Early in 2021, we learned that on December 30 of the previous year, the board of directors of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) intended to sell a mural made by the prominent Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957). That is the mural adorning the Institution's gallery that bears the name of the artist. Such a sale seems unthinkable, especially considering that Rivera himself swapped the easel for the fresco mainly because murals, after chemically merging with the walls on which they are painted, are difficult to store or resell. Certainly, Rivera never anticipated such a situation. The artist, who described his works as "…imágenes verdaderas y completas de la vida de las masas trabajadoras," travelled to San Francisco in 1930, accompanied by his wife Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), to paint Allegory of California in the Pacific Stock Exchange building and Making a Fresco, showing the construction of a city in the SFAI.
Muralism as an artistic movement began in Mexico in the early twentieth century to stimulate a new national identity. This artistic movement represented, in the first instance, a tradition that began with the Olmec civilization (1500 A.E.c.-400 BCE), but it was also a social and humanist art form. It is perhaps one of the first artistic movements of twentieth-century Hispanic America that breaks the Europeanizing aesthetic, thus legitimizing an aesthetic of Latin American authenticity. Several Mexican artists were inclined to this form of expression, but the world recognizes José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), Diego Rivera (1886-1957), and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) as "The Big Three" of that movement.
That social realism of Mexican muralism had its impact throughout Latin America, and Venezuela was no exception. Cesar Rengifo (1915-1980), Héctor Poleo (1918-1989), Pedro León Castro (1913-2003), and Gabriel Bracho (1915-1995), in particular, endorsed this expression and addressed in their art the hardness of work, social injustice, the rejection of war. Although these themes did not occupy the entirety of their creations, they always maintained their politically committed positions.
Gabriel Bracho was born in Los Puertos de Altagracia, a friendly and warm village, on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo in Zulia State, in the home of Gabriel Bracho Olivares, telegraphist, and Clorinda Oliva. He was the second of ten children.
At the age of 12, his artistic inclination was already noticeable; it was common to see him drawing caricatures of his classmates, who celebrated such artistic expression. He did not finish his basic education, but between 1931 and 1935, he studied drawing and modelling techniques in El Círculo Artístico del Zulia, under the tutelage of Neptalí Rincón Urdaneta (1888-1954), the most complete plastic artist of all time from Zulia. In 1936, he lived in Caracas, enrolling in the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Aplicadas. There, his training included painting nudes, "bodegones", and still lifes. He also worked as a cartoonist for the political weekly Fantoches. After three years, he travelled to Chile, registering at the Escuela de Artes Aplicadas in Santiago. During this period, between 1939 and 1942, he looked for a way to express his artistic vision. Coincidentally, he agreed to work with the Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and Xavier Guerrero (1896-1974) who he had met in Chillán. He helped Siqueiros who was creating the mural ¡Muerte al invasor! (Death to the invader!) made in the library of the Mexico School (today School D-252 Republic of Mexico). He also met Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), whose poetic work marked him. His relationship with Siqueiros helped him to channel his art towards realism based on social struggle.
In 1942, he was in Venezuela working as a teacher, and in 1943 he went to New York to study ceramic techniques. Then he returned to South America (Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia), where he presented works alluding to the Second World War. "Jumping the Pond" (crossing the Atlantic) he travelled to Europe in 1950 to exhibit his socially committed work in France, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. In 1952, he married Velia Bosch (1936-2015), a poet of feminist sensibility, a researcher of Teresa de la Parra (1889-1936), a storyteller, and a writer of children's poetry. That year, Bracho completed his first mural in Venezuela at the original headquarters of the Instituto Escuela de La Florida in Caracas. Together with other artists, he founded the group Paracotos whose artistic emphasis was the daily life of the workers and the natives. They championed the development and defence of realism in painting, all influenced by social and political ideas.
In 1956, he went to Mexico. There, he worked in the Taller de Gráfica Popular, where he studied the mural techniques of Diego Rivera, Raúl Anguiano (1915-2006), Roberto Berdeccio (1910-1996), Ignacio Aguirre (1900-1990), Alberto Beltrán (1923-2002) and, of course, Siqueiros, for whom he would be considered a continuator and disciple. The following year, he exhibited his work at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. With the return of democracy in 1958, he went back to Venezuela. After arriving in his country, he painted the murals Las diversiones at the Hotel Nueva Cádiz, in Pampatar, Nueva Esparta and Folclore y Artesanias for the Hotel Guaicamacuto, in Los Caracas, in the current state of La Guaira. Together with some of his former colleagues from the Paracotos group, he founded the Taller de Arte Realista to promote art as a popular activity. During the 1960s, he painted murals and easel works in which folklore, national historical facts, and social struggle prevailed. The daily life of man was his primary theme.
…Artista de grandes convicciones, desarrolló un estilo propio y una manera de expresar sus principios realistas en los cuales creyó siempre hasta su muerte, manifestados de una manera vigorosa y convincente.
His socially committed art is exhibited throughout Venezuela, the Americas, and Europe. He received awards and recognitions in every country he visited. Since 1973, one of his murals, Boyacá, has adorned the walls of the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas. Rafael Caldera (1916-2009) commissioned the piece to decorate the Boyacá Hall of the Venezuelan government during his first presidency.
During this governmental period, an interesting incident happened that would demonstrate the relevance and the bonhomie of the plastic artist. At the end of the 1990s, I was working in Los Puertos de Altagracia, and I had the opportunity to collaborate and support, albeit modestly, the Casa-Museo Gabriel Bracho. One of those windy afternoons of Los Puertos, Gabriel, son of both artists, Doña Laura, curator of the museum, and myself were sitting in one of the museum's rooms next to Velia Bosch. The poet told us that, during Bracho's Parisian times, he had befriended Sofia Imber (1924-2017) and her first husband, Guillermo Meneses (1911-1978). For some reason, which Velia did not expand on, their friendship deteriorated. Symbolic of his disdain, in one of his most important murals, Bracho painted an image of Imber at the bottom of a barrel of oil with a large and viperine tongue, as if she were a snake.
While directing the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, in Caracas, Imber organized an exhibition commemorating the influence of Mexican social art among Venezuelan visual artists. Unfortunately, Bracho was not represented in the exhibition. Alfredo Boulton (1908-1995), a prominent photographer, art historian, and one of the most outstanding Venezuelan intellectuals of the twentieth century, had stated that Bracho was "the most Mexican of our political painters." The president of Mexico, soon to visit Venezuela and inaugurate the exhibition, remarked about his great interest in seeing the works of Gabriel Bracho. Imber, despite her animosity against Bracho, had to urgently contact Bracho and pleaded to him for the loan of some of his works. Without thinking about the enmity that separated them, without hesitation, the painter agreed in honour of his respect and admiration for his Mexican friends and teachers.
Ernesto Armitano (1925-2009), publisher and art promoter once said:
…Bracho es un pintor fuerte en sus expresiones y en el contenido de su obra. Sin embargo, … su intención de muralista se transfería exitosamente a la obra de caballete. La influencia de Siqueiros no podía negarse, por lo menos en sus comienzos, pero Bracho ha sabido transformar esa influencia en un estilo propio y definido, gracias a un poder creativo suficientemente prolífico…
In 1977, Bracho and his relatives decided to rescue the house of his childhood and turn it into a museum to house his memories and works, as well as those of his artist friends. This House-Museum would be his gift to the community where he was born. In 1986, he was awarded the Armando Reverón Prize, and the Galería de Arte Nacional de Venezuela presented his anthological exhibition "Nature and History".
In 1992, he founded the Stained-Glass Workshop in Los Puertos. Bracho liked to experiment with numerous techniques and elements, including glass. On the ceiling of the building that houses the Ministry of Defense of Venezuela, one can admire a vast stained-glass dome made by the artist. I think it's the only stained-glass dome of this magnitude by him. In 1994, he received the Venezuelan National Prize for Plastic Arts, honouring his extensive career as a plastic artist and his selfless dedication to teaching. It is possible, however, that his most heartfelt work is Los Puertos y el petróleo. It is a mural of more than a hundred square meters, which narrates the history and life of Los Puertos de Altagracia and its inhabitants from pre-colonial times to the arrival and influence of oil on the former village of farmers and fishermen. Out of his own pocket, he financed and worked on this mural for years, culminating it shortly before his death. This stunning fresco stands in the back garden of his Casa-Museo.
Although ignorance and disdain contributed to the destruction in 2014 of the mural Miranda, Bolívar y Urdaneta, made in the facilities of Detachment No. 33 of the Bolivarian National Guard of Miranda municipality, Bracho's imagery and creative force are still scattered and present throughout the world. Murals, easel, and graphic works adorn private collections and public museums in Venezuela and many other countries.
Bracho breathed his last breath in 1995. It was then that Doña Laura Elena Cardozo de Añez (1930-2020), known among the inhabitants of Los Puertos as "la Maestra Laurita", took over the direction and operation of the Casa-Museo. A position in which she competently remained until the end of 2020, when she too left us. Currently, her youngest daughter, Laura Ferrer de Añez, holds the same position.
Today, family members are primarily responsible for the maintenance and operation of this important museum on the eastern coast of Maracaibo Lake. It is a real shame that the regime and its highly politicized institutions don't appear to show any interest in supporting the Casa-Museo Gabriel Bracho and seem to have institutionally forsaken it, as they have done with the entire nation.
As I write this semblance, my friend Gabriel Eduardo Bracho Bosch, president of the Fundación Casa Museo Gabriel Bracho, tells me that they are looking for economic resources to restore the Mural Los Puertos y el Petroleo and repair part of the Museum's facilities that are today suffering from water leaks.
Bracho himself once commented “… su mano de artista pone la nota de solidaridad ante el dolor, la injusticia y el desamparo de su pueblo.” Let us hope to see that " El país revivirá a través de los ideales de Simón Bolívar y Francisco de Miranda, quienes se levantan cada cien años con el despertar de la gente…"
Translation and English edits: Amalia Bracho and Karen Angel.
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