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|Francisco (“Paco”) Zúñiga|
With his unique blend of the pre-Columbian art form, his focus on native culture, and his tendency toward abstraction, Francisco Zúñiga Chavarría is without a doubt Central America’s (if not the world’s) most important Modernist sculptor.
Born in 1912 in San José, Zúñiga was exposed to art at an early age. His father, Manuel María Zúñiga, ran a workshop that produced religious sculptures. And from 1928 to 1934, after studying drawing, painting, and engraving at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (ENBA), Francisco worked in the family business. During that time, he refined his skills as a sculptor, draftsman, and engraver. He was also influenced by such artists as Matisse and Brancusi. “I saw them in the magazine La Esfera,” he said. “There would always be an article about the fine arts in Europe.”
Zúñiga was interested in xylography (wood engraving), and teamed up with Francisco Amighetti (1907-1998) to teach it to some of their fellow Costa Rican artists. The group produced an album – Grabados en madera – for the 1934 Exposiciones Nacionales de Artes Plásticas. Zúñiga’s contributions to the album show his interest in native culture, an interest that he would pursue for the rest of his life. In addition, as Costa Rican art expert Eugenia Zavaleta Ochoa has pointed out, we can clearly see the stylistic influence of Expressionism.
The mother/child relationship is another subject that fascinated Zúñiga throughout his career. According to Ochoa, the terracotta sculpture Maternidad that he entered in the 1935 Exposiciones was “one of the works that generated the most discussion between academics and Modernists – as well as among the Modernists themselves.”
Traditionalists were appalled, but Zúñiga was awarded a prize for the piece. He then did another version of Maternidad in Cartago stone. Again, it won a prize (this time at the Exposición Centroamericana de Artes Plásticas). And, again, it caused controversy.
Zúñiga was twenty-three years old and he wanted to go to Europe to study. But because of the Spanish Civil War, he decided, instead, to go to Mexico City. According to art historian Luis Ferrero, he arrived in Mexico City in 1936 “every bit a master… from modeling in humble clay, to carving in wood, to direct carving in hardy volcanic granite. From drawing in pencil, to the brush with Indian ink, to watercolor, pastel and oils. And also xylography.”
He began working on large, heroic bronze figures at the workshop of sculptor Guillermo Ruiz. He became an assistant to Oliverio Martínez on the Monumento a la Revolución. And when Martínez passed away, he took over teaching sculpture at the Escuela de Talla Directa “La Esmeralda,” now the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado “La Esmeralda.” His colleagues included José L. Ruiz, Germán Cueto, and the painter Manuel Rodríguez Lozano.
In 1946, he received his first individual commission for the monument Fertilidad, cosecha y trabajo in Puebla, Mexico. For the next sixteen years, most of the work that he did was on such large-scale public pieces.
While in Mexico City, Zúñiga spent a great deal of time at the anthropology museum. He was very interested in the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America, and had a growing respect for pre-Columbian sculpture. He said, “We know that the pre-Hispanic sculptural legacy is a cultural peak as important as the Greek and Egyptian.”
He preferred to work with wood and stone that was native to Mexico. But he also used onyx, clay, plaster, marble, alabaster, and cast bronze. His primary subjects were peasant women with faces and bodies that reflect their pre-Columbian heritage. He portrayed them in quotidian postures: chatting, reclining, sitting, squatting, grooming, working, sleeping, and walking.
As writer and painter José Miguel Rojas (b.1959) pointed out, Zúñiga “put into practice the spheroid concept and the closed forms that are seen in pre-Columbian sculpture.” His sculptures were also inspired by avant-garde trends in art. In 1967, he traveled to Europe for the first time. He visited Spain, Italy, France, and Holland. He was intrigued by the sculptures of Aristide Maillol, Paul Gauguin, Joseph Bernard, and Constantin Brancusi, and by the African-inspired paintings of Matisse and Picasso. The result was work that owes as much to the traditions of Zúñiga’s cultural past as it does to the abstraction and freedom of expression of Modernism.
Using charcoal, crayon, or pastel, Zúñiga created loose, quick sketches and carefully worked-out drawings. He kept sketchbooks for himself, and the finished drawings were for exhibition and sale. He also continued painting and printmaking throughout his career.
Claimed by both Costa Rica and Mexico, Francisco Zúñiga died in Mexico in 1998 at the age of eighty-five.
Awards and Honors for Francisco Zúñiga
1935 – won the Primer Premio in Costa Rica's Salón de Escultura for his terracotta sculpture Maternidad
1935 - won the Primer Premio at the Primera Exposición Centroamericana de Artes Plásticas with the stone version of Maternidad
1958 – awarded the Primer Premio in sculpture from Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes
1973 – awarded the Premio Nacional de Cultura “Magón”
1992 – won Mexico's Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes