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As a leader of Praxis, a group of artists and intellectuals who took a stand against the political, social, and artistic establishment in the 1960s and early 1970s, Alejandro Aróstegui furthered Rodrigo Peñalba’s (1908-1979) earlier efforts to establish Modernism in his country.
Born in 1935 in Bluefields on the eastern coast, Aróstegui spent his early childhood surrounded by some of Nicaragua’s most ruggedly natural beauty. When he was five years old, his family moved to the outskirts of Managua, not far from Lake Managua and within view of the majestic and still active Momotombo volcano.
Like many of the Central American masters, Aróstegui lived and studied abroad. In 1954, he enrolled in Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. The next year, he transferred to the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, where he completed his art degree in 1958. In 1959, he went to Italy to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in , Florence, and then spent two years at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
In Paris, Aróstegui was introduced to Informalism, a type of abstract painting that emphasized spontaneity. In the vernacular of the movement, artists would “attack” the canvas with no preconceived idea of what they were creating, but propelled by a desire to “wound and irritate society.” The notion was sophomoric but the members of the movement included such notable artists as Jean Dubuffet and Antoni Tàpies. The Informalists used not only paint but also materials like cloth, string, marble dust, and paper, which they integrated in what were, at the time, innovative ways. Aróstegui himself broke some new ground here by using the hides and bones of animals. In addition to adopting some of the techniques of the Informalists, Aróstegui has said that his early works were influenced by Franciso de Goya’s so-called “Black Paintings.” We can see this in his preference for dark colors and sometimes harrowing images. In other paintings, we can also see the occasional influence of Gauguin, Matisse, Japanese engraving, Surrealism, and Impressionism. (But as Aróstegui pointed out, “Here in Nicaragua we don’t have the sun that the Impressionists had in Europe. We have to demonstrate the terrestrial and the volcanic that we do have, the nature of the West, earthquakes and all.”)
Aróstegui returned to Nicaragua in 1962 and co-founded Praxis in 1963. “[The creation of Praxis in 1963] was for us always a necessity,” he said. “We felt the weight of a poor culture, subjected to political interests.”
One of the things that Aróstegui found especially offensive on returning home was the mountain of trash that had been building up on the south shore of Lake Managua. The heap itself was repugnant. But the fact that hundreds of families lived next to it, mining it for refuse they could use or sell, was, for him, a symbol of social and political corruption. To draw attention to this, Aróstegui began incorporating actual objects from the dump into his work. These included aluminum cans, rusted nails, shredded rags, and other detritus – materials never before seen in Nicaraguan art. Other members of Praxis shared his concern and some followed his lead in this regard.
In 1966, Aróstegui left Nicaragua to study in New York. When he returned to Nicaragua in 1971, he was disappointed to discover that Praxis had lost momentum. He re-organized the group and started a magazine, La Revista Praxis. The artist Róger Pérez de la Rocha (b. 1949) and the poet Mario Selva (b. 1945) joined him to help invigorate the cause.
In 1972, a powerful earthquake hit the country and destroyed much of the capital, including the artists’ workshops and the city’s few galleries. This pretty much put an end to Praxis, although many of the themes, techniques, and ideas of the group continued in the works of the former members.
Looking at Aróstegui’s work, we can see that his subject matter was widely varied. Many of his paintings contain images derived from pre-Columbian art, still lifes, and landscapes, both urban and rural. His themes were also diverse, including original sin, the inequality of wealth, the tenacity of poverty, and the grip of consumerism in modern Nicaraguan culture.
In his best work – essentially mixed-media collages – certain elements prevail. These include the abstract but formal juxtaposition of geometric shapes set against a naturalistic background, the restrained use of color, and the use of found objects, particularly scraps of metal embedded in paint on wood or canvas. The effect is at once offsetting, ironic, and, if you look at it long enough, oddly soothing.
In 1979, Aróstegui went to Mexico, where he stayed until 1982. He returned home for two years and then left again in 1984, going to Costa Rica to avoid the political turmoil of the Sandinista revolution. During those years, he started to use bolder colors. Along with an increasing use of discarded aluminum cans, this gave his paintings another dimension. They still conveyed much of the original feeling, but also a sort of optimism suggested by the distinctive gleam of the cans. “Human solitude,” said the art critic Carlos Silva, “is [still] a frequent recurring theme: Man is painted in isolation or in contrast to the power of nature.” But the isolation was now presented in a sort of shimmering way, as if hope were just around the corner.
Alejandro Aróstegui’s best work is beautiful, compelling, and distinctive. A central figure in twentieth-century Nicaraguan painting, he has become increasingly known and appreciated throughout the United States and Europe. He is, without a doubt, one of Central America’s most important modern painters.
Awards and Honors for Alejandro Arostegui
1988 – recognized by the Asociación de Artistas Plásticos de Costa Rica for his contribution to Costa Rican painting
1998 – received a diploma of recognition as Founder of the Praxis Group and Distinguished Latin American artist from the Instituto Nicaragüense de Cultura
2003 – recognized by the Fundación Mejía Godoy for his contributions to Nicaraguan art and culture
2006 – awarded the Orden de la Independencia Cultural “Rubén Darío” for his contributions to Nicaraguan culture
2006 – honored by having three of his works reproduced on postage stamps by the Correos de Nicaragua