Joaquín Torres García was a Uruguayan plastic artist and art theorist, also known as the founder of Constructive Universalism. In 1979, most of his works were destroyed in a fire that caught the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, while a large exhibition of the artist was being held.
Joaquin Torras-García was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, from the union of Joaquim Torras Garcia (son of Joan Torras and Rosa Fradera, rope makers from Mataró, Spain) and María García Pérez (daughter of José María García, master carpenter from the Canary Islands, and Misia Rufina Pérez, a native-born Uruguayan aristocrat).
After a difficult infancy—because of the family's economic and domestic instability—and after essentially raising himself, in 1890, Torres García decided to emigrate with the purpose of becoming a painter, having come to the conclusion that he could not receive proper training in the capital of Uruguay. Therefore, along with his entire family, he decided to travel to Europe in June 1891, at age 17. His father's family proceeded directly to Mataró, Spain. There, Torres García began to attend a local academy by day, where he learned the basics of the trade, and at night attended drawing classes in an Arts and Trades school. In 1892, the family decided to settle in Barcelona, which enabled Torres García to enroll in the School of Fine Arts ("Escuela de Bellas Artes de Barcelona").
At Barcelona's School of Fine Arts, Torres García fell in with such future renowned painters as Joaquim Mir, Joaquim Sunyer, Ricard Canals, and Isidre Nonell, all of whom were influenced by the popular French Impressionism of the moment, and by the writings of Émile Zola. The group used to paint in the suburbs of the city, imitating the painters at the vanguard of that time: Monet, Sisley, and Renoir. Because his classes were at night, Torres García decided to take advantage of the day by enrolling in the Academia Baixas, which had a better academic reputation than the School of Fine Arts.
In 1893, Torres García matriculated in the Cercle Artístic de Sant Luc, where the institution's Catholic leanings made a strong impression on him. There, he met Josep Pijoan, Eduardo Marquina, Pere Moles, and Luis de Zulueta. At the beginning of 1894, Torres García participated in the Foreign Section of the General Exposition of Fine Arts (Exposiciones Generales de Bellas Artes). The next year, he began to collaborate with the Catholic Typographic Bookstore (Librería Tipográfica Católica), a work that continued until 1899. In 1897, he presented his works in the exhibition hall of La Vanguardia Newspaper and participated in a collective exhibition in the Artistic Circle of Sant Lluc (Socios del Círculo Artístico de Sant Lluc). During this period, Torres not only struck up friendships with painters and sculptors of the likes of Manolo Hugué, Pichot, the brothers Oleguer and Sebastià Junyent, the brothers Sunyer, Pablo Picasso, the brothers Joan and Juli González, and Planella, but also with musicians such as Antoni Ribera. In the ensuing years, Torres García published various drawings in La Vanguardia under the name of "Quim Torras," and in the magazines Iris, Barcelona Cómica and La Saeta.
From 1901, Torres García started to paint frescos, attracted by the timelessness of the older works created using this technique, and began a dynamic working relationship with a group that mixed together painters, musicians, sculptors and poets; all of the above-mentioned would meet in Julio González's studio, attend artistic get-togethers at the Círculo de Sant Lluc, classical music concerts at the Liceu, and debates and conversations at Els Quatre Gats, the Soler tailor-shop, and other locations. In May 1903, he published an article in the monthly magazine Universitat Catalana entitled "Augusta et Augusta," affirming that artistic form would never copy reality and defending his idealist conception of art.
He began to do murals, first with Adrià Gual and later in the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí's remodeling of the La Seu. Gaudi hired him later with Llongueiras and Iu Pascualfor the interior restoration of La Catedral de Santa María de Palma de Mallorca. He worked on the first two lateral stained glass windows and the rose window of the Capilla Real, as well as windows for the Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. This collaboration lasted until 1905, exposing Torres to Gaudí's collaborative and interdisciplinary vision of work, as well as the necessity to consider painting and architecture as a union.
He gave sketching classes in private homes, such as the home of Don Jaime Piña y Segura, father of Torres García's wife-to-be Manolita Piña i Rubíes, as well as in the home of composer Isaac Albéniz where he taught Albéniz's son Julio. In 1904, he received his first mural commissions: in the chapel of the Santísimo Sacramento of the church of San Agustín in Barcelona (which murals were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War) and the apse of the Iglesia de la Divina Pastora in Sarrià, which was quickly covered by other paintings and is no longer visible today.
In 1905, his style of work formally evolved and already evident was that which his enemies most used to attack him—"Planism"—commonly known as "defectos de factura" (carefree or enlightened, because the painting was to be agreeable to the sight, the pictorial qualities flattering to the senses). In 1906, he untertook to separate the superficiality that underlay his works, seeking to find the fount of all civilization, Greek art.
In 1907, Torres García began his teaching job in the Mont d’Or school, founded by the pedagogue Joan Palau Vera in Sarrià, which also introduced for the first time in Spain life drawing. He married Manolita Piña 20 August 1909 in Barcelona. In this period, Torres García substituted formal elements of Greek origin for those specific to Catalonia (villas, farmers, labourers, etc.) imbuing his work with a contemporary Catalonian spirit.
The Argentine journalist Roberto Payró commissioned from Torres García two large panels for the Uruguayan pavilion at the Brussels International exposition of 1910 in which he represented allegories of agriculture and of ranching. In passing, he visited Florence, Rome, and Paris. On his return, he settled in Vilassar de Mar, where his first daughter, Olimpia, was born. His work delighted some of his followers in Barcelona, such as Eugeni d'Ors, Roman Jori, Manuel Folch i Torres and Josep Clarà, who on his return convinced him to work on artistic projects that would bring renown to Catalonia. Several distinct commissions in the old palace of the Generalitat de Cataluña (the Catalan government), which had then been recently purchased as the seat of the provincial council of Barcelona, ranged from some stained glass for the windows of the hall of the Consell de la Mancomunitat, to decorating the walls of the Salón de Sant Jordi. This last project, a series of murals, was the largest and most important in Torres-García's life, which he was expected to execute in accord with the ideological guidelines laid out by the president of this institution, Enric Prat de la Riba. After a trip to Italy to study fresco technique, he established himself in Terrassa, to which he had moved the Mont d’Or School.
In May 1913 he published his first book, Notes sobre Art ("Notes on Art"), which marked the de facto break with his principal theoretical defender, Eugeni d'Ors. D'Ors believed that Torres García had ideologically usurped the reference to the historic-iconographic Catalan identity that he had included in his book. On June 19, 1913, his second child, Augusto was born. He began to execute the first fresco for the Salón de Sant Jordi, La Cataluña eterna ("Eternal Catalonia"). At the end of that same month, be began the final stage of his first fresco for the San Jorge Salon (gallery), La Cataluńa eterna. At the same time he was finishing the fresco, Torres García founded the Escuela de Decoración (School of Decoration/Decorative Arts) in Sarrià with a group of young pupils, with the specific intent of founding a school of muralists and decorators who would put his theories into practice. In August of the next year (1914), the Mont d'Or School closed due to bankruptcy. Torres García decided to remain in Tarrasa, where he designed and decorated what would become his residence, Mon Repòs.
On 10 December 1915, his third child was born at Mon Repòs, a daughter baptized Ifigenia, Aglás y Elena. In 1917, he met the Uruguayan painter Rafael Barradas, an important person in his life since he served as a catalyst for his artistic evolution toward abstraction, pursuing in his work a closeness to contemporary art from the complementary prism of tradition. Upon the death of Prat de la Riba in 1917, Torres García immediately suspended work on his decorative jobs in the Salón de Sant Jordi, as well as his commissions. Beset by economic scarcity, he launched himself into a new activity: toymaking.
Along about 1919, Torres García met and associated with such people as J. V. Foix and Joan Miró. He also returned to giving private drawing and painting lessons, one of his new clients being Sigfried Ribera, son of the composer Antoni Ribera.
In 1920, Torres García left with his family in tow for Paris. He never returned to Barcelona. From there he set off for New York City, where he met such Spaniards as Rafael Sala, Joan Agell and Claudio Orejuela. He also met Max Weber, the musician Edgar Varèse, Charles Logasa, John Xcéron, the Whitney sisters, the painters Joseph Stella, David Karfunkle, Marcel Duchamp, and finally the Tawsend couple, who put him in contact with the Society of Independent Artists, founded by Katherine Sophie Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray, among others.
In the absence of any income, Torres García decided to return to Europe—specifically Italy—to dedicate himself anew to the toy business. He founded the Aladdin Toy Company, which received important orders from the Dutch house Metz & Co. In 1924, his fourth son, Horacio, was born in Livorno, Italy. Charles Logasa encouraged Torres García to paint again with the intention of organizing an exhibition in Paris. Receiving favorable reviews, he decided to move his family to Paris in 1926. In 1928, he and Jean Hélion, Alfred Aberdam, Pierre Daura and Ernest Engel Rozier put on the exhibition Cinq refusés par le jury du salón d’Automne ("Five refused by the jury of the Autumn Salon"). Among the attendees was Theo Van Doesburg, with whom he initiated a great friendship and extensive collaboration.
In this same period, he met Michel Seuphor, who presented him to Jean and Sophie Arp, Adya and Otto Van Rees, Luigi Russolo, and Georges Vantogerloo. Torres García was soon admitted to the group's meetings, which were headed by Piet Mondrian. In these meetings were forged the nucleus of the future group Cercle et Carré ("Circle and Square"), promoter of the first exhibition of constructivist and abstract art in 1930, and of a magazine also called Cercle et Carré. Torres García contributed to constructivism the order and logic found in rules of composition such as the golden ratio and the inclusion of symbolic figures that represent man, knowledge, science, and the city.
In 1932, he left Paris because of the economic crisis and took up residence in the Madrid of the Second Spanish Republic, establishing in 1933 the Grupo Constructivo, with whom he exhibited in the Autumn Salon. The group wrote three texts called Guiones ("Guides") that reflected the spirit from which the group was formed and in which is evident the contructivist influence of Torres García.
In 1934, a year and a half after his arrival in Paris, Torres García decided to move for the last time to Uruguay, to his native Montevideo, where he was received as a member of the European artistic elite. He immediately exhibited his progressive artistic theories in a country rooted in the conservative European sensibility, that imposed the epithet of "quality" on everything imported from the old country, which soon turned Torres García into a controversial figure.
Torres García founded the Uruguay Society of Arts ("Sociedad de las Artes del Uruguay") with the objective of integrating all the arts and acting as a nexus between artists and the public. He presented the first retrospective of his work, in which his oldest son Augusto also participated, and began to give classes on the history of art at the Escuela Taller de Artes Plásticas. He rented a space at 1037 Calle Uruguay, which he converted into an exposition space known as Estudio 1037, and organized a first art showing in which participated national artists—Carmelo de Arzadun, Gilberto Bellini, José Cúneo Perinetti, Luis Mazzey, Bernabé Michelena]], Zoma Baitler, Carlos Prevosti, Augusto Torres-García, and himself—as well as foreigners—Germán Cueto, Pere Daura, E. Engel, Glycka, Jean Helión, Luc Lafnet, Charles Logasa, O. Van Rees and Eduardo Yepes.
In 1934, Torres García was named honorary professor of the Faculty of Architecture of Montevideo and in 1935 he published a book Estructura. He created the Asociación de Arte Constructivo (AAC) ("Constructive Art Association"), impregnated with the spirit of a truly american art. Through the society met many artists, such as Rosa Acle, J. Álvarez Marqués, Carmelo de Arzadum, Alfredo Cáceres, María Cańizas, Luis Castellanos, Amalia Nieto, Héctor Ragni, Lia Rivas, Carmelo Rivello, Alberto Soriano, Augusto Torres, Horacio Torres and Nicolás Urta. In 1936 the first issue of the AAC's publicity piece Círculo y Cuadrado ("Circle and Square") was published, continuing the French Cercle et Carré. The Círculo y Cuadrado published seven issues between 1936 and 1938, followed by a special final issue in December 1943. Its motto was "Total intransigence against naturalism." The intense teaching activity that Torres García maintained from 1934 to 1938 did not produce the results he had hoped and he questioned the continuation of the AAC in its current form.
In 1938, Torres García began to show influence by Pre-Columbian and indigenous art, such as is apparent in his work Monumento Cósmico, which juxtaposes figures like those he used in Paris, figures that made reference to man and the city using the traditional indigenous symbolism of South America.
From a philosophical point of view, Torres García was strongly influenced by the Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky and the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, as were other artists of the day, such as Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, and Vasili Kandinski. In 1932, Torres García had joined the Theosophy Society in Uruguay, where he gave a talk entitled "Geometry, Creation, Proportion."
In 1945, he published the first issue of the magazine Removedor, which served as a place to debate criticisms of his works and those of his students, as well as a publicity tool.
After his death in Montevideo 8 August 1949, the studio continued to function, being directed by some of his most dedicated students, until it finally closed in 1962 (although there is controversy regarding this date). The last official publication of the studio saw the light of day in January 1961 and was the third issue of the magazine Escuela del Sur ("The School of the South") which had replaced Removedor, whose final issue, number 28, was July-August 1953.
Torres García's call to artists not to renounce being Latin Americans, pretending to be contemporary through the formal investigation in their artistic careers, provided a new dimension in the construction of a modern and American language, constituting one of the definitive episodes in the Latin American vanguards.