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October 25, 2014
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Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró dies

Carlos Páez Vilaró in a 2008 file photo.

Master of colourful murals and carnival culture leaves works around the globe

Carlos Páez Vilaró, a self-trained painter, sculptor, screenwriter, musician and architect who championed Afro-Uruguayan Candombe music and dance, created colourful murals in dozens of cities around the world, and built a huge “living sculpture” that became an iconic 50-room hotel, died yesterday. He was 90.

“He had a serious heart condition but he fought until the end,” his private secretary María Dezuliani told reporters.

Páez Vilaró’s son, known as “Carlitos,” said the prolific artist died at home in “Casapueblo,” the sprawling four-star hotel outside Punta del Este that included his workshop and a museum. The white building includes unusual organic forms that bring to mind Salvador Dali’s labyrinthine home on the Costa Brava of Spain, or some of Antoni Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona. Páez Vilaró worked until his dying day, and “was lucid, impeccable, a model for everyone,” his son told Uruguay’s Channel 12.

Only nine days earlier, the artist banged his drums and marched with his beloved “Llamadas” group, the most traditional of Uruguay’s carnival culture, in which Afro-Uruguayans and whites wearing blackface dance to the rhythms of Candombe, a music brought by slaves from Africa.

Black inspiration

Páez Vilaró was born in Montevideo on November 1, 1923. As a young man, he immersed himself in the culture of black Uruguayans, whose traditions would inspire much of his life’s work. Candombe was socially unacceptable in the 1940s, and is celebrated in Uruguay now thanks in no small measure to Páez Vilaró’s art and advocacy.

“My life has always been an attempt at anything. I’ve tried to paint without having any teachers, I’ve tried to work with ceramic without being a potter, I made an attempt at architecture without being an architect, I’ve tried my luck with music and cinema without even knowing how to film… I’ve left my work everywhere in my path, I’ve painted murals in each and every place I’ve visited to bear testimony of my passing,” the artist once said in an interview.

Páez Vilaró’s huge, colourful murals can still be appreciated in dozens of public buildings around the world, from the headquarters of the Organization of American States in Washington to Argentina’s National Library in Buenos Aires. Convinced that colour can relieve pain, he painted numerous murals in hospitals, including Chile’s Hospital de San Fernando and Georgetown University Hospital in the US.

His work spans the globe. He painted 12 murals in Argentina, 16 in Brazil, 4 in Chile and Gabon, 11 in the United States and 30 in his native Uruguay. Not confined to painting, Páez Vilaró designed an inter-denominational cemetery in San Isidro, Buenos Aires. At the same time he refashioned an abandoned house in Tigre into a chapel in the style of Casapueblo. Páez Vilaró always considered the San Isidro chapel his “greatest work.”

Páez Vilaró’s life and work are forever linked to Buenos Aires, where the artist came in his youth and worked in a match factory and then as a printing apprentice in the Barracas and Avellaneda neighbourhoods.

“I lived in Montevideo, in a small house with colourful roofs, very close to the beach. Every day I would go down there to the sand, look toward the horizon and imagine, in the mirage of that distance, the city of Buenos Aires, as I wanted to know it. I guess this happens to all Uruguayans, since that is the first harbour we reach,” Páez Vilaró once said. “One day I mustered my courage and decided to go on a long journey, so I went to the beach, touched the froth of a wave with this thick thumb, crossed myself and said: ‘Carlos, this is your shot, you have to leave,” the artist would remember later.

His relationship with Argentina was so intimate he would often define himself as a “mid-river painter.”

Throughout his life, Páez Vilaró met important artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico, Jean Cocteau, Jean Cassou, Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol, among others. He worked in a leper colony in Africa, alongside Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer.

He went to Congo on a government commission to paint a mural and then found out he was being targeted by a military commando whose leaders took him for a Communist because he hailed from the “Oriental” Republic of Uruguay. In the end, Páez Vilaró managed to escape with the help of a group of Argentines.

He would later present his documentary film Batouk about African dance, which closed the 1967 Cannes Film Festival with Brigitte Bardot’s stellar support.

“It was strange, because after living in Africa for months, after almost being defeated by rains, and dangerous rivers and thick jungles, when my film premiered, a lady came up to me and said: ‘Sir, would you be so kind as to give me your seat? I’ve been left without a seat.’ So I ended up watching my own film sitting on the floor. After everything I’d been through!” Páez Vilaró later said.

Ordeal in the Andes

One of Páez Vilaró’s most difficult times came in the winter of 1972, when a plane carrying his son Carlitos and other members of the Uruguayan rugby team crashed high in the Chilean Andes. Authorities eventually abandoned the search, but Páez Vilaró never gave his son up for dead. In a time of severe political tensions, he rallied volunteers, talked to clairvoyants and camped in the mountains desperately searching for his son.

Finally, after 72 days, the painter’s son was found among the 16 survivors whose ordeal was retold in the movie Alive.

Years later, Páez Vilaró wrote in his book Entre mi hijo y yo, la luna (Between My Son and Me: the Moon): “Every time I see the moon, I think my parents are also looking at it and that keeps me close to them. When the moon appears from behind the mountains I think my son is surely watching it. It may be the only thing the both of us can see without seeing each other and perhaps it can be a mirror of sorts, keeping our images close together.”

Herald staff with AP, Télam, online media

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