Armando Reverón: Macuto, Juanita, Light and Nothingness

To honor celebrated Venezuelan painter Armando Reverón on his birthday, we review what has been said about his character, his legacy and his work.

Everything has been said about Armando Reverón’s work, from the insightful test from our great essayist Mariano Picón-Salas, to the no less insightful interpretation of Luis Pérez-Oramas. There’s a sixty-year gap of readings on Reverón’s work between one text and the other: the approaches and periodizations of his executor and most loyal critic Alfredo Boulton; Juan Calzadilla’s dissections on his pictoric universe; the brilliant erotic-religious relations established by Juan Liscano; the importance of Juanita as a theme and space, surmised by Marta Traba; the standing in the world of pictoric schools, defined by Miguel Otero Silva and also, the countless interpretations inspired by the work of the painter from Macuto, which no other Venezuelan painter has produced.

But, aside from his work, Reverón’s life has sparked great curiosity and is therefore fully documented and examined. The painter’s personality has fascinated psychiatrists based on reports by Dr. Báez Finol, who treated him in the sanatorium each time he suffered a severe breakdown. Psychiatrists have come up with tremendously interesting conjectures based on readings of his symbolic universe, his life as a hermit in his shack by the beach, his feminine possessions and so many other news that Reverón’s life offered as an abundant feast. But before doctors were interested in him, Reverón had already been accosted by photographers and filmmakers, and he was always a friend of writers. Of course: all of them had to come into his temple, where he was the only priest, a bearded man in short trousers who squeezed his waist with a rope while painting, seeking to separate the sublimity of the spirit from the vices of the flesh. That is where he held mass, this enlightened painter who sought light, that artist of whom Picón-Salas said in 1940: “Despite appearances, he’s one of the most important Venezuelans alive at the moment,” and there were many charlatans back then.

In his case, it was the same as when the French asked: who remembers the name of the cardinal who lived while Voltaire wrote? Nobody or close to nobody. The essayist understood that what Reverón did on the paper, the burlap fabric or the canvas would survive him by far.

In his temple, he was the only priest, a bearded man in short trousers who squeezed his waist with a rope while painting, seeking to separate the sublimity of the spirit from the vices of the flesh.

The most persistent companions of Reverón’s work have been Alfredo Boulton and Juan Calzadilla and, fortunately for artistic critique, they’ve defended their opposite views. The first antagonism and probably the basis for all the others, discusses the role of illness in Reverón’s work. For Boulton, the painter created when he was sane and his mental breakdowns were no more than that: severe accidents that waysided him. A year after the painter’s death, Boulton said: “He spent the last year between the sanatorium and periods of almost absolute inaction. He made some few exercises in charcoal, quick annotations on different motifs. His mental balance wasn’t completely restored. He was under the admirable and absolutely selfless care of the psychiatrist for eleven months. He’d made great improvements. By the end, his physical appearance had regained some vigor. The medical treatment inspired the hope that he’d soon return to painting and the few things he did showed that he’d do extraordinary work.” In other words, the illness and the work were mutually exclusive.

Calzadilla, on the contrary, rejected the separation: “This kind of help was the contribution of an honest physician, in love with his profession who declared, with a modest psychoanalytical platform and in an empirical and wise fashion, even though he was meant to prove the opposite, that Reverón not only wasn’t ill, but also that what society saw in him as madness, was nothing but the signs of a message that supported and, in a way, legitimized in his identity an integral artistic experience. Báez Finol didn’t say it that way, of course, but it could be inferred from his experience with Reverón that if a person affected by a crisis caused by schizophrenia could break away from this trance with several sessions of communication therapy, then the problem, figuratively, wasn’t the individual, but society. The ghost of madness would’ve vanished by transferring the therapeutic model, applied at the clinic, to the environment where the artist had raised his home. Reverón’s illness, in other words, resided in others.”

For Calzadilla, Reverón’s illness might not have been his but reside in others instead, in society. By questioning it and accepting that, more than a pathology, it was a substantial part of his nature, Calzadilla incorporates it as a fundamental part of his work; while Boulton tends to focus on the artistic work with incisive fervor, Calzadilla opens the door for the personal and social aspects of Reverón’s context. The light that the painter sought constantly must be right in the middle of both stances. A work of art cannot be understood by isolating it from its historical framework, but focusing too much on the context can make us forget the system proposed by the work itself.

What society saw in him as madness, was nothing but the signs of a message that supported and, in a way, legitimized in his identity an integral artistic experience.

And Marta Traba, with her proverbial insight, made her own contribution: “Reverón’s spaces are doubtlessly Macuto and Juanita: he would paint nothing but variations on the same theme.” Traba establishes a fascinating relationship: Ingmar Bergman and Armando Reverón, both of them overtaken by womanhood as the core of their lives. In Bergman, the woman is a knot, a conflict; in Reverón, the woman is lake, respite, protection. Critics also point it out in 1974: the woman (the mother) is the space upon which the painter lays out his alphabet of conflicts. The woman-mother (represented by Juanita since the Carnival where they met to the day she died); the religious cosmogony with its prescriptions on good and evil, purity and impurity and, as Calzadilla said, the establishment of El Castillete as the habitat upon which he built his precarious balance are, at least, three of the pillars for the life of man who created an immortal work.

Twenty years after Marta Traba’s essay, Juan Liscano published his book “The erotism of creator Armando Reverón,” finishing what he had glimpsed in 1964, in an essay for the tenth anniversary of Reverón’s death. “In his sepia or white phase, Reverón almost never painted men. He was the only man. He made countless self-portraits. On the other hand, women fill his compositions to the point that one could say that the woman and the landscape were the themes of his life.” Liscano finds in Reverón’s work the mark of complex erotism, sealed by his relationship with the mother and the father. We must remember that both left the child Armando Julio under the care of the Rodríguez Zocca family in Valencia. Reverón’s entire life is marked by the forces of erotism in constant tension with sacredness, sexuality in negotiation with sublimity. The woman, obviously, is a central piece of Reverón’s emotional life. That’s what Juanita was.

But in addition to the landscape and the woman, there was an immensely rich universe woven by the creator: the objects that the painter crafted as company in his realm, in his chosen circle. I’m not only talking about the dolls that evidently formed the ranks of his erotic rooms, but also about the birdhouse, the telephone, the piano and many other pieces of his vital-objectual system. José Balza wrote a long essay about this aspect of his work. The book that contains it is titled “Analogous, simultaneous,” and it says: “What to say, how to look, what depth can be found precisely on the skin and in the initiatic language of those masterpieces, of that geared engine for a world parallel to our own.”

Reverón’s spaces are doubtlessly Macuto and Juanita: he would paint nothing but variations on the same theme.

Reverón was a great seducer. Not only was he responsible for the most lauded and universally resonant work created in Venezuela, but he also was, in the exact meaning of the term, a character. The abundant river of critique on his work originated in that same work, but there was a no less abundant river of journalistic testimony which originated more in curiosity than in his work. Many went to El Castillete to bear witness of how the man who had renounced civilized life to find himself behind a stone wall lived. A sort of inner voice surely dictated the path he took to reach the place where he was. Like saints and mystics, Reverón stripped himself bare, he abandoned himself and even shed the brushes to paint with his hands. He couldn’t work like a scholar measuring his steps, he was a sage whose path was guided by intuition.

Once he decided to follow the prompt of his inner voice, he had already given himself to his obsessions: the light, the frame, the landscape, Juanita, his objects. But as he shed everything to paint the world on the canvas, he took the necessary steps for a battle. By asking his monkey Pancho to face the wood with the brush with as much strength as possible, Reverón was doing nothing else but asking it of himself. Pancho was his mirror. The making of the painting, as with the fiesta brava, was a situation on the edge: the bull or the bullfighter, life or death. By making himself a tourniquet to isolate the lower parts from the sublime and divide his body in two by the waist, what the warrior Reverón was doing was preparing for battle. And, as with the bulls, each fight was different and it demanded strategies that were appropriate to each threatening bull. Sometimes Reverón would and sometimes chaos would emerge victorious. His transfers to the sanatorium took place when some voices overlapped others and gave him conflicting instructions that pulled him out of the fight. He fought to appease the hell burning inside him, but he didn’t always succeed. The Reverón that made the best works was the one who responded to the prompts of his most authentic inner voice. Deep down, the fascination that the painter inspires in everyone who know his work and his life, is the same caused by the chosen ones who have given everything to follow a destiny with burning passion. In that sense, Reverón shows us the hardest path: utter surrender, becoming nothing to be a part of everything. As he created his own world, he erased the other one. He abolished all things mundane and built on void the search of his greatest denial: light. But light carries in itself the seed of its own denial: whiteness, blindness. His works are the fruit of what light allows us to see when its strength wanes. His works are what a man glimpses in his blindness, his marvel and the lash of the shining spark.

This is as far as the theatre of actors of critique who speak their lines have brought us, and we’ve seen Reverón’s work with our own eyes, oblivious to the eyes of others. It would be better to heed the painter, even though words were never the tools of his work. “I’ve been painting in Macuto for many years. I’ve managed to find the simplicity and the caress of modesty. I’ve managed to find familiarity in light.” These two statements enclose a sizeable part of Reverón’s work: the battle with the sun, which starts as a battle to death, and the deal with light, which ends up being one of the leitmotifs of Reverón’s exploits.