Friday, July 17, 2020

Life in Paraguay 1958-1962

I am addicted to the habit of self-questioning, unfairly labelled ‘navel-gazing’ by those who have probably never seen their navels. I admit there’s plenty of that sort of thing in the longer version of my autobio but over here I’m trying to stick to the lines and omit whatever might lurk between them.

From 1958 to 1962, the Quinta Recalde - our 120 acres of bone-dry red soil on the edge of what was then the tiny village of San Antonio - was an often frustrating responsibility. We had no electricity (paraffin lamps instead) and limited running water from a tank on the roof of the main house. Transport to Asuncion was via the packed local bus on a pot-holed dirt road or getting a lift in a neighbour’s truck. We had a few horses, cows and chickens but animals sometimes vanished. Fish, caught by Reg in the Rio Paraguay, were generally more reliable.

In spite of multiple difficulties - or perhaps because of them - Reg and I eventually managed to make ends meet and to be creatively productive. We exhibited paintings and ceramics and I was also sending work to a gallery in New York. A Yugoslav couple living in Asunciòn became close and supportive friends. They comissioned me to paint their portraits and to create a mural in their dining room while Reg was tasked with decorating their garden wall with ceramics. He had built a wood-fired kiln and later constructed a small roof tile factory. The plan was to sell the tiles in San Antonio but alas, too few people needed roof tiles. We always had too much to do, all day every day, problems to be solved every minute, which didn’t allow much time for sunset-gazing, let alone navel-gazing.

The American Point Four ccoperative agricultural programme had headquarters in Asunciòn and we became friends with some of their staff. I was offered a part-time job teaching drawing to the office’s local employees and also took on many portrait commissions. In 1962 the Paraguayan Institute of Social Security announced a competition to design and execute a mural for the new Hotel Guarani, an interesting modern building. I submitted an abstract design, to be made of cast cement blocks, but thought it very unlikely that I would win. Believe it or not, I won.

By that time we had rented a house in Asunciòn but often went back to San Antonio. In our Asunciòn studio we held workshops in drawing and ceramics. For the Hotel mural competition, with help from Reg and a friend, I began to cast and colour, one at a time, the many cement blocks my design required. They were then transported and assembled in situ and it was enormously satisfying to see the whole thing completed, looking at ease in its environment.

In current photos on the internet I see that the Hotel Guarani still exists but it has changed and I don’t know if my mural survived.

Fired clay heads by Reg of me and of himself. San Antonio, Paraguay, circa 1959.

Portrait of Bianca Melamed. Oil on canvas, NdA 1959. Asunciòn, Paraguay.

Estercita. Oil on canvas. NdA circa 1960. San Antonio, Paraguay.

Reg was a keen fisherman, unlike me.

Our tile factory, hand-built by Reg and local helpers. San Antonio, Paraguay.

Hotel Guarani, Asunciòn, Paraguay 1962

Working on my cement blocks. No help from the cat. Asunciòn, Paraguay 1962.

The finished mural at Hotel Guarani, Asunciòn 1962.


Vincent said...

Thanks Natalie, wonderful tale & illustrations of your studio & works produced.

Your Guarani mural reminds me somewhat of Mondrian's early Paris period, e.g. or --- was he an influence?

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Thanks Vincent. I guess any modern geometric abstract work could be said to be an influence but Mondrin wasn't interested in perspective or the illusion of depth whereas I am. What I actually based this mural design on was a much earlier painting of mine, an abstract apple, in which I reduced everything to vertical blocks of colour, getting smaller in the centre so that there's a sence of depth. The painting was quite small so of course I changed the proportions etc. for the mural but that was its origin.