|ARTISTS EXHIBITIONS EVENTS CONTACT|
|Benjamín Cañas (1933-1987)|
Benjamín Cañas, "the most important painter of the fantastic in Latin America," according to the Argentinian art critic Marta Traba, was born in 1933. Like many of the Central American Modernists, he had an extensive education in the traditional skills of draftsmanship, perspective, and portraiture before he began experimenting with abstraction and, later, Surrealism.
Initially, his focus was on architecture, which he studied at the Universidad de San Salvador from 1952 to 1958. Then, at the age of 25, he enrolled in the Escuela de Artes Plásticas to study painting. Meanwhile, he was a member of a community of artists that exchanged ideas and learned from each other. The group included the sculptors Enrique Salaverría (1922-2012) and Benajmín Saúl (1924-1980), and the ceramacist César Sermeño (b.1928). “Art was their impetuous passion,” says Cañas’s daughter Antonia. “They would often get together to draw for a while, paint for a while, sculpt for a while.”
Cañas pursued a career as an architect in El Salvador, the United States, and Guatemala. Like the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, he believed that a building should be in harmony with its natural environment, with a visual connection between the interior and exterior. Also like Wright, he designed every aspect of his buildings. “He not only designed a house,” says Antonia, “he made the furniture and the art for the walls. He didn’t just build a church, he painted the stained-glass windows, designed the pews, the baptismal fonts, the collection baskets… every detail.” A notable example is the Iglesia Sagrado Corazón “Don Bosco” in Guatemala City. The exterior of the church itself is in the shape of a cross, with floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross. The gymnasium of the church’s school is in the shape of a fish.
Designing the decorative aspects of his buildings was instrumental in Cañas’s transition from being primarily an architect to being a painter. From 1962 to 1967, he favored abstraction. He worked with earth tones, using mixed media on wood, wood burning (pyrography), and acrylic on copper.
In 1969, under contract to an architectural firm in Washington, D.C. , he moved his family to the United States, where he lived for the rest of his life, and won a design award for work he did on the Watergate shopping promenade.
At a show in Washington, D.C., Cañas’s paintings sold out. He also sold out at subsequent shows in Paris and Italy. After this string of wildly successful exhibitions, he decided to devote himself fully to being an artist. A commission by Mauricio Alvarez, a fellow Salvadoran who owned a gallery in Miami, Florida, allowed him to do this. He attended the Corcoran School of Art in Washington from 1974 to 1976. The paintings he did at this time were mostly on board and canvas instead of metal. But he continued to use metal in the form of gold leaf, often incorporating it to emphasize specific areas of a painting.
In the U.S., feeling nostalgic for his homeland, he began to delve into Maya folklore and legend. In the late 1970s, when he learned that ancient petroglyphs had been discovered in the Gruta del Espíritu Santo in eastern El Salvador, he became increasingly interested in ancient civilizations and began to study archeology. He was fascinated by mythology and metaphysical philosophies, and this began to show in his paintings – imaginative works that seem both classical and modern, populated by nude figures. He switched from earth tones to bright reds, vibrant greens, and luminous yellows, and the figures became more and more distorted – bloated or elongated, miniaturized or enlarged, twisted or flattened. But the hands, feet, and facial features were meticulously detailed. It is this attention to detail – and his lively imagination – for which he is most admired.
Sometimes characterized as a Magical Realist, Cañas pulled his subjects (angels, satyrs, dwarfs, and nymphs) in mythology, religion, and literature. His themes, sometimes inspired by the writing of Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera, deal with creation, civilization, destruction, evolution, and rebirth. But as his daughter Antonia points out, “the characters he pulled from mythology were given the faces of people from his own life… so in his mind he was living an epic satire.”
Cañas’s paintings are both timeless and innovative. His best works are breathtakingly beautiful, presenting impossible figures in improbable arrangements. A leader of the Latin American avant-garde, he represented El Salvador at the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1977.
His most prolific period began in 1980. In just seven years he perfected his quintessential style, creating his largest, most valuable, and most desirable works. These works are in major art museums in Australia, Asia, Europe, North and South America as well as in numerous private collectors.
Benjamín Cañas died in Annandale, Virginia in 1987 at the age of fifty-four. Though he spent much of his life in the U.S., he is widely known and revered throughout Latin America.