Fernando de Szyszlo’s paintings delineate a vast, diverse and vertiginous geography, a labyrinth where even the most adept explorers could lose their way. Son of a Polish naturalist and a woman from the Peruvian coastal region, Szyszlo draws on a manifold of artistic sources that include pre-Columbian art, European vanguard movements, and some American and Latin American painters. It is possible that the landscape that has surrounded him for the better part of his life—the gray skies of Lima, his city, the deserts of the Pacific coastline laden with history and death, and that ocean which has appeared with such force in many of his paintings—has been as much of a determining influence in shaping his artistic world as the ancient legacy of anonymous pre-Columbian artisans whose masks, feather mantles, clay figurines, symbols and colors, are frequently and quintessentially depicted in his canvasses. But Szyzslo’s art is equally informed by the refined audacities, the contestations and experiments of modern art—of Cubism, abstract expressionism, surrealism,—without which his painting would not be what it is.
The personal—that shadowy stuff made of dreams, desires, premonitions, reminiscences and unconscious impulses—is surely as important in Szyszlo as the artistic currents that one can associate to his work, as important as whatever he has consciously admired or emulated. And it is likely that the inaccessible key to his mystery lies in that secret refuge of his personality. And mystery, along with his elegance and skill, is the great protagonist of his paintings.
Something always happens in his paintings, something beyond form and color. A spectacle, easy to sense, but hard to describe. It sometimes looks like a ceremony, an immolation or a sacrifice which could be taking place in a primeval altar: a barbaric and violent ritual in which somebody may be bleeding, disintegrating, giving in, and perhaps also experiencing pleasure. However one approaches it, the experience is not intelligible. It can only be approached as an obsession, a nightmare, or a vision. On many occasions my memory has suddenly channeled that strange totem, that recurrent character in Szyszlo’s paintings: a visceral remnant or perhaps a monument covered with disquieting offerings—ropes, spurs, suns, cuts, incisions, staffs. And I have asked myself innumerable times: Where does it come from? Who, what is it?
I know there are no definitive answers to these questions. But the fact that Szyszlo manages to raise them and keep them alive in the memory of those who encounter his artistic world, is a great testament to his art. Like Latin America itself, Szyszlo’s art dips into the night of ancient civilizations as it rubs elbows with more recent ones that have arisen throughout the globe. His art stands squarely at a cross-roads: eager, curious, craving, devoid of prejudice, open to any influence. And at the same time, he is stubbornly loyal to the secret depths of his heart, to that submerged and ardent intimacy where experiences and lessons metabolize in a place where the rational is at the service of the irrational, where the personality and genius of an artist can emerge.
Mario Vargas Llosa (Nobel Prize in Literature, 2010)
Translated by Efrain Kristal