In Luchita Hurtado’s paintings, the nude female body is an affirmation of the self, a locus of solitude and personal care that reminds us to slow down and appreciate ourselves and others, writes Jennifer Brough.
“This is a landscape, this is the world, this is all you have, this is your home, this is where you live.” Luchita Hurtado
Occasionally, there are quiet hours. They usually transpire late at night, or very early in the morning. Hours where a home and its inhabitants exhale in a mesh of creaks and dreams, releasing in a single subconscious rhythm. Yet here you are, awake, with yourself. Do you feel the weight of your limbs meeting the bed and – listen closely – your heart’s slow beating?
In these rare moments of solitude, I think of Luchita Hurtado in silence working away while her husband and children slept. I see her as a young painter in a walk-in closet in Chile, gazing from her body to the canvas, and back again. The layers of paint building to form curved dunes of breasts and belly foregrounded against textiles and everyday fragments – a table, a burning match, fruit.
The act of creation requires space and time in order for ideas to germinate, unfettered by domestic responsibilities and the need for employment. It is something we do because we can’t imagine doing otherwise. For Hurtado, art has always operated as “a need, like brushing your teeth.” Her practice remained the constant in a life in flux, a steadfast arc that upheld her between marriages, countries, cooking, and raising small children.
When interviewed, Hurtado peppers her answers with anecdotes. Her eyes twinkle when recollecting a colourful life one could only dream of experiencing. While living in Mexico in the 1940s, Hurtado was introduced to the surrealists and became a firm favourite in their sect. She once received a foot massage from Marcel Duchamp, was a muse for Man Ray, once went to a party in Frida Kahlo’s hospital room, and Leonora Carrington built a cardboard box house for her children.
But despite this proximity to a vibrant artistic movement and a personal raison d’être fuelling her work, Hurtado’s creative process long remained a private act. In fact, her work may have been resigned to the archives if it weren’t for Ryan Good, the director of her late husband’s artistic estate. Amid cataloguing Lee Mullican’s works, Good found around 1,100 pieces signed “L.H.”. When Hurtado reclaimed them, the wheels were set in motion to share her vast oeuvre with the world. “Now that they’ve discovered me again – I live again,” she said of her new-found prominence.
At 98 years old, Hurtado only had her first solo exhibition in a public institute at The Serpentine Gallery in 2019. I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn showcased highlights from a multifaceted oeuvre representing 70 years of work, from early experimentations with abstraction to contemporary watercolours with an environmental focus. I was sad to have missed the show – life got in the way, as it is wont to do. But this didn’t matter, I was already hypnotised by the evocative paintings, and bought multiple postcards at the Serpentine’s gift shop to curate a miniature exhibition at home.
Untitled, 1971 is from Hurtado’s instantly recognisable I Am series. As curator Dextra Frankel notes, Hurtado creates an atypical self portrait “and sees herself in a way men never see women.” In the frame, a headless – though distinctly female – subject looks down at her naked form, as an oversized apple is suspended over a Navajo rug. Through this subversion of gaze, the viewer’s focal point is unbalanced and shifting – uncertain where to linger. Frankel comments, “The inverted perspectives of these works draw us into the intimate spaces” meaning that instead of observers, we become temporarily united with the subject in this isolated moment.
Untitled, 1971 is a quiet painting, a moment of contemplation in which the body can be read as frame and landscape, a vessel that carries us to our experiences but is also acted upon by the world. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing contextualises the female nude’s dualistic subjecthood in the canon of traditional European art history as being both a ‘surveyor’ of her appearance and actions, and being ‘surveyed’ by the male gaze/painter (p.46). Female nudes were painted for titillation, even in biblical scenes, and often look invitingly out to the viewer. Berger highlights the oft-used convention of inserting a mirror into otherwise classical scenes as a tool to “make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight” (Berger, p.51), thus firmly delineating the female nude in this liminal space of observer/ observed and active/ passive.
Though Hurtado sits outside of the European canon, its proliferation and subsequent beauty standards for (white) womanhood have had far-reaching implications worldwide. It is significant, therefore, that in her walk-in closet, Hurtado painted herself, for herself, without a mirror. She is more interested in an exploration of the self and its relationality to immediate objects, using symbols that are, at once, familiar and not. The apple in Untitled, 1971 becomes totemic through its religious overtones, size, and darkness. Hurtado laughs when asked about her use of fruit, “[It is] Very sensual, I love smells and tastes and fruit. Religion is full of fruit. An apple means more than an apple.” She offers it up to interpretation, but the painting does not hinge on discovering its meaning.
The rich interior world that makes up Untitled, 1971 and other paintings in the I Am series, Dexter notes, is part of an archive of “the seconds that pass and the daily gestures that define them.” By spending these hours alone, after everybody had gone to bed, Hurtado’s paintings and representations of her body functioned as an “affirmation of self.” This carving out of time to spend with consideration towards the body – appreciating how it moves, looks, and feels – is a reminder to repeat this process often, where possible.
In lockdown, private space is a luxury not reserved for everyone. Public areas are providing a relative safe haven for many, a place to release or escape from ourselves or others. The Untitled, 1971 postcard darts across my mind as I step out of the shower, when I am getting dressed, or lying in my bed. In these occasional moments alone, there is a fullness of quietude, space to focus on each act performed by and to myself. In the shower: washing my face in a motion of increasing circles, water trickling into my ears, turning them into roaring shells, contemplating the body that has carried me through the years…
During these uncertain times, we should allow the slowness and tenderness of these small acts of personal care guide how we sustain ourselves and, in turn, those around us. Outside of the maintenance of domestic acts and our jobs, when we can be with ourselves and for ourselves in these interior worlds, such acts make it easier to be with each other, when we can, and create a better, shared world.
Wagley, C. (2019) ‘The Way Men Never See Women’, Flash Art. Available at: https://flash—art.com/article/the-way-men-never-see-women/ [Accessed 13/07/20].
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. (London: Penguin).
The Daily Times (2019) ‘Luchita Hurtado’s artworks are views from the top’. Available at: https://dailytimes.com.pk/399594/luchita-hurtados-artworks-are-views-from-the-top/ [Accessed 13/07/20].
Art21 (2019) Luchita Hurtado: Here I Am | Art21 “Extended Play”. Available at: https://libguides.ioe.ac.uk/c.php?g=482485&p=3299858 [Accessed 13/07/20].
Wagley (n 1).
Wagley (n 1).
About Jennifer Brough
Jennifer is usually writing, editing or reading. Outside of these wordy pursuits, she is learning Spanish and dreaming of Mexico. Her work has most recently appeared in Re-side, RIC Journal, Burning House Press, and is forthcoming in Barren Magazine. She can be found @Jennifer_Brough and on jenniferlbrough.com
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.