In April 1964 the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris hosted an extraordinary exhibition which went down in history as the first solo show of a Latin-American artist that the Louvre had ever witnessed. The artist was a woman, Chilean Violeta Parra, who wove legendary songs and tapestries.
“Gracias a La Vida”
Parra started her career as a musician and composer who, in the Fifties, greatly popularised folk music in Chile. She died in 1967 due to suicide. Her moving song Gracias a la Vida (Thanks to Life), created that same year, became a leading anthem. It was also an inspiration for the protest music genre nueva canción chilena. This turned out to be hugely influential in the revolutionary movements in Chile in the 1960s and 1970s.
Violeta Parra’s exhibition
Chilean Tapestries by Violeta Parra. Sculpture and painting must have been a multisensory experience. During the five weeks of the exhibition, one could easily stumble upon Parra who came to the museum every day to chat with visitors. Whilst there, she continued working on her tapestries, playing the guitar, singing and even serving empanadas! Moreover, the display included not only arpilleras (patchwork stitches), but also wire sculptures, and painting.
As art critic P. M. Grand described in his review for Le Monde:
“Trois variations sur themes populaires,” Le Monde, (April 17, 1964), p. 12.
Violeta is present . . . to play the guitar, to sing sad and expressive music, to invent as she embroiders . . . Petite and brunette . . . simple and complex like a figure from Lorca, or like one of her sculptures, where the tangle of metallic wires make golden flowers burst from a black tree.
Doubts and certainties
However, the show might not have taken place at all. Initially the selection committee rejected Parra’s application. Only when one of the museum officials asked them to reconsider their decision, did the committee agree and the show go ahead. Amid these uncertainties, Parra lost faith and at one point even doubted herself. In a letter to Amparo Claro she wrote:
How could I have an exhibit at the Louvre, I, the ugliest woman on the planet, who comes from a tiny country, from Chillán, the end of the world?Patricia M. Stambuk and Patricia Bravo, Violeta Parra: el canto de todos (Santiago: Pehuén Editores, 2011), p. 126.
Despite doubts about her attractiveness (her skin was marked by the childhood smallpox), she was strong and aware of her own talent. Once, when strolling close to the Palais du Louvre with her friend Alejandro Jodorowsky (yes, this Jodorowsky), she told him:
. . . I’m just a tiny woman, but this edifice doesn’t impress me. Mark my words: before long, you’ll see my works exhibited here.Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky: The Creator of El Topo (Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2008), pp. xv–xvi.
Parra’s tapestries were seen by the Swiss art critic and filmmaker Marie-Magdeleine Brumagne. In a review for Tribune de Lausanne she revealed that Parra had only started making them six years before and considered that Parra had turned her life into art without realizing it. A year later, Brumagne made a documentary about Parra called Violeta Parra, Chilean Embroiderer. In this film the artist asserted that she didn’t even know how to draw or how to make embroidery correctly.