Jacobo Borges is a Venezuelan artist, born in 1931 in Caracas, who is considered to be a 'Witness of His Time’, because in his painting he declares and assumes an indisputable testimonial condition.
Trained at the Cristóbal Rojas School, he took part in several protests against the established academic practices, he had to leave and went to Paris. He returned to Caracas in 1957 and took part at the São Paulo Biennial, where he displayed his artwork 'Fishing’ (La Pesca), a painting that features his geometric style inspired in the stained glass-windows of the geometrism in vogue and its ambition of urban integration. Borges, a magnificent painter and draftsman became Venezuela’s most significant artist of the sixties, not only because of his decision to again take up an expressive figurativism, but also because of his political and pragmatic bonds with ‘Roof of the Whale’ (Techo de la Ballena), the vanguard group that questioned with extreme irony and ferocity the development of a growing consumer society and the new democracies in Latin America and particularly in Venezuela.
The Venezuelan political history of the 20th century is famous because of the sequence of coups d’Etats that hindered democratic development in its broadest sense and underpinned the economic and political influence of the United States of North America by means of the exploitation of Venezuela’s oil and iron ore deposits. The Rómulo Gallegos administration was overthrown by a military coup d’Etat, which after calling elections installed General Marcos Pérez Jiménez as President, who set into motion a persecutory policy towards political dissidents of the most influential party ‘Acción Democrática’ (AD) and the Communist Party. He had to confront severe economic restrictions in part due to the country’s oil overproduction and on the other hand on account of the excessive privileges granted United States companies, which exploited local oil deposits.
In the wake of the popular uprising in Caracas on 23 January 1958, the dictator is expelled and a military Junta called elections that are won by AD leader Rómulo Betancourt. During the period 1947 to 1958 Betancourt drew near the Christian Democratic Party (COPEI), sparking off a climate of distrust on the topic of Venezuelan democracy between the urban middle classes and university students. As practically in all Latin American countries, the advance of the guerrilla destabilized the excercise of democracy, a situation that worsened in the course of the Raúl Leoni administration (AD). The only partial pacification policy was the COPEI government of Rafael Caldera in the sixties. However, the growth of the guerilla in Latin America is not exclusively related to the example of the Cuban Revolution but as of the late forties with the continuously growing awareness of underdevelopment, and the Theory of Dependency of the sixties formulated by Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto(1) and others.
As regards Venezuelan and other Latin American countries’ visual arts, the growing awareness 'of a young Latin America growing into an underdeveloped Latin America(2)' was accompanied by the twofold boom of the geometrisms and a bit later of the informalisms. Both trends are expressed in utopic identitary projects that appear with the expansion of the enlightened lay middle classes. However, in the first decades of the sixties, spots of figurative revitalization emerge in different Latin American sites. They share several characteristics from the aesthetic as well as from the poetic perspective as the result of the now radical insight regarding Latin America’s gloomy future that summons the Latin American intelligentsia to involve itself in the political ambit. Among others, this command triggered the eclosion of university reform movements in Latin America in the wake of the French May upheaval.
Jacobo Borges’ work fits precisely into this context. On one hand, from the viewpoint of dependency and underdevelopment, the Latin American situation imposes on the artist the ethical responsibility to consider the logic and the possibilities of painting in Latin America. On the other hand, the escalation of the Sarterian existentialism and the European post World War II restlessness portrayed by the European Informalism and Neofiguration offer the right poetic and aesthetic sphere that furthers this reflexion. Jacobo Borges’ visual research from a pictorial perspective shows the trace of artists who at present are classified as expressionists: Goya, Daumier, Ensor, Bacon or De Kooning. The painting of 1960 'Espantapájaro de Choluma', (Choluma Scarescrow) shows certain formal expressionist traces: linear strokes, violent contrasts, texturized color application and ‘nervous’ brushwork, the same as the German Expressionists who distorted color and space. Along these lines, the radial application of the brushstrokes superimposed on the dark background elicit the viewer’s sensation of space emanating from the figure.
The issue of the possibility of painting in Latin America also had a historical component. Borges developed this line, for instance, by means of a series of paintings that interpret J.L.David’s 'Coronation of Napoleon', at which the study of color is linked to that of lines, and this latter one to the research on the constructive space of the image.
The grotesque deformation of the figures not only reflects the linear application of the pigment in order to magnify a segment of the canvas to be paraphrased, but above all it reveals the artist’s judgment of the moral and ethical condition of the painted chronicle. The decision to keep on at the narrative’s threshold opened Jacobo Borges a means to deal with the gap between what he considered to be 'communication' and 'expression', In fact, in 1966 this turned into a problem of such importance for Borges, that he decided to altogether abandon his visual production, which he only resumed in 1972 when he opted definitively for communication. For Borges, the prerequisite of ‘expression’ is an aesthetically formed and informed and thus elitist public. However ‘communication’ implies the development of a discourse that focuses on the masses. In consequence, for Borges the artist’s role entails a political dimension that not necessarily is pedagogic sensu lato but related to the genius’ vanguardist conception. In fact, one of the rethoric aspects of this ‘political’ project is undoubtedly the imposing dimension of his canvasses, their operational intention is to ‘stun’ the viewers, to prompt their awareness. As a result, the political facet of his production takes on overtones of denunciation.
About 1964, this political awareness invited Borges to a closer relationship with nineteenth-century realism, the realism of Champfleury and Daumier. For instance, in 'Ha comenzado el espectáculo', (The show is on), the artist initiates a pictorial formulation focused on social types that are intended to express a negative criticism. In fact, Borges said 'I conceive my painting as an epic, and thus a posiibility of social expression. I intend to represent identifiable persons, people that can be pointed at with the finger’(3). The ‘smudged’ treatment of the pigments in 'Ha comenzado el espectáculo', its coexistence with the drawing, the phantasmagoric appearance of atemporal symbolic faces of far-off times, make them identifiable in their social roles as they are deployed quasi scenographically on a poor imitation of a city that appears blurred under their weight.
In 1965 Borges presented his most renowned series: 'Jugadoras' (Players) and 'Locutores' (Speakers), who also may be political figures. In these artworks, Borges adopted several formal resources of Wilhelm de Kooning and Francis Bacon. But beyond the formal background, what stuns us even nowadays is the harshness of Borges’ figures, a hedonist and decadent bourgeoisie, laid out like the woman-object; the double anonymity of 'imaginémoslo así al locutor de noticiarios' (let’s imagine a news speaker) and another one on thow the media impose their operations on the listeners. Or the double anonymity of the politician, the bureaucrat, the bank executive, or any other citizen.
That same year, Borges presented a work that had a strong impact on the critics of his times: 'Humilde ciudadano' (Humble Citizen). In it, the typologic operation of society as such and the disrepute of the Venezuelan democracy of those times reach their highest tension. And simultaneously there appears in it one of the most significant formal contributions of neofigurism: The simultaneous reflexion of pigment and of line which are superimposed on the reflexion of space, thus setting up a communicating vessel between time and space in the canvas. In fact, one of the discussions of those times had to do with the allegedly figurative option or the geometrizing one (for instance, as developed in kinetic artworks). Nevertheless, figuration, drafting and perspective per se include both dimensions. Borges applies it by overlapping a geometric space that maplike is spread out and collage. For instance, this is the case of the 'Humilde Ciudadano' in the gun barrel or the tombstone that emerges from the scene: ‘Here Lies Jacobo Borges', or the pigment gestuality, or the phantasmagoric disfigurement, as memory echo, which he applied in his figures.
After the long silence he had kept since 1972, Borges resumes painting, now absorbed by remembrance and above all by the conscience of what is irretrievable of history and one’s own experience. That is what depictures 'El novio' (The Bridegroom) and others, where a certain placidness seems to have replaced his political passion. However, Borges has not changed, as insinuate the blurred faces and figures in the penumbra that plead for some time and space in us, an abode in our senses and our sayings.
(1) Cardoso, Fernando Henrique & Faletto, Enzo. Dependency and Development in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. First Spanish edition, ECLAC, 1969. For a global historical insight of the socio-economic processes of Latin America, see Halperín Donghi, Tulio: The Contemporary History of Latin America, translated from the Spanish by John Charles Chasteen, Duke University Press, 1993.
(2) Antonio Cándido’s Theory in: 'Literatura y Subdesarrollo'. In: América Latina en su Literatura, Siglo XXI, Mexico, 1976.
Literature and Underdevelopment. In: The Latin American Cultural Studies Reader, Oxford University Press, 2004
(3) Calzadilla, Juan: Compendio visual de las artes plásticas en Venezuela, Mica Ediciones de Arte, Caracas, 1982.
(4) Ashton, Dore: this U.S. critic’s findings conclude that the scenographic outlay in Jacobo Borges’ works has an undeniable antecedent in Francisco de Goya.
ASHTON, Dores & Carlos Fuentes: Jacobo Borges, Diana Lowenstein, Buenos Aires, 1990
ASHTON, Dore: Jacobo Borges, Caracas, Armitano Editores, 1982.
BORGES, Jacobo: La montaña y su tiempo, Armitano, Caracas, 1979
BOULTON, Alfredo: Historia de la pintura en Venezuela. época contemporánea. Tomo III, Armitano, Caracas, 1972
CALZADILLA, Juan: Compendio visual de las artes plásticas en Venezuela, Mica Ediciones de Arte, Caracas, 1982
TRABA, Marta: Mirar en Caracas, Monteávila, Caracas, 1974
Various authors: Indagación de la imagen, Ediciones de la GAN, Caracas, 1982.