhibition included over 260 works of contemporary art by forty-two Latin American artists residing in Paris. Rather than showcasing a particular stylistic tendency, for the first time organizers conceived of Latin American heritage as the unifying factor behind the show, giving rise to an exhibition format that would persist for the rest of the twentieth century: the survey of Latin American art. Prior to 1924 exhibitions of Latin American art had focused on individual artists or national trends. This major show served as a catalyst for other exhibitions of Latin American art in Paris over the next decade and marked a turning point in Latin American art history.

Beyond National Identity: Pictorial Indigenism as a Modernist Strategy in Andean Art, 1920-1960Contact with and participation in an international avant-garde community in Paris fundamentally shaped future direction of Modern Latin American art, whether it provoked a rejection or embrace or selective reinterpretation of European tendencies. I also believe, however, that the critical mass of Latin American artists working in Paris expanded the worldview of European artists and intellectuals in more subtle ways. Without contact with these artists, for example, it seems unlikely that the surrealist poet André Breton would have organized an exhibition of surrealist art in Mexico in 1940. Hence, without the intense transnational dialogues that occurred in Paris between the wars, neither Latin American nor European modernism would have taken the forms it did. This project is not just about writing a forgotten history; but rather it is an attempt to correct the eurocentrism of current scholarship on the Parisian art world. By examining the formation of conflicting cultural identities and their function and interpretation in Paris between the wars, this project presents an historical precedent to the current globalized art world.

Camilo Egas, Raza India (The Indian Race), c. 1924. Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm. Private Collection, Quito. Photo credit: Christoph Hirtz.My previous work has dealt consistently with issues of cultural contact and global interchange. My first book, Beyond National Identity: Pictorial Indigenism as a Modernist Strategy in Andean Art, 1920-1960 (November 2009) is part of Penn State University Press’s series “Refiguring Modernism: Arts, Literatures and Sciences.” Beyond National Identity traces changes in Andean artists’ vision of indigenous peoples as well as shifts in the critical discourse surrounding their work between 1920 and 1960. The book examines pictorial manifestations of Indigenism through case studies of three internationally renowned Ecuadorian artists, Camilo Egas (1889-1962), Eduardo Kingman Riofrío (1913-1998), and Oswaldo Guayasamín Calero (1919-1999), whose distinct yet exceptionally innovative approach to the depiction of the indigenous subject exemplifies the impact of global interchange on regional production. While my first book only deals with Latin American artists in Paris in a single case study, many of the issues that emerged in this book will be carried forward and expanded upon in the new project.

After college, you didn’t go directly to grad school.  Tell us about the path you took after Bowdoin and how that varied experience led you to pursue a degree in Latin American art history?

My path after Bowdoin is rather eclectic and actually began during my junior year abroad in Ecuador. After spending a semester with the School for International Training program, I remained in Quito and enrolled at the Universidad Católica for the spring semester. Since the courses at La Católica weren’t particularly rigorous academically, I had plenty of time to pursue other interests. I had studied dance before coming to Bowdoin and had taken modern dance classes in college too; but it was in Quito that I became serious about it. I discovered a dance studio called Humanizarte where I could take modern dance and ballet, and pretty soon was taking class every day. I made friends with many of the students and the rest of my year in Ecuador pretty much revolved around the dance studio. Since Quito is a small city, the arts aren’t separated by discipline the way they are in the U.S. I was therefore constantly going to the theatre, the symphony, folkloric dance performances, as well as to museums and art galleries. One of those galleries was the Fundación Guayasamín, established by the artist who would eventually become the subject of my first book.

When I returned to Bowdoin my senior year, I was convinced I wanted to be a dancer. I commuted to Portland several times a week for dance classes and talked my way into a work-study scholarship at the American Dance Festival in Durham, NC the summer after I graduated (even though I didn’t win a scholarship via audition). After an amazing summer at ADF, I moved to NYC, as any wanna-be-dancer should. My Ecuadorian boyfriend, who I met at Humanizarte, joined me and we spent three financially-challenged, but amazing years waiting tables, washing dishes, working in hotels (basically doing anything) to pay for class and rent. Despite my love of dance, I pretty quickly realized that I was much more talented academically than physically, and that dance was probably not the best career for me.

One of the part-time jobs I held while in NY was at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts in the dance collection. I thought working as an archivist might be the right path and enrolled in an M.A. program for Library Science at Pratt Institute. Pratt had a track for art history slide librarians that sounded interesting, so it was there that I took my first art history class. Once again, I had an epiphany: I hated the technical side of library science classes and loved the art history class. Art History seemed to bring together everything I valued: culture, language, travel, history, and creativity. So I dropped out of the Library Science program and signed up for some art history classes at Brooklyn College (mostly because it was much cheaper than Pratt) to get the pre-requisites I needed to go to graduate school for Art History. While I loved all the traditional classes on Renaissance or Impressionist art, my experience in Ecuador made me realize that a lot of interesting art had been and was still being created outside Europe and that was the art I wanted to study. With pre-requisites in hand, I enrolled in the M.A. program in Art History at Hunter College, where I convinced the department to allow me to write a thesis on colonial Peruvian art. At the time, there were no professors at Hunter teaching Latin American art history (there are now two), so I pretty much had to forge my own path. From there I applied to the Ph.D. program at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU to study modern Latin American art history under Dr. Edward Sullivan. I finished my Ph.D. at the IFA in 2004. Meanwhile, the Ecuadorian boyfriend was studying at Parsons School of Design and later ended up at the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris where he still lives and works as a designer. Even though we have long since gone our separate ways, the initial idea for my current project had its roots in some of our transatlantic and transhemispheric adventures. 

What was NYU’s art history program’s like?  What suggestions do you have for students who are contemplating pursuing a degree in art history?

The Institute of Fine Arts has a reputation for being cut-throat and incredibly intense. And while the intense part is true, I found it to be an academically rigorous yet welcoming and open minded place. Historically, art history has been extremely Eurocentric in focus, with classical Greece and Rome and Renaissance Studies at the center of the field. One forward-looking professor, Dr. Jonathan Brown, a specialist in seventeenth-century Spain, saw new possibilities for the field in the study of Latin American art history. For years, he worked to bring a world class program to fruition, which now offers courses in modern and colonial Latin American art, and sponsors a lecture series, now in its fourteenth, year the “Colloquium on Spanish and Latin American Art and Visual Culture.” It was a wonderful environment in which to study Latin American art. Not only did I gain a strong background in that field, but I also received excellent training in Modern European art. Without this training, I certainly would not able to undertake my current project.

If you are contemplating a degree in Art History, be sure you have the necessary language skills for your area of focus. Traditionally, Ph.D. programs require language exams in French and German. Unfortunately, Spanish or Portuguese are still not recognized as primary art historical languages. But I hope this is soon to change. Definitely take some art history classes as an undergraduate. I have to say, my one regret is never taking an art history class with Dr. Clifford Olds at Bowdoin. Someone told me his classes involved a lot of memorization so I stayed away. Now I recognize memorization as a great tool for synthesis. In fact, I’d have to say that one of the most useful things I ever did during my graduate career was memorize hundreds of images for my Ph.D. oral exams. Of course I don’t remember them all, but after the exams I had an amazing sense of how everything fit together. While majoring in art history is certainly an advantage when applying to graduate programs, what is more important is gaining a strong liberal arts foundation that emphasizes critical thinking, writing, and research. My degree in Romance Languages and Latin American Studies was the perfect preparation for my field of interest, although I did have to take some pre-requisite courses in art history before applying to graduate school. More important than anything, though, you should look at art. Visit museums and galleries wherever you travel, try your hand and painting or sculpture yourself, read art books, and just get to know what’s out there, especially in unconventional venues.  

What kinds of courses do you teach at George Mason?  How does your research inform your teaching?

Many of the issues that have emerged in my scholarship are carried forward in my teaching. In both my research and in the classroom, I embrace a global and interdisciplinary vision of art history. I don’t limit myself to art objects and their aesthetic qualities, but rather discuss their context (historical, political, social), what inspired their creation, who commissioned them and why, and critical and popular reactions to a work of art or exhibition in a transnational context.

Since GMU is a research institution, I teach two courses per semester at either the undergraduate or the graduate level. At the graduate-level I get to teach primarily in my area of specialization, and have designed several seminars on Latin American art. The course I am teaching this semester is called “Latin American Vanguards.” It begins with a look at theories of the avant-garde from both Europe and Latin America. Then we proceed to look at vanguardist activity in six Latin American cities: Mexico City, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Lima, Quito, and Havana. I have also taught a seminar on “Transnational Surrealism” that examines surrealism in Paris, New York, and Mexico City. And I have a course specifically on my new book topic “Transatlantic Encounters in European and Latin American art.”

At the undergraduate level I teach three survey courses: 20th Century Latin American Art, 19th Century European Art, and 20th Century European art. I also offer a seminar on Mexican Muralism and alternate teaching our methods and museums courses. While not all my courses intersect with my research interests, I often discuss my projects in class. This semester, for example, I am teaching 20th Century European art and introduced several Latin American artists in my presentation of cubism, surrealism, and abstraction.

I’m also working on a digital project to complement the book with the collaboration of several student interns. The website will be hosted by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media and presented in an open source program designed by CHNM called Omeka (http://omeka.org/). It will include a searchable database of all the artists I have identified (many of whom will not be discussed in the book), listing their country of origin, addresses in Paris, schools attended, group and individual exhibitions, government grants, awards and honors, and Parisian contacts. The website will also include timelines, maps, and images. I anticipate that other scholars will be able to employ the framework I establish in Omeka to create databases of Eastern European, African, U.S. American, or Asian artists in Paris during this (or other) periods, to establish a much more comprehensive vision of artistic interchange. Students are playing an integral part in the design and layout of the site and their bios will be featured there as well.

How did Bowdoin prepare you for grad school?   

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but my major in Romance Languages and minor in Latin American studies at Bowdoin happened almost by accident because I happened to have taken lots of classes in those fields. I had previously considered majors in government, philosophy, anthropology, and probably would have majored in the visual arts if I had tried it sooner. I always look back at Bowdoin as an incredibly idyllic place, primarily because it gave me room to explore and find my direction while still gaining a strong academic foundation. The writing and research skills I gained as an undergraduate left me extremely very well prepared for graduate school even though I didn’t discover art history until after leaving Maine. I have especially fond memories of taking Spanish 101 and 102 with Janice Jaffe before studying abroad in Ecuador and then returning as a T.A. for discussion sections. And of course Allen Wells’ Latin American history class was instrumental. When I got back to Bowdoin from Ecuador, after having been inspired by the work of Oswaldo Guayasamín, I also decided to try my hand at the visual arts. I took drawing and painting classes with Mark Wethli that were truly amazing and definitely influenced my eventual decision to study art history. Where else can you try something brand new in your senior year? But more than anything the truly phenomenal teachers, who encouraged adventurous thinking no matter what the subject, best prepared me for graduate school and a career as an art historian. 

Image: Camilo Egas, Raza India (The Indian Race), c. 1924. Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm. Private Collection, Quito. Photo credit: Christoph Hirtz.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but my major in Romance Languages and minor in Latin American studies at Bowdoin happened almost by accident..
— Michele Greet '93