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Armando Morales is Nicaragua’s – perhaps Central America’s – most famous painter. “Like a mythical figure,” said historian María Dolores Torres, “[he was] a constant source of inspiration for Nicaraguan painters.”
Morales was born in 1927 in Granada. He was interested in art as a young boy, and frequently sketched the tools and other objects sold in his father’s hardware store. By the age of eleven, he was already producing impressive landscapes and still lifes.
From 1941 to 1945, he studied at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (ENBA) in Managua. One of his favorite teachers was Augusto Fernández, who had fled to Nicaragua after the Spanish Civil War. From 1948 to 1953, he studied under Rodrigo Peñalba (1908-1979), the school’s new director. Peñalba called his student “indisputably the greatest of our painters.” He said, “Morales has passed through various periods, from the semi-abstraction of his initial successes, to pure abstraction and… a lyrical realism, full of mastery, and sober, but richly chromatic.”
Not long after graduating, Morales was making a name for himself. “At the beginning of the fifties,” said artist and critic Julio Valle-Castillo, “Morales broke out with conviction into the panorama of the visual arts of the continent… [achieving] an immediate and decisive presence among his contemporaries.”
At this point, Morales’s work was an engaging hybrid of figurative and abstract. In 1957, when he was thirty, he participated in a show in Washington, D.C., that featured the work of six Nicaraguan artists. He sold everything that he exhibited there. By the age of thirty-two, he had established himself as not only Nicaragua’s most recognized artist but also an important figure in the international art scene.
In 1960, Morales left Nicaragua to study at the Pratt Institute in New York. He met a number of Abstract Expressionists there, including Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Jules Olitski, Serge Poliakoff, and Nicolas de Staël.
In our opinion, Morales’s best work was done in the 1960s and 1970s. In the early 1960s, his paintings – monochromatic or muted abstractions with thick impastos – are both stark and beautiful. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he returned to figurative painting, but with a modern twist. Some critics call this his Magical Realism period. He produced impressionistic images of people, mostly women, amid semi-abstracted landscapes.
Joaquín Gómez, a gallery owner and longtime friend of Morales, described the artist’s process this way: “Armando gave paintings seven coats. After finishing the boceto, or study, he would grid and transfer it to the larger canvas. For him, the painting was done when he finished the boceto. He would paint it on canvas because that was what the clients wanted. First he would paint the figures or the subject of the painting with the brush. Then he would take a spatula and apply the paint in strokes, pushing the oil with force so the paint would cut into what was already painted. This would give that sparkling feel that his paintings have. He would repeat this two or three times. He would next finish it with the brush. Finally, he would give each painting what he called la capa negra. We thought the painting was finished, but he would cover it completely with tiny dots of dark paint and all you would see were dots on the canvas. He would do this early in the morning. In the afternoon, when those dots were a little dry, he would take a razor blade and scrape the whole painting, pushing and cutting the paint of the dots into the other layers. That created the patina.”
This style continued throughout the 1970s, with the images attaining a kind of monumentality, as if he had drawn them from statues rather than live models. The bodies became more sculptural and reminiscent of classical sculptures. They were often headless or had no faces.
Beginning in the 1980s, Morales turned increasingly to realistic painting – still lifes, landscapes, and especially works that reflected the lush, green jungles of the Americas. “I think that perhaps of all of my themes,” said Morales, “that of the jungle is the one that most reflects my roots, my interests in the integrally American-ness of my art.” His jungle paintings are some of the most sought after by collectors. In 2014, one of them sold at auction for $521,000. In 2015, Cuatro bañistas en canal de plantación, a large four-panel work painted in 2006, sold at auction for one million dollars.
Morales showed his work throughout the Americas and Europe. He visited Mexico, Cuba, Germany, and Morocco and lived, for periods of time, in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Spain, England, France, and New York City. His travels, Morales said, inspired his work. He said that his jungle paintings, for example, had been inspired by a trip to the Amazon. He was also strongly influenced by the paintings of Alberto Burri, Giorgio de Chirico, Giorgio Morandi, and Conrad Marca-Relli.
Gabriel García Márquez once exclaimed: “Armando Morales is capable of painting any thing, any instant, any emotion, without submitting it to the servitude of any fashion.... This man isn’t afraid of anything.”
Armando Morales died in 2011 at the age of eighty-four in Miami, Florida.
Awards and Honors for Armando Morales
1956 – won the Primer Premio for his work Árbol espanto at the Exposición y Concurso Centroamericano de Pintura “15 de septiembre” in Guatemala City, Guatemala
1958 – awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship
1959 – won the “Ernst Wolf” Prize for Mejor Artista Latinoamericano at the V Bienal in Sao Paulo, Brazil
1963 – represented Nicaragua in the Madrid exhibition “Arte de España y América”
1964 – received the J.L. Hudson Company Purchase Award ($2,500) for his abstraction Winter at the Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture at the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art
1982 – awarded the Orden de la Independencia Cultural “Rubén Darío” for his contributions to Nicaraguan culture