Juan Bastos and the evolution of a Latino-American perspective in portraiture
The Latin American diaspora has become commonplace, a tradition in many families and the main theme in beautiful personal narratives. This is the story of Juan Fernando Bastos, a Venezuelan-born, Bolivian-raised and American-grown portrait artist, whose talent has reached many latitudes, painting and drawing portraits of the most diverse figures and giving rise to one fantastic archive of anecdotes and a fascinating tapestry of cultures.
When we talk about economical and political Revolutions in Latin America, we usually immediately remember Operación Cóndor in the Southern Cone, we remember Pinochet, Allende, Emílio Garrastazu Médici, João Figueiredo, Alfredo Stroessner and Jorge Rafael Videla; all representatives of the anti-communist movement, preceded by socialist revolutions and leftist ideological convulsions.
Such was the scene in which Juan Fernando Bastos’ family was involved. His grandfather, the Bolivian Labor Minister and a diplomat, had to flee from his home country, allowing his future grandson the opportunity of living life through a different perspective.
What happened in Bolivia was as well part of the vicious intervention of Latin American politics of strict beliefs. It originated with what was then called Revolución de 1952, organized by the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario. The political and economical landscape of Bolivia then changed radically towards a centrist government that fragmented the political forces into Bolivian Nationalism and the Conservatives, which later led to a military coup and social destabilization.
The most remarkable thing that happened during this time was the solidarity and environment that more stable countries in Latin America offered to the exiled and displaced. This is how the Bolivian family of Juan Bastos moved through Brazil to Venezuela, where he was born and lived until his return to Bolivia in 1969 at age 11.
The radical shift of Bastos’ perspective, from the warm Caribbean to the cold and dry colors of the Bolivian high plateau, was definitive in his education, thanks to the memory of his journeys with a Jesuit uncle in the indigenous communities. The most direct impact was his relationship with his mother’s cousin and noted artist, María Esther Ballivián: “she was a woman of great beauty, and her work had several pictorial stages – figurative, abstractionism – that evolved into wonderful nude paintings towards the end of her life”.
Ballivián was out of the ordinary for the traditional Bolivian society and became Bastos’ first mentor on painting. Later on, his father’s sister drew and painted two portraits of him and taught him the fundaments of technique. “I used to go every weekend to her house while my father played bridge, I used to watch her paint and study the portraits she had recently finished. The benefit of growing up in Bolivia was the influence of my two aunts and her close friends. I grew up surrounded by art, thanks to the family”.
At age 16, Bastos continued studying when he went to visit his grandparents in Venezuela and attended for two months at the academy in Chacaito, founded by Luis Alfredo López Méndez – a fundamental icon of the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Venezuela, studying the human figure and working with girls that used to model three times a week. “That was one of the greatest experiences of my life, working in López Méndez Academy and understanding the figurative language of the human body”.
Back in Bolivia, Bastos went to the University of San Andrés, taking painting and drawing classes while still in high school - so none of his academic credits were counted – and he used to play the piano. At the age of 18, applying to the Academy of Fine Arts wasn’t viable since Bastos had already studied all the courses, so he decided to try the School of Architecture where he didn’t do well. Therefore, Bastos moved to Washington in 1979, entering Georgetown University for a year to improve his English, and then moving to Baltimore to study at the Maryland Institute College of the Arts (MICA).
After graduating, Bastos enrolled in the Master’s Program in Towson University where he finished his academic education. Since then, he has shown his work in exhibitions in Washington, Cairo, New York, Lima, La Paz and even Paris. His work at the time is what he categorizes as “magical realism” but would last only a short period. In 1996, Bastos moved to Los Angeles and decided to dedicate himself completely to portrait painting, putting aside his participation in exhibitions and committing to this more specific line of work.
Juan Fernando Bastos has appeared in several interviews and even a documentary. He has been acknowledged for his Latin American roots and the imprint of his personality in his portraits: “What I consider to be most significant is the fact that Philip Niarchos asked me to do his portrait. He’s a global art collector just like Eugenio López, who did as well”.
The process of projection and visualization that Bastos infuses in his portraits is fascinating: he imbues the personality of his models into a definitive visage, orchestrating the background in an almost semiotic way; every personality has its own code of colors and dispositions, but altogether represent Bastos’ ineluctable trademark. He even interprets other works of art inside his portraits, bringing an original perspective according to a specific visual culture.
When creating Niarchos’ portrait, for example, Bastos managed to introduce a fragment of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s self-portrait in the background, not only as symbolic of Niarchos’ avocation, but as a gesture of appropriation that permeates the subtle stroke of Bastos’ pastel.
Bastos has cultivated as well incredible friendships with artists like Don Bachardy – Christopher Isherwood’s longtime partner – with whom he has shared a symbiotic and artistic relationship. Similarly, and thanks to his intimate connection with the Gay & Lesbian Review, Bastos met Gore Vidal, whose friendship provided some of his favorites anecdotes.
Additionally, Bastos was commissioned to paint a portrait of John Reardon – the Executive Director of Harvard Alumni Association - for the University, and his interpretation was, once again, anchored in the content of the background: “when you see portraits on the campus walls, the figures are usually represented sitting in a chair with a more neutral background. I decided to do something different, adding the architecture of Harvard’s campus to the setting, so that anyone could relate to it. To me, it’s important to have references inside my work.”
Bastos has also had the opportunity to portray diverse personalities like the Baroness De Lassus in the Chateau de Valmirande (France) – a castle that contains more than 3 of his works, and he portrayed the President of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his wife Ximena Iturralde (Bastos’ mother’s cousin); he considers one of his most important works the portrait of Gore Vidal – a writer, screenwriter, journalist, and essayist, a veteran, a half-brother of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature – a work that allowed him to build a close relationship with his client.
He worked as well with Patricia Morison, a 101-year-old actress, who starred on Broadway in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate in 1948, and created her portrait when she was 99. Considering his subjects to be timeless, Bastos represents his sitters with the typical Latino American melancholy that overrules any chronological exactness.
“Being a painter is like playing God in a subtle way; to be a magician, to create the illusion of life on a two-dimensional surface”. Bastos mediates the debate between photographic immediacy and pictorial representation, arguing that he can capture the soul of his subjects in a personal and unique way. “The turning point was when I saw my own portraits when I was a kid. I started drawing my relatives, and even though the results weren’t good, I captured something extra from the beginning.”
Bastos believes that his aesthetics are nourished by the contrast between Venezuela’s tropical colors and warmth, and Bolivia’s aridity and coldness. “I am Latino American, I’m influenced by indigenous culture and catholic structure; the drama of Bolivia’s colors and the identity of my Venezuelan youth. I grew up to discover that my roots are not one-sided, my family is bicultural and I became a different kind of young boy. I played the piano; I went to the movies 6 days a week and I was interested in everything that was happening in the world. I read Hesse and Mann when I was in Bolivia, but I only read Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera when I moved to Washington” and that’s how the eclecticism of the Latino American diaspora is made. Bastos even reinterpreted the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary with Penelope Weld as a model and Central Park in the background, appearing in the New York Times Sunday Style Section in 1999.
Juan Fernando Bastos has lived in Los Angeles since 1996; he has been a guest lecturer at the Getty Museum Research Library, a juror in several exhibitions and a lecturer at various master classes. You can take a look at his latest work here.