Cultural Frontiers
by H.B-V.

I was born feet first on the 7th of July, 1933, just before noon, in the city of Lima, Peru.
Caption : 1947.  My brother Max (Fernando Vega), 17months older than I, already wants to become a painter. We were the elder siblings of Berti (architect and urban planner), Alex (designer) and Aurora (draftsman and painter).

My father continuously bought and framed art reproductions of works spanning from the Italian Renaissance to the Cubists (published by « Braun », Paris). Even though we lived in a large house, there were so many of them that they had to be hung side by side, like windows in a train, an effect magnified by the fact that they all had the same dimensions:  a watercolor by Klee was the same size as Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp

Charmed by certain of these images, disturbed by others, angered in particular by cubism and fauvism, I discovered the world of painting at age 14. A poster of « Interior with Young Girl » by Matisse (1905-1906) hung to the right of the door of the bedroom I shared with my brother Max.  Morning after morning, I’d find its acid colors and sloppy graphic qualities particularly bothersome.  Months later – in a sudden, earth shattering moment ,- I “saw” the painting for the first time. Ever since then, the memory of the light that shined forth from that small reproduction fills me with joy. I think it is safe to say that I became a painter on that day.

For those who don’t know Latin America, I’d like to point out that Peru, like other countries in the region, is a product of the cross-fertilization of cultures, a patchwork of cultures from all continents. Unlike those born on the European continent, this shared heritage shapes our cultural identity. In Peru, although our education is grounded in western values, other communities, in particular indigenous communities, co-exist within the same society. My mother’s side of the family has been “métis” for so many generations that it is, without a doubt, one hundred percent Peruvian.

My father, Jewish, was born in 1902 in the Hungarian city of Stuhlweissenberg [Székesfehérvár], then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In order to meet my Mom, he had to travel over 13 000 kilometers.  She was born in the city of Iquitos (capital of the Peruvian Amazon), educated by Protestants and raised within a Catholic family. All of this has contributed to a radical “mix” of ethnic, cultural and religious heritages. You could say that I’m something of a first generation “métis”….

I have never felt exclusively bound to Peruvian culture and society. From the youngest age on, I’ve questioned my roots. The feeling that I’m constantly straddling different worlds is a vital part of my personality - so much so that I can be confrontational and quick to the draw… When I was a kid, I’d visit my paternal grandmother. She had never learned Spanish and was so old that she rarely left her armchair.  I used to run and slide on the living room tiles and grind to a halt at her feet.  She would then gently tell me, in German, “ Du bist verruckt, mein Kind”.  I thought she was saying “I love you dearly, my little one”.  But many years later, I found out that she was actually saying “You are crazy, my child.”  The gap between what I “understood” and what my Grandmother actually meant exemplifies  how Latin-Americans and Europeans differ in their approach to occidental culture. 

This hybrid heritage has also shaped my work.  

In 1950, when I had just turned 17, I attended the Beaux Arts in Lima.  I spent a year and half there, studying with the master Carlos Quispez Asin.  Because he believed that the speed of my drawing outpaced my thought process, he urged me to use my left hand.  He didn’t know that, as a child, I had been forced to use my right hand because being left-handed was considered a shortcoming and to be fought at all costs.  This early trauma meant that, even today, when I’m asked to use my left-hand, I don’t, and prefer to take time to think before plunging into the drawing process.

During the 18 months I spent at the Beaux Arts, I fell under the influence of Cézanne.  Everything that I learned was gleaned from reproductions; even today no museum in Peru features the work of the great masters.

My brother Max, who signed his paintings Fernando VEGA, decided in early 1951 to come to Paris.

He was a charismatic, intellectually gifted and an influential figure of his generation. He was less technically adept than I was, but I lacked his analytical skills.  Early on, his work had greater depth than mine.  Unfortunately, he died young, at age 33.  I’m convinced that, had he lived, he would today be considered a great artist.  I’ve had to fight to put my technical abilities in the service of my intellect.

I arrived in Paris at the end of the same year and, soon thereafter, my brother introduced me to Jean SENAC, the “pied noir” poet born in Algeria.  Assassinated in the 1970s, he was one of the first victims of those who continue to bleed their extraordinary country to this day.

Jean introduced us to Louis NALLARD and Maria MANON, two excellent painters whom I still count among my friends. In order to earn a living, they managed the Vieux-Colombier Hotel; they provided lodging to painters, writers, musicians, draftsmen… POLIAKOFF, for example, lived on the top floor; he earned his living playing the guitar for Russian restaurants in Paris.  For me, a young Peruvian freshly landed in Paris, living in this hotel was a privileged introduction to the Paris art scene.

It was then that I saw, for the very first time, original works by the great masters.  I was disappointed.  Compared to the small reproductions that I’d come to know, the original works seemed dusty.  The four-color reproduction process made for clean, bright colors, and their small size minimized the effect of gesture. Van Gogh’s paintings were the only ones that gave me the impression of being “fresh”.  In Paris, I painted in the hotel rooms where I slept. I never enrolled in art school.  Over the years, I learned my trade in museums and through the conversations with significant artists I met along the way.  Thanks to them, I have been able to hone my ideas and to perfect my technique.

In the early 50s, France was just getting over the war and there were few galleries.  For young artists, showing work was not easy, and selling work was even harder. Unlike today, gallery owners, with very few exceptions, waited for painters to be over thirty to take them seriously.

My son Eric was born in 1953.  I had to settle down and find work.  I was lucky and joined the atelier of Jean Royere, a major designer at the time.  He wanted to open a branch in Lima, and I was hired and trained to do so.  In 1955, I returned to Lima, where I opened an agency with the architect Juan Gunther, working for the next ten years in Peru and throughout Latin America.

My professional success as a designer prevented me from painting.  So as to avoid becoming a Sunday painter, I’d stopped painting for 8 years. Over time I realized that I was missing my true vocation.  Increasingly, making art became a necessity. In 1963, I decided to leave for Europe and prepared myself for this return by painting up a storm. Four years later, in 1967, I was back in France.

Soon thereafter, in 1968, I went with Lisbeth, my wife, to Barcelona, for the inauguration of the Picasso museum. The discovery of Picasso’s interpretation of Las Meninas — a masterpiece in de-construction — was a defining moment.  It was something of an esthetic “shock” for me to discover that the temporality characteristic of Velasquez, his genius for capturing an instant in a temporal flow, was missing in the Picasso. He hadn’t transmitted “instantaneity”, the kind of temporal quality that one finds in Bacon’s work, for example.     

Don Pablo created 54 paintings inspired by Las Meninas in the span of two and a half months.  As soon as I got back to Paris, I shut myself up in my atelier and for two and a half months produced 53 paintings in a series entitled “Velasquez stripped bare with Las Meninas in 53 paintings”.   Had the time come to kill a  father-figure…?

Nothing comes from a void, especially in the arts. There are two ways to engage with the pictorial language of the past: either intuitively or deliberately. I was into pure form and intuition until 1967, but after the shock of Picasso in Barcelona, I decided to engage in research.  I stopped thinking of painting as an end in and of itself, and decided to use painting to express ideas.

I decided to question artists of the past so as to enrich my formal vocabulary and conceptual framework.  In 1972, I delved into the collection of drawings by Ingres, kept in the Louvre’s “Drawing Collection”.  I wanted to submit myself to a kind of brain-washing, to forget how Braun-Vega drew and delve into the gestural qualities intrinsic to Ingres. In 1975 I repeated the experience at the Rijksmuseum’s “Print Collection”, where I had the privilege of looking up close at etchings by Rembrandt.  I spent fifteen days handling these prints, taking notes in order to memorize the techniques used and the narrative content of each piece.

For the past twenty years, I have focused on three aspects of memory within the spectator’s visual experience of art: the individual, the social and the historical.  Children, as well as uninitiated adults, have access to the first.  The second and third are comprehensible to those privileged enough to have a political and cultural education. I have had to make formal adjustments to my work so that it is accessible to all. 

I have also had to perfect my previously very loose technique so as to orchestrate both orthodox and contemporary forms in one same pictorial space.  I’m talking here in very formal terms…But conceptual and narrative adjustments were necessary as well. 

For me,  a painting emerges as a “whole” and drawing is part and parcel of the process.  I don’t do sketches or preparatory drawings for each painting. Since 1975, I don’t even sketch-in the subject matter of my canvases; I draw as the painting takes shape.  I can work this way because I “see” the image of the painting in its entirety from the start, thanks to what could be labeled “prospective memory”.   This explains why I really can’t work on two paintings simultaneously, my mind is entirely monopolized by the materialization of a single intent.

I have used photography since 1978, when I began painting portraits. The usefulness of this technique became obvious after asking Julio Ramon Ribeyro to pose for fifteen consecutive days of what turned out to be pure torture. Photography is an extension of memory. During my travels, photographs add to my repertoire of pictorial themes. The ink transfers made from newspaper articles have a formal role in the construction of each piece.  In so far as I choose them for their content, they also inform the viewer about current events. I’m drawn to the repercussions of the great clashesso prevalent in the Americas from 1492 onwards.  Their often violent and sudden nature explain the syncretism and “fusion” so characteristic of American identity.

Today, we are constantly being solicited by images, often violent.  At the movies or at home when looking at the news on TV during dinnertime, we often experience distance and coldness in the face of what we are witnessing. For painting to focus our gaze and communicate the violence of the world around us, it has to compose disparate elements into a coherent, seductive “whole”. Seduction in painting is not about playboys or models; it is linked to the ability to attract and develop the sensibility and the intelligence of the spectator. This in turn hinges on its formal properties.

My work is also a kind of testimonial, meant to awaken memories within each spectator who recreates the work according to his own individual gaze, thought, knowledge and experience. It is characterized by a rather cold sensuality, as in the work of Ingres and Poussin.  It is sensual, but also intellectual, creating a kind of distanciation.  Humor and irony are indispensable when dealing with serious subjects. 

It has occurred to me that it could be interesting to “sequence” (much like one “sequences” the human genome) all of the constitutive variations within the history of art,thereby revealing alliances and syncretic elements whose origins lie in many differing cultures. This work is best left to erudite historians.

I’ve been dealing with issues related to spectatorship and memory for over 40 years now and more recently I’ve revealed the affiliations woven within my own work.

In the Atelier :

"l’Intérieur á la fillette" of Matisse

First Exhibition

Drawing - Ingres

With Jean-Luc Chalumeau
devant “Caramba” (2013).

In the Atelier - 2013

Herman Braun-Vega dans son atelier - Arcueil 2004